Thin Skinned

By now, most people with even a passing interest in wine have heard of the Sideways effect: a movie takes Pinot Noir as a central metaphor for its thin-skinned and temperamental protagonist, and hey presto, Pinot Noir is the “It Grape.” But while the wine industry went gaga, the movie industry seemed content to sip, spit, and move on.

At least, that’s how it seemed to Lannette Pabon and Ross Schwartz. Schwartz had registered the first draft of his screenplay for Bottle Shock — a film about the famed Paris tasting of 1976 — in the middle of 2004, shortly before Sideways was released. “We weren’t certain how it would affect our project,” recalled Pabon when we spoke. “Ultimately, I think it proved that there was an audience interested in wine.” Schwartz disagreed. “In Hollywood, the big thing is how to say no. Everybody wants to say no, so they look for reasons to say no. We ultimately did this film as an indie, but when I first started discussing it in Hollywood, the first response was ‘Nobody cares about wine.’ Then, after Sideways came out, it was ‘All the oxygen about wine has been used up by Sideways. People are not going to want to go to another movie about wine.’ So I don’t think Sideways really helped us.”

But if it didn’t help, neither did it slow down their efforts to see the story behind the Paris tasting realized onscreen. I called to Pabon and Schwartz while the couple was attending Sundance, where Bottle Shock would be screened and offered up for distribution. A lot had happened to the film since their last direct involvement with it, including a pretty serious rewrite by the director/producer team of Randall Miller and Jody Savin. But the story began with them — or, more precisely, with Pabon.

“I grew up in Northern California,” began Pabon. “I was always into wine, but I’m incredibly competitive. So when I started dating Ross in 1999, I decided to take a class at UCLA Extension.”

“I’ve been into wine since the late ’60s, when I went to Berkeley,” explained Ross. “I’ve been driving up to wine country forever. When we got together, Lannette said she wanted to catch up.”

“Right,” said Pabon. “There’s a 19-year age difference between us, so I felt a little bit behind in my drinking abilities and wine discernment. Ross and I were taking trips to wine regions around the world, but especially to Napa. So I took the class, and it really sparked my curiosity about the history of Napa. The story of the Paris tasting” — when two upstart California wines, a Chateau Montelena Chardonnay and a Stag’s Leap Cabernet, beat out some of the top White Burgundies and Red Bordeaux of France in a blind tasting conducted by French judges — “came up a number of times.”

Pabon saw an opportunity. “My generation really doesn’t know anything about the birth of Napa — why such world-class wines come out of this region. For me, it was ‘Why not? How did we miss this really important competition?’ I thought it was a natural underdog story, and I was really driven to tell it.” (Plus, in Gustavo Brambilia — then with Montelena — Pabon had a chance to portray the importance of immigrants to California’s viticultural glory. “That was really important to me,” she said. “Napa was a huge melting pot. People came from all over the world and landed there.”)

Schwartz, who had written a few screenplays already, wasn’t so sure. “When I first got involved, I thought, ‘Who is going to really care? The story has been around for 30 years, and nobody else has told it. There’s a reason for that. Who would be interested in a bunch of French people slurping and spitting out wine in a movie?’” He started toying with the idea of somehow tying up the story with something else — a murder mystery, perhaps — in order to ratchet up the appeal. Then he met the Barretts of Chateau Montelena.

“Before deciding on the story, we decided to go to Napa and interview everybody,” said Schwartz. “I remember we were in the middle of a three-hour interview with Jim and Bo Barrett — they’re very colorful people, and they have great stories — and Jim pounded the tabled and said, ‘I’ll tell you what your movie is.’ He told us this story about the wine turning brown. If you make a wine with reductive methods — working to keep out oxygen — and you do it too well, it will cause the wine in the bottle to turn brown. In fact, that’s what happened to Jim’s wine. Before the tasting, he was faced with 500 cases of brown wine, and nobody knew why. It had never happened to anybody before, and it was all because it was done too perfectly. He was just miserable.” As it happened, the browning was a temporary change. The wine came back from the commercial grave, turned a proper shade of yellow, “and according to Jim, that’s the wine that went and won the tasting. A pretty dramatic story” — no murder mystery required.

At that point, Schwartz had a different problem on his hands. “Lannette and I were just boyfriend and girlfriend at the time. I didn’t want to get into a situation where we broke up and I wouldn’t be able to use something I spent a year and a half writing. So I made her sign a deal.” (The two have since married.) Pabon got story credit, Schwartz got screenplay — and the title, which came to him late one night as he drove home from a writing group. “It had to be that. It applied to so many layers of the screenplay. Bottle shock is where, if you move wine, it sometimes goes into shock. And this wine had to travel, pretty much last-minute, from the U.S. to France. When we spoke with Warren Winiarski at Stag’s Leap, he said that he felt that that was one of the advantages they probably thought they had — that our wine wouldn’t show well because of being brought over there. That, and the wines they put up in the contest were older, more mature. So that was one meaning. And then, it shocked them that we won.”

Once the screenplay was finished, it was time to let the studios figure out why they needed to say no. They did their job, but Schwartz persisted and eventually found a home for the project at IPW, an independent production company. IPW landed Miller and Savin; Bill Pullman, Alan Rickman, and Dennis Farina signed on, and hey presto, Schwartz and Pabon needed something they could wear to Sundance.

A few days before heading to Utah, they got their first look at the finished product. “I guess this happens a lot with Sundance,” said Schwartz. “You’re working on the film up until the last second. It’s a very funny story — which we intended — and I think Randy Miller captured the tone of what we wanted. He nailed it.” Added Pabon, “It was exactly how I had envisioned telling the story. I knew the ending, and I was still rooting for them. It had a really good emotional component that drew you in. It told the immigrant story, the Gustavo story. It accomplished all the things I had envisioned in the very beginning.”

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