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    Hubert de Montville. in Mondovino
    Hubert de Montville.

    Rich man pour man

    "Mondovino" looks deep into the craft and business of winemaking and comes up with the essential story of our age — a story about the ways that the giant foot of globalization crushes the juicy spirit of both wine and human beings.


    "Mondovino" is not a sipping documentary. It's not a movie that swirls some wine around in a glass and admires the color and praises the bouquet and speaks of the wine's "complexity" and uses the whole experience as some kind of rarefied metaphor for middle-aged angst.

    Written and directed by: Jonathan Nossiter.
    Featuring: Albiera Antinori, Allegra Antinori, Lodovico Antinori, Piero Antinori, Isanette Bianchetti, Jean-Charles Boisset, Marchioness Bona, Michael Broadbent, Antonio Cabezas, Battista Columbu, Lina Columbu, Xavier de Eizaguirre, Alix de Montille, Etienne de Montille, Hubert de Montille, Arnaldo Etchart, Marco Etchart, Salvatore Ferragamo, Marquis Dino Frescobaldi, Aime Guibert, Bill Harlan, Yvonne Hegoburu, Patrick Lˇon, Bernard Magrez, Margrit Mondavi, Michael Mondavi, Robert Mondavi, Tim Mondavi, Jonathan Nossiter, Robert Parker, Michel Rolland, Neal Rosenthal, James Suckling, Inaldo Tedesco, Jean-Luc Thunevin, Massimo Vinci, Patrizia Vinci, Marquis Vittorio.
    Cinematography: Jonathan Nossiter.
    Edited by: Jonathan Nossiter.
    In French, English, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese with English subtitles.

    Related links: Official site
    No, this is the kind of movie that barges in on your charming little winery tour and throws a drink in your face.

    In "Mondovino," wine is a metaphor for life, all right — a way of life that's being stomped to a juicy pulp under the giant foot of global big business. "Wine is dead," declares one old-timer on his vineyard in France.

    We meet the players in this real-life drama one by one, and it's not immediately clear what the movie's point will be. We meet curmudgeonly old French and Italian men standing in their fields and complaining. We meet a consultant known as "the flying winemaker" who talks on his cell phone while he's driven from client to client in a chauffeured Mercedes. We meet a Socialist village mayor who was bounced out of office for making sweetheart deals with the all-powerful Mondavis of Napa County and a Communist mayor who kicked the California cartel brusquely out of town. And although we're told that wine is "a communion of the earth and the spirit" and that "it takes a poet to make a great wine," the rhapsodizing will soon end.

    Michel Rolland and his driver. in Mondovino  
    Michel Rolland and his driver.
    One of the first people we meet is one of the most important people in the business — Frenchman Michel Rolland, who describes himself as the "flying winemaker." As with every other modern buzz-phrase in the movie, this one is dropped into a French sentence in English, so it actually sounds like "fly-eeng winemake-air." It is a dream job for him — except he could never have dared dream it. At the beginning of the film, we may well share a sense of romance about this jetsetting, spirit-infused life, but we'll quickly come to understand how thoroughly this industrial emperor — Darth Vintner, you might call him — has gone over to the dark side. He's running it, in fact.

    In opposition to the behemoth that is Big Wine stand "a bunch of peasants," as Rolland repeatedly sneers. Rolland makes his money by flying among 12 countries and taking cell-phone calls, always dispensing the same advice. "Did you micro-oxygenate? You must micro-oxygenate — to the max." His clients don't even know what that means, and it's not certain that he does either.

    The "ignorant peasants" — old guys in suit jackets who tromp about their vineyards, tannic and defiant — denounce the new world order, even as it engulfs their antiquated little plots. While Rolland speaks of his precious micro-oxygenation and hobnobbing with the "great stars of winemaking" (the word "stars" is in English, of course), the old-timers speak stubbornly of terroir and tradition.

    "Wine is dead. Wine is dead," says Aimˇ Guibert, standing in his field. "Let me make clear what that means. What is wine? Wine, for millennia, has been an almost religious relationship between man and the natural elements — the soil, of course, the living soil, the soil that has never been treated with synthetic molecules, and then the climate. A great wine springs from great love, from great humility, from a great connection with the spiritual, with the soil, with the climate. It takes a poet to make a great wine."

    The traditionalists, presumably, have poetry on their side. The conglomerates have something else — publicity.

    You don't have to read very skillfully between the lines to follow what the film has to say about the publicity machine that makes the wine world go 'round. Midway through the film, we suddenly meet a new character, one Robert Parker, critic for the Wine Advocate and maker-or-breaker of vintages. The portrait of Parker is perhaps oversimplified (he's probably not as one-dimensional as he seems here, and he's probably not the only kingmaker in the industry, just one of a few), but the simplified version goes like this:

    Robert Parker gets to decide whether your winery lives or dies. Make a wine he likes and you live; make a wine he dislikes and you die. He only likes wines aged in new oak barrels (which lend a subtle whiff of "pain grillˇ," he rhapsodizes), and, oh, incidentally, your wine should also be micro-oxygenated. In fact, the high priest of micro-oxygenation, Monsieur Rolland, specializes in turning your wine into a Parker-friendly one. Hire Rolland and you live; don't hire Rolland and you die. Just incidentally, we learn that Rolland and Parker are longtime pals — or, to put it less charitably, they're in cahoots. They're a two-man winery-wrecking crew.

    The lucky, well-reviewed client wineries in 12 countries, of course, love these sprinklers of fairy dust, but old-timers in the business warn that the dust is getting in the wine and destroying it. The two are denounced not only by the senior citizens out in their fields, but also by a distributor in New York and the wine director of Christie's in London. Monsieur Rolland, says Christie's distinguished-looking Gielgud lookalike Michael Broadbent, "is a Pomerol man, and he's making Pomerols in the Medoc. He's making Pomerols all around the world." The distributor, Neal Rosenthal, accuses the industry of trying to eliminate terroir — the way that the soil and peculiarities of a specific place create individuality in a wine — and also suggests that contemporary wines are shallow, marketed to be sold and drunk immediately, no longer made to age gracefully. This, undoubtedly, is the consequence of churning the product through a global marketing system and letting a few powerful people standardize the result according to their personal taste. Nobody mentions the word McDonald's, but one could easily imagine this as a story about the global McDonaldization of wine.

      Michael and Robert Mondavi. in Mondovino
      Michael and Robert Mondavi.
    Adding a dimension to this story, filmmaker Nossiter explores the corporate influence on the rapidly homogenizing industry. The mega-corporation that gets the blame in this instance is the Robert Mondavi Corp. of California, a billion-dollar-plus behemoth which is busy gobbling up viticultural properties around the world. Our friends in Bordeaux repelled a Mondavi invasion, to their considerable pride, but that's not so in Tuscany, where a large landholder feels he was snookered into selling to the Mondavis through an unscrupulous third party.

    The filmmaker's trip to Mondavi