REVIEW by Willard Manus
It's too long by half an hour, is marred by drunken-sailor camera work, and is mostly a bobble of talking heads, but you will learn one hell of a lot about wine--and life-- from MONDOVINO, the new film by Jonathan Nossiter, whose 2000 feature Signs & Wonders was an underappreciated gem. Unlike Signs, MONDOVINO is a documentary and a quirky, personal one at that, but it still manages to go deep into the wine world and reveal it in all its contradictions and complexities, glories and pettiness.
Nossiter, who first became interested in wine when he worked as a waiter in Paris at fifteen and who later got a degree as a sommelier in New York, made MONDOVINO because, as he said, "I've come to realize that somehow the singular world of wine is weirdly representative of the world at large. The reason is simple. Wine is more like people, in its infinite complexity, than anything else on the planet...To look at the world of wine today is necessarily a way to look at how we feel about our past and at what we're preparing for the future. The news from the front, in my eyes, is both exhilirating and terrifying."
Nossiter visited the front while armed with a lightweight digital camera and backed by a couple of key assistants (Juan Pittaula and Stephanie Pommez). He filmed across three continents, in five languages, over a three-year period. He interviewed dozens of people in the wine business, juxtaposing small, humble vintners with huge multi-national businessmen, artisans with scientists, wine critics with wine dealers.
The main players in the film (which was later blown up to 35mm, with less than pristine results) are: Battista & Lina Columbu, owners of a small company on Sardinia; Aime Guibert, a quality winemaker from Languedoc, France; Michael & Tim Mondavi,
joint CEOs of the company which produces over 100 million bottles wordlwide from Napa to Chile to Italy; Michel Rolland, the world's leading wine consultant and oenologist (through his Pomerol laboratory); the American wine critic Robert Parker; and Neal Rosenthal, who started as a retailer with a small wine shop in Manhattan and eventually became one of the leading American importers of European wines of terroir.
In French, terroir means earth, soil--the all-important ingredient in the traditional way of making wine (which goes back thousands of years to the Greeks and Romans). Terroir imparts a special taste to the variety of grapes which grow in a given area. Thus the resulting wine might vary from year to year, but those who bought it knew exactly where it came from and knew it needed to "grow" and mature in the bottle. Wine-drinkers stored wine for years and were prepared to be delighted--or even disappointed-- when they finally sampled it. Wine was a living thing; it could be unpredictable, complex, maddening, marvelous. Sometimes it went down innocuously; other times it had a rough edge that shocked at first, then spread through you like warm fire. Wine--the growing and the drinking-- was all about chance-taking, experimenting, individuality.
Then came the 80s, when giant companies like Coca-Cola and Diageo began buying up small, family-owned wineries, not just in the USA but France, Italy and South America. Big business brought a different mentality to an ancient trade. Technology was employed to make wine less rough and unpredictable, more homogenized and inoffensive. Consultants like Rolland--a jolly, hard-driving, wheeler-dealer with a snobbish contempt for the "hicks" who still make wine the old way--showed the Mondavis and Rothschilds how they could make a fortune with the new wine, which could be drunk as soon as it was vinted, making for fast turnover and quick sales.
The result is a worldwide ocean of wine which pretty much tastes the same, whether it's Two-buck Chuck or Opus One. The barbarians have won out, not just in the wine trade but in the food business too. As one of the many blunt-spoken characters in MONDOVINO says, "Wine is dead. Let's be clear, wine is dead. And not just wine. Fruits, cheeses...everything."
The tragedy is compounded when critics like Parker and the Wine Spectator overpraise wine which is little better than the oenological equivalent of fast food.