Sundance film festival toasts Napa Valley wine history

Sundance film festival toasts Napa Valley wine history

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Michel Comte watches "Bottle Shock", a controversial film based on an infamous Paris wine-tasting event that embarrassed France's top experts.

A controversial film based on an infamous Paris wine-tasting event that embarrassed France's top experts was uncorked at the Sundance film festival this week.

But long before its premiere, a key character in the true story said to have spurred New World wines toppling France's wine supremacy has been severely critical of the film's historical accuracy.

"Bottle Shock" by director Randall Miller revisits a 1976 blind tasting in which French experts hailed California wines over some of France's finest vintages.

At the event, 11 distinguished experts including the editor of La Revue de Vin de France and a top restaurant owner had to compare some of France's best wines with little-known Californian bottles, without knowing which was which.

To the stupefaction of the French wine world -- which at the time considered its products the world's undisputed best -- they came out hugely infavor of the US wines.

"Bottle Shock" screenwriter Jody Savin said the film captures "a moment in the 1970s when things changed and people were suddenly not ashamed to drink California wine and were actually excited to drink it."

Bo Barrett, a Napa Valley winemaker played by Chris Pine in the film, whose father Jim owned the Chateau Montelena which won the Chardonnay competition of the Judgment of Paris wine tasting, added: "The film tells the story of a catalytic moment in the California wine industry when we were suddenly admitted to the (wine) Big Leagues."

He said the 1976 verdict inspired people in Australia, Argentina, South
Africa and elsewhere who saw what happened in the competition to start their own wineries and suddenly a "global wine industry was born."

But British wine merchant Steven Spurrier, who organized the 1976 tasting, lashed out at the film while it was still in production, accusing its makers of "defamation and gross misinterpretation."

 "There is hardly a word that is true in the script and many, many pure inventions as far as I am concerned," Spurrier told the industry magazine Decanter magazine in August.

He is involved in a competing film purporting to present an "official" version of the events, called "Judgment of Paris," based on journalist George Taber's account of the famous wine tasting.

Spurrier, who at the time owned a wine shop in central Paris, recalled in an interview with Decanter how the French judges were mistakenly confident of what the result would be.

"They were saying things like "this is rather rich, it must be Californian," when it was a French wine, and they gave top marks to a wine convinced it was French, he told the magazine.

"When they found out it wasn't there was general consternation," he said.

"One of the judges wanted her notes back to change them, then wrote an article saying I had rigged the tasting."

Spurrier, played by Alan Rickman in "Bottle Shock," had arranged the 1976 event to mark the bicentennial of the American Revolution.

He said: "What we showed in 1976 was that the Californian wines were better than the best French wines. It was a wake-up call to French winemakers. Sadly, it is a wake-up call they didn't heed."

European wine heavyweights France, Italy and Spain are increasingly struggling to cope with falling consumption at home and dwindling market share in traditionally large markets like Britain in the face of growing New World

In May 2006, California wines again trounced Bordeaux anew in an epic rematch of a historic blind taste test.

Meanwhile, EU members agreed last month to shake up Europe's struggling wine industry to try to win back market share from cheaper New World rivals such as Australia and Argentina, while also sopping up chronic overproduction.

At a press conference this week in Park City, Utah, actor Bill Pullman, who plays Jim Barrett in "Bottle Shock," told reporters: "The only thing that I really know about wine is that you shouldn't mix it with beer."

"I learned that in college," he quipped.

One of his co-stars Freddy Rodriguez added, "I learned (during filming) the difference between good wine and bad wine; and I learned that I like it a lot."



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