Sunday, February 8, 2009

My Shock At Film " Bottle Shock's " Depiction Of Steven Spurrier Last Night, My 28th Wedding Anniversary Watching Movie With My Wife

As I have already said , I knew Steven Spurrier back in the early seventies in Paris, France. He's an Englishman and from my contact with him always gracious and a gentleman. Perhaps he's also a bit shy or modest, too. He did not seem one for immediate, extroverted conversation as is my want being an American that has lived ha;f his life oversees as my father was a career diplomat working at the American Embassies overseas.

I was young and impressionable and falling pretty quickly in love with wine ( mostly French ) at the time when I met Steven. He was probably introduced to me by Patricia Gallagher or John Winroth or one of the other Americans working in the Caves de la Madeleine at the time. I don't remember : it sure was a long, wonderful time ago. But meet him I did and we spoke often briefly and not in depth. That's okay , I still liked Steven and was glad to know him even so slightly.

I took Steven's first class offered at the Academy du Vin back then when both Patricia Gallagher and John Winroth were offering the " French Beginner's Class ". Thanks to my wonderful, insightful mom I was given this class as a gift on my 21st birthday. Thanks Mom! And to think this yesterday was my 28th year of marriage to my wonderful wife! How time flies. I think that Steven probably made a few cameo appearances at these weekly tastings of ours. He was always the gentle-mannered English gentleman that spoke with few words and had to be drawn out of himself. That was my impression anyway.

I loved these classes and they in their way have really helped to mold and to chart my life into directions that have been so rewarding and exciting over these last thirty-four years since that class in 1975. Thank you, too both to Patricia and to John who made these classes what they were.

I somewhere as I was plotting my future life and career got it into my head to interview Steven Spurrier and he graciously agreed to it. I met him upstairs in his office over both the Caves de la Madeleine and the Academy du Vin. We met at least once and I asked him a series of questions to which he dutifully responded. Thank you Steven for having taken that time to help a budding artist-wine-lover-wine-educator so many years ago. You were most gracious and you did inspire me and , in this way, also encourage me. I will always remember that though I have since misplaced this interview and now cannot find or refer to it in any more detail than I already have. That's my youth - vivid, flame-like, burning bright for the moments' as I lived them but not preserved other than in the recesses of my memory and associations then.

I serendipitously also crossed paths with Steven many years later ( perhaps ten ? ) in Bordeaux, France at the Vin Expo that I attended with my good French friend Philippe Merlot. We were trying to buy wines to import to the Mayflower Wines & Spirits as well as for the D & M import company that he was a partner in. It was just by chance somewhere in one of those large rooms that our path's crossed and we, immediately recognizing one another, broad smiles, lively countenances greeted the other. It was convivial and I believe a warm, unsolicited greeting and I am also grateful for that brief but positive exchange of words and sentiments before we each went on our business. merry ways. It was a hopping event and I know that Philippe and I had many tables to visit and many wines to taste before calling it a day!

So those are some of my meetings with and memories of you Steven. You and what I remember do not in any shape or form resemble what I witnessed last night on screen. Everything was changed, they did not include your stutter, mild but there : and they portrayed you as quite evil and pretentious - like a horrible snob and certainly vulgar and base. Did I just miss all of this when I knew you ? I think most certainly not.

I did not finish the movie last night. I hope to finish it tonight. I will reserve judgement until then on " Bottle Shock ". I may say that there are moments in it so far that I have greatly enjoyed from an artist's perspective, regardless of any prior associations of mine, facts and accuracy of plot. I must presume, however that the part in California is fairly accurate.

From an artist's perspective I have enjoyed the scenes depicting Chateau Montelena and California. I like their darker, more rustic, less manicure, polished, settled, scripted ways. There's almost a lovely serendipitous quality to the scenes and the lines almost as if they were not scripted or rehearsed. That I like. I like all the old trucks and cars and country that one sees. There are no U.S. cities of any kind depicted here. I love that. It's rural, it's far, it's untamed to a large extent : open, expansive, - surely wildlife still flourishes here at this particular time and place, perhaps sharing half of this California countryside with humans?!? I like this - a sense of more equitable cohabitation with earth's, life's, god's creatures?!? Nice.

