'Bottle' filmmakers win over some acidic Sonoma townsfolk


SONOMA, Calif. -- Rows upon rows of grape vines crest the hills in this sunny countryside as a 1970s Gremlin rolls down the road with the gracefulness of a pear, then putters to a stop with a flat tire and a cloud of dust. Alan Rickman gets out, curses and begins flinging out the tire iron and jack.

"Cut!" director Randy Miller yells. "That's a cut!" seconds the assistant director. "Cutting!" shouts the key grip working down the line.

"Anywhere you turn, it's absolutely spectacular," Miller says, looking around from the side of the road. "Some of this scenery is like an old George Stevens movie."

Miller is in the middle of shooting "Bottle Shock," a drama that uses as its backdrop a true 1976 incident in which a Chardonnay from a little Napa Valley winery called Chateau Montelena, run by Jim Barrett and his son Bo, won a tasting competition in Paris, thereby putting California on the wine map and resulting in the democratization of vino.

The indie, which stars Bill Pullman, Chris Pine and Rickman, is shooting here in wine country, using the real Chateau Montelena as well as other wineries around Napa and Sonoma counties. Sonoma and its surrounding countryside was favored over Napa because of its more rural and quaint qualities.

"Sonoma hasn't been transformed into a chain-store filled city," said Jody Savin, one of the film's producers and Miller's producing partner and wife. "It still looks antique and older. Napa has changed and has been developed and looks more like a modern city."

In the wake of the success of 2004's "Sideways," which uncorked a boom in tourism on the central California coast and increased the popularity of pinot noir, you would think that hosting a movie about wine would be a cause to pop open the champagne. Yet a few weeks earlier, "Bottle" almost ended up being run out of town.

Surprisingly, wine country doesn't have a film commission to help coordinate shoots -- Sonoma and other municipalities let their city councils decide on permits in open-door town meetings. While "Bottle" was attempting to secure permission from wineries to shoot on their land, the filmmakers also were looking for a location to double for Paris, where the film's climactic taste test occurs. Just four weeks before the shoot, they realized that they could turn Sonoma's unique town square into a 1970s City of Lights.

In 2000, Rob Schneider movie "The Animal" overstayed its welcome in Sonoma and since then, the town had grown wary of Hollywood. As soon as the townfolk heard that a shoot was coming, a group turned against the production, arguing that it would disrupt tourism at the height of the summer season. Compounding the problem, an early draft of the permit application was sent out to local businesses in which every street mentioned was misconstrued as a request to close that street. A petition went out to stop the film from coming to town.

Miller and his team took matters into their own hands. Location manager Chris Munday and his assistant met with storeowners to get them on their side, mixing charts with plenty of charm. It worked, and in a Capraesque moment, the people who had circulated the petition showed up to the city council meeting to say that they were giving the film a reprieve.

That, however, still meant that the filmmakers had to win over the stone-faced city council.

Recalls Miller: "It was a mix of people. One guy was wearing a bow tie and another had flip-flops. And yet you could see that they were of the makeup of, 'I don't know if we like this whole movie thing in our town.' "

Says Munday: "I had been to city council meetings in Whittier and other cities where it's 'OK!' and the permit is rubber stamped. Here, we were definitely under a microscope. I felt like I was on trial and being cross examined."

"It was almost like a parliamentary-type of system where I wasn't allowed to talk unless I was called upon," Miller adds. "And I was trying to answer questions and Jody was kicking me under the table."

Says Munday: "It was very 'State and Main.' I had never dealt with a city entity that was as thorough."

In the end, the filmmakers convinced the city that they were indeed organized, had a plan to reroute traffic and would work with the local school district and garbage company to make sure routes weren't impacted. The permit was issued.

Suddenly, the pendulum swung the other way. Not only were locals receptive, it was as if the filmmakers were given the keys to the city. You want to shoot over your allotted time? No problem. Need extra cops? Here you go. And when "Bottle" shot in the center of town, the whole town came out to see their square transform into Paris.

Locals, it seems, have since fallen in love with Hollywood. The filmmakers shot on the land of Kunde Estate Winery, an 1,850-acre property, building a boxing ring on top of one of its hills. The vintners liked it so much that they asked the production to leave it so they would use it as a dining platform. And there were other benefits.

"I found my way into a scene," Kunde's president Don Chase says with a smile. "I was one of the judges for (the wine-tasting scene). I didn't get to speak, though."

Even the matter-of-fact Barrett, who isn't keen on the movie increasing tourism in the area ("This isn't Mount Rushmore. We don't need lookers," he says), was impressed when he let "Bottle" use his castle-like Montelena. "We had no idea it was such a huge undertaking. It was so well choreographed. ... They stayed out the of way and cleaned up after themselves."

"Bottle" faced other challenges. The production found out that for an indie, crews aren't as deep in San Francisco as they are in Los Angeles. And getting lodging for the talent, let alone the crew, proved difficult in the tourist season, so most are staying in rented homes; Miller and Savin are on a farm.

The filmmakers, however, have fallen in love with the area.

"When you make a choice to leave home to make a movie, you do that because you want the authenticity of a region," Savin says. "We wanted to show the beauty of the region. Some of these wineries are gorgeous. And gorgeous on film. The rolling hill landscapes, with the straw grass at sunrise or sunset ... we're literally in the vineyards from 5 in the morning to 9 at night."