Every story needs its good and bad, and for one to triumph over the other. In the world of wine the good guys are those versed in the traditional ways, passed down through generations; the bad guys those larger corporations that transcend a modest few hectares in favour of homogenising wine on a global scale. In Jonathan Nossiter‘s Mondovino (2004, 131 mins), the world is not so clear cut and the truth lies somewhere between.
One of the few documentaries ever considered for the Palme d’Or, this film takes a look at the globalisation of wine by getting global itself and travelling the world to interview its subjects. From the Old World to the New; through sprawling Napa valley vineyards onto humble uprofitable patches in Argentina; and from tradition to modernity. Nossiter gets access to an excellent range of high profile interviewees and his cinéma vérité style, while a bit hyperactive at times, works well in opening up the industry and being alert to its problems.
What we see is two distinct worlds: one of class, heritage and terroir; and another of democratised brand-led wine production pioneered by the American Mondavi family, its ripples felt around the world. In this first world, Nossiter meets with aristocractic families of France and Italy, their vineyards preserved through periods of fascism by collaboration and support, something for which descendants seem happily unapologetic. And in the other world, wine as a brand is considered, where Californian wine producers have led the capitalist charge to commoditise wine — the faster, better, cheaper approach.
To see how wine has changed in the last fifty years, it’s little surprise to hear that “wine is dead” from Aimé Guibert, the owner of 40 hectares in Languedoc. Where, for millennia, wine has been about the relationship between man and nature, today it is different. What once was about terroir is now about manipulation. The patience once required in maturing a vintage can now be hastened. Guibert is one of the handful of traditional vintners featured — a dying breed in this new world of wine — who will be lost to modernity.
But what is modernity in wine when considered against a timeless culture of grape fermentation? Where one may expect it to be the unrelenting march of technology, the answer in Mondovino appears to lie in the closeness of tastemakers. As the interviews progress the name of Robert Parker comes to the fore, a writer who, with his casual — some might say American — style and easy-to-understand ratings cut through the stuffiness of prior wine writing to become the world’s preëminent wine critic. Parker comes across rather well, a victim — in so much that he’s practically deified — of his own success, perhaps. But should you, as a supposedly independent writer, stop if you could be responsible vicariously for the death of wine.? Are you really to blame for those that hang on your every word?
If Parker is a tastemaker in print, the influence of Michel Rolland is not overlooked either, and Nossiter spends plenty of time chauffeured around with him. Consultant to hundreds of wineries around the world, Rolland offers his advice and improves the fortunes of those using his services. In effect they are moulding wines to his taste. Learning that Rolland shares tastes with Robert Parker, the world of wine begins to feel smaller, more restricted. As Rolland advises in one direction, wineries adapt their wine to the palate of the one man who will sing its praises and make its fortune. A damning epiphany, although it begs the question as to where wine is headed once these men are gone.
Although Nossiter, for the most part, sticks to simple lines of questioning and allows the interviewees to expound on matters oenological, political, and geographical, it feels likely that his mind is made up and that the subjects are there to confirm suspicions that globalisation is detrimental to wine. Subtle hints come when he notices a French press attaché use the English term ‘winemaker’ in a stream of Gallic dialogue; or less subtle such as the moment when Parker talks of his “candid, democratic way of tasting” and the camera turns to underscore this with a Burger King advertisement.
At over two hours there’s so much to Mondovino that it only hints at so much else. And its no surprise to learn that, with 500 hours of original footage, there’s so much more. Fringe characters add further colour, such as the New York wine importer despondent at the changes in the industry and the Christie’s Wine Director who, with the quiet grace of a butler, pines for a return to the 19th Century where England played its part in the French wine industry. Or even the Burgundian di Montille family, where the daughter decides to quit her job at a larger rival for dishonest practices and join her father’s independent concern.
This last one is indicative of much of Mondovino. Whether it be long and morally suspect lineages or siblings working together (or against!), families are important in wine. In this ever globalising world they seem to be the one thing that keeps it human. And it seems to be the one thing that keeps them looking to the future. One of the Mondavi clan dreams of growing wine on Mars fifteen generations from now. And globalisation is bad enough, as Nossiter’s film convinces, without the threat of universalisation lying in wait.