I like the day and the night scenes. Seeing all the gentle rolling hills of grape vines in undulating rows that weave, cut, adorn and pattern the California Napa countryside speaks to an inner, more primal, primitive being and evokes, elicits, incites the love-lust for the grape in both it's many solid as well as liquid manifestations. Really nice. I, however did not find the classical music in the introduction : to me it did not speak of California or vineyards or wine making. I'll have to watch it again to get a better sense why I reacted so strongly against this backdrop of music as the first shots of California and all the glorious vines were unfurled to our sight.

As I said the part about California was quite attractive as well as bewildering, scary, even frightful ( ? ) to me. So primal, so reduced to the basic instincts of bacchanalian joy and lust and mischief and excess. The days of hippies still very much in play ( even though Woodstock was seven year's past already : but which of those younger souls were noticing this or even caring? ) and alive there in that Napa countryside.

I liked the interplay , too between cultures ( Mexican and American, French ) as well as between the wealthy with their country clubs and money and those with little or nothing but intense passion, raw guts, determination, dreams eating away at/ beating them senseless to continue on in the face of a whole world uncaring, un-noticing, largely unresponsive, and, too perhaps jeering-leering at them into failing ?!? These were / are great mini-conflicts and points of tensions, aggressions, etcetera. Even love and jealousy and feelings of betrayals on so many family, friend and business levels.

So in parts I like this movie and want it to succeed. Being very much still a part of the wine world here in Washington D.C. where I manage the wine department at Cleveland Park Wines & Spirits with the help of Mike Martin I want very much for this movie to succeed. I have done a bit to help promote it, too. I have blogged earlier about that here at : so that you may refer back to those earlier blogs.

It's been now at least six months or so and the movie has not taken off. At the beginning when it was released a number of our customers saw it and said that they liked it overall. I was very pleased with this news and was wanting very much to see it myself. I just could never find both the energy and the time to do so. So thanks to my wife she found it yesterday at Blockbuster Video and I have finally got my chance to see what this movie is all about.

Having known Steven Spurrier and his whole gang of friends and people involved with both the Academie du Vin and the Caves de la Madeleine I have to say I bring a lot of baggage : hope and expectations and ideas to this viewing of the movie. I feel here just a bit more than a spectator and so I bring that along when I look at the movie. I knew the part in Paris, France but nothing really of the part in California.

One of my biggest problems and constant questions as I watch this movie is : who are these other people? I should know, I guess. Or I should perhaps not care? I don't think that they are introduced or explained very well. We are cut-loose in a California countryside landscape of hippies and Mexicans, biased-prejudiced drivers, wealthy country club types that live within their own insulated bubbles ( one of their kids is doing well at Yale while Chateau Montelena's owner's son is punched senseless by his father and left to stare groggily up at the darkened sky with bright, twinkling stars pondering his aimless, uncharted ways ? A person called Sam shows up one sunny day in a car with one flat tire and announces who she is when everyone was expecting her to be a he and not a she?!? Steven Spurrier is shown cussing badly over a flat and crunching bewilderingly on a Kentucky Fried chicken piece that seems more batter and crust than chicken? He's also un-liked, not trusted and charged for his tastes of these California wines? Who's being the greater snob or the more mercenary. greedy individual here?

It's all a bit - a WHOLE LOT TOPSY-TURVY here as there is just a series of scenes woven willy-nilly together to map Mr. Spurrier's visit to California wine country. Where were both Patricia Gallagher and John Winroth? Did they not play any role in any of this, both being Americans and having worked with Steven now for a few years hence to this visit? Who was the man at the Caves de la Madeleine that Steven was almost talking in whispers to as the film started? Was that John Winroth?

How much of this plot on either the American or the French/British sides imagined or real? Who did the writers talk to in writing the script? Did they in fact talk to Steven or anyone in France?

I know , I know, : it's just a fucking movie! Don't ruin it - don't make such a bloody deal about it. And anyway, why do you/ I even care ? And who the bloody hell are you anyway?!? A nobody, shut-up will you!!! You are all saying/ thinking this perhaps as you read this? I hope not as I mean this as a start to a serious dialogue about this movie and the time that it depicts.

I'm sorry to say that I do care. So shoot me! Who the hell are you anyway to have written such a one-sided ( hopefully for every one's sake accurate retelling of some of the events and characters in California at least ) of this momentous time in California wine history ? This part as I have said of California does make me really curious to learn more. I'm drawn to these California characters that seem to be pretty much speeding along almost out of control and most surely about to have some bad collisions ( if not soon checked ) anytime soon. These are lives alive and chocking and flaming high, careening, skidding, sputtering, coughing, almost drowning loudly " flailing, ranting, crying, indignant, clinging to faith and dreams, to bottles and casks of wines and vines and knowing-respecting the land and making their own wines from their grapes and vines instead of selling them off to Gallo! Wow, this is a lot to be dumped into all at once without any notice or warning. One has to watch out not to be the one punched out at night by prejudiced truck drivers or by one's own father under the light of the moon and the sparkle of so many vibrant, bright, visible stars!

As I say, as an artist I love all of this and want to spread myself open to revel more in it and soak as much of it up as is artistically possible. The other, mindful, thinking side of me throws up many questions and barriers and preconceived ( possibly totally unjustified ) notions. I have to come up for air! I've been submerged so completely in this California countryside landscape - Napa - now of 1975-6.

It surprises me greatly, to that the name Stag's Leap Vineyard is never mentioned here ( at least the part which I have see so fare ) : was there a big rivalry between Chateau Montelena and Stag's Leap Vineyard at this point? Why are none of the vineyards mentioned except Chateau Montelea? How one-sided is that?

I guess I just should have done more reading and research before watching this movie as for me it raises so many more questions that it ever seems to attempt to answer. Perhaps it is not interested in answering any questions. Perhaps it is simply a story rewritten so many times that it tells no story really even though it is adapted " from a true story ". Which " true story " ? I'd like to know. And then how much of it is " true " and how much is " Hollywood " ? The actors sure are some of the best, no doubting that. But did Alan Rickman ever meet Steven Spurrier? Did he ever see any footage of Steven, talk on the phone?

So far I hate all the film footage that is supposed to be about Paris, France and Steven Spurrier. I find it dark, murky and hard to follow and understand. It simply does not work very well for me at all.

The part in California as I have said is like galaxies about to collide ( imagine that out in the lazy, rustic, rural California Napa countryside - of all places, go figure!?! ) ; and as disturbed about it as I am I am also pulled into this landscape about to explode and self-destruct or miraculously reinvent itself! And it does, the famous 1976 wine-tasting that Steven Spurrier organizes and holds blindly pairing French wines against California wines is grand. He even get French wine owners/makers to participate. Were there any California winemakers invited to this blind tasting? Again, I guess I should have done my homework to find all this out before watching the movie.

I lost track of Steven and his merry gang of wine-educators ( I learned so much from my introduction class of France's wonderful wine-bounty in 1975 ). I was not in contact with them during this period of the wine-tasting. I was back here in college in Virginia at Randolph-Macon in Ashland. I was conducting my own wine-education classes there for a select few that wanted to learn something about wine. There may have been ten or more of us all gathered together. I would come buy my wines in Washington D.C. and then take them back to taste side-by-side.

I soaked those labels off the bottles, too : especially the California wines that we tasted. I don't think the tastings were blind. I was also a poor, starving artist,student-of-life-love-art-wine-girls back then with little money. I think I did at least two such tastings and included the following wines : the Inglenook 1972 Napa Valley Gamay Beaujolais ( must have been really Valdiguie. " Napa Valley Gamay Beaujolais, a of soft, fragrant red table wine with the distinctive taste and bouquet of the rare Gamay Beaujolais grape variety grown in our Napa Valley vineyards " ) , the Inglenook California " Navalle " French Colombard white , the Beringer Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon estate-bottled 1970 Cabernet Sauvignon, the Beringer Napa Valley Chardonnay esate-bottled 1973, the Inglenook " Navalle " red burgundy, the Sutter Home 1974 Amador County Zinfandel ( " This Zinfandel was produced from grapes grown on the K.Deaver and J.Ferrero ranches in the Shenandoah Valley of Amador County. Conditions affecting the 1974 Vintage were excellent and this, the resulting wine, is a reflection of superior grapes and care in wine making. The 1974 has a soft full bodied elegance that can be savored now and will certainly improve with age " , 13% alcohol ), the Beaulieu Vineyard BV Napa Valley Chablis and the 1971 Beaulieu Vineyard BV Napa Valley burgundy. I may also have used the limited bottling Souverain red burgundy ( " This robust wine is our own meticulous blend of premium Napa Valley grapes " 12.5 alcohol.

I don't remember exactly which French wines that I poured though I also have saved those labels and someday will find a list of the wines if I am lucky. My tasting was college-level, rudimentary, simplistic and raising so many more questions than answered ones. Oh well, I tried and I do believe those in attendance came away with a greater love and respect and curiosity for grape, vine and wine. I have at least one picture from this tasting and I will someday scan it here and download it onto this blog page.

So my wine-tasting in 1976 attracted the attention of perhaps 10-15 people and added to their lives while the 1976 wine-tasting in Paris, France between California and French wines touched and changed the lives forever, profoundly, soundedly, as well as set opinions of countless people from all around the world! What a contrast that just now I am realizing for the very first time.

Anyway, here on the day after my twenty-eighth wedding anniversary I am about to head out to dinner with my wife to Sorriso , an Italian restaurant in Cleveland Park, N.W. Washington D.C. where I work and manage the store Cleveland Park Wines & Spirits. I will take with me a bottle of the 1981 Monsanto " Il Poggio " Riserva Chianti Classico # 8418 , alcohol 13.8 ( 38300 bottles produced of this " Il Poggio " . The fill is good on this bottle, just at the neck.I hope to drink it with my wife and son and to share some with owner pf Sorriso Pietro, his wife, daughter and son whom all work at the restaurant now during these very trying times. Hopefully we can all rise above these uncertainties tonight over a great Italian meal and great Italian Chianti Classico and celebrate the things that bind and heal and nourish us through both good and bad times. Hurrah to the human spirit! Hurrah to the artistic endeavor, to the pursuit of one's dreams, to family and health and hope that guides us always. And Hurray to those that continue to strive for their ideals and pursuits even in the face of oppressive disinterest, lack of encouragement and both doubt and possible ridicule of others close and far away.

I will write more after finishing the movie. In the meantime I'm going to post this now as it is both fresh, pithy and pertinent to get it out as it celebrates three important years in my life : 1976 , 1981 and 2009.

It's now Sunday afternoon at 5:33 PM on February 8th, 2009 as I proof and post this blog. Cheers, TONY

P.S. It's Monday night here at home on my " day off " on February 9th, 2009 ( it's 8:58 PM ) and I finished the movie last night with my wife. I must say that I enjoyed it and came to see it as told from the point-of-view of those at Chateau Montelena. I'm happy for those that were mentioned and they did seem to have a lot of real character and it was fun to watch them evolve on the screen.

The scene my wife and I perhaps liked the best was the one where Steven Spurrier is about to board the plane to return to Paris, France with his 26 bottles of wine. We both loved how everyone pitched-in to each carry a bottle onto the plane as only one bottle per person was permitted. I wonder how many people know what their efforts meant and how they as a group helped to change completely the fate forever of California and American wines? What stories have they told their family and friends about this flight and the astounding results of the blind-tasting? Does anyone know who these people were? It would be great to hear from some of them.

I do feel, however, that it would have been easy and helpful to have mentioned some of the other California wineries that were in this blind-tasting. They were winners, too as far as I can see and yet no mention was really made of them, who they were and what was selected. Seeing as this had monumental effects on the American wine business it would have been nice to have included a bit more about them and their wines as well. It would have in no way diluted the amazing results of the Chateau Montelena 1973 Chardonnay.

So, as I said I brought baggage with me to the viewing of this film and I am trying to separate myself from it and see the film in a more objective way. I would like it to be a grand success and to reach out to many people and give them a real glimpse at this serendipitous moment in the world or wine and how much it changed because of this one wine tasting, especially for California and the U.S. wine market, too.

This movie whets my appetite for more up-close, informative and fun film-making about this period in 1976. I don't think it can be edited to do more at this stage ( although I would like to see exactly that happen ) ; and so another movie will have to be made, simple as that! Who's going to do it now? The task has just been started and so far we have just the slightest glimpse into the chain of events that lead to this wine-tasting. It's more than time now for more of the story. It would be a real boost to our deflated moods in these really trying times we all are facing. Cheers, chin-up and head tilted back as you drain whatever good glass of wine you are currently drinking now! TONY


Garnet said...

It was interesting to read the response of someone whose live intertwined with some of the characters in the movie. I watched the film last night with my wife and having been to many of the Napa Valley places dipicted, it was a real treat. As I read your review I think you were a bit hard on the charcterization of Steven Spurrier, however.

First, I think that while he is a snob, it is in the context of wine and not overall. What I mean is that he has high expectations for wine and is a bit closed-minded initially to the potential of California but otherwise does not consider himself to be superior to others. Clearly, he is open-minded enough to think that California wines can make a decent showing. Moreover, the more he learns about the superior qualities of California wine making and their makers, the more he appreciates them both.

Ultimately, I thought he was polite and gracious throughout. Also, I don't think the wine makers charged him for the tastings as much as he volunteered to pay. In several scenes we see the shock and surprise on the faces or the comments of the locals that he is paying them. I think this wsas more than generosity on Spurrier's part. I think he was trying to treat this as a professional exchange but also knew that if word got out, the wines would start coming to him instaed of the other way around. Of course, this is exactly what happened later when the wine makers were lined five deep at his doorstep to give him their wines.

I can't speak to the accuracy of anything in the movie and I suspect that many of the characters are amalgamations of real people for dramatic reasons and maybe this is a cause of frustration for you in trying to identify people you know. For myself and my wife, we loved the film.

Anonymous said...

I have been spending the last hour and a half or so researching on the web the history of the Paris Wine Tasting, and of the Barrett family and of Steven Spurrier. First of all, let me say I have seen the movie no less than five times! I simply love this movie! And certainly it is very "hollywood" in it's depiction of what really occurred. In regards to Steven Spurrier's reaction, my reaction is twofold.

First, I am sure that he was upset at being portrayed a snob. BUT, secondly, by the end of the movie, in my eyes he was a huge hero! Again, probably 90% fiction, and 10% fact.

Please note that I am, at 52, new to the "wine scene"; really just starting a romance with wine, reading and learning along the way.

Bottom line, Alan Rickman was superb, and by the end of the movie, I wanted to learn more about Steven Spurrier! How great is that press!


Anonymous said...

I was an expat living in the UK in the 80's when I took a Christie's wine course that was absolutely wonderful. One of the classes featured Steven Spurrier who introduced us to French country wines such as Bourgeuil, etc. I bought Spurrier's guide to French country wines and it became my favorite, allowing me to explore (and afford) delicious wines at reasonable prices that most people had never heard of. Steven Spurrier was decidedly NOT in any way snobbish.

In fact, all the persons who lectured on wine in that course (Jancis Robinson, for example) were simply in love with wine and with being able to do what they did and share it. They were tops in their field and warmly and enthusiastically shared what they knew with the rest of us ordinary and fairly inexperienced (winewise) people. That was over 35 years ago and I still have all my notes from those classes, including my tasting notes, which I enjoy reasing from time to time.

So, although I enjoyed the movie, "Bottle Shock," for its subject matter, I had the extra special knowledge that the Steven Spurrier character was nothing like the real person. Ever since I returned to the US, I have waited for another Guide to French Country Wines (or perhaps a global version considering how times have changed). Steven Spurrier--please give us an updated edition!--Barbara in Raleigh, NC

Anonymous said...

I have seen this movie too many times to count. When this movie first came out, after seeing it, I attended several local wine tastings. At each, I would question a few of the vendors. Most had no idea about the movie. A few did. One or two would frown at me and launch themselves into a vitriol account of how poorly the movie represented not only Steven Spurrier, but also Chateau Montelana (sorry for any misspelling). Further, they also informed me that Spurrier attempted to sue the makers of Bottle Shock over the portrayal of his character. I have no idea if he won the lawsuit or not. This amused and intrigued me.

I can sort of see why Spurrier would be upset, yet, I never saw the portrayal of him in a negative light. If anything, I found Jim Barrett to be the snob (granted, he was feeling slighted in some way by Spurrier, and I think that [in the movie at least] this came across as Barrett seeking some sort of revenge against Spurrier, so as another poster said, who's the real snob? Not Spurrier.

At any rate, people (Spurrier, the Barretts, whomever) can berate this movie all they want. I liked it, and I will continue to watch it for years to come.

John said...

Just watched "Bottle Shock" and loved it. After reading Tony's account of the "real" Steve Spurrier, I'm thinking Mr. Spurrier should have sent the film makers a thank you note. I can only imagine if the film had depicted him accurately he would have come across as a huge bore and the movie would have flopped. I never thought I ever hear myself saying this but..."thank you, Hollywood" for making a boring reality a bit more entertaining - or "palatable" as Mr. Spurrier might prefer.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Garnet that Spurrier was portrayed as a wine snob, not a snob in general. I might also point out that the movie seemed to be based off the Barretts account of the story, and perhaps that is how Spurrier came off to them at first. I also felt that Spurrier came off as a hero in the end. I think the film was wonderfully done and flowed well. Alan Rickman was flawless. I suggest watching the making of the film in the special features section of the DVD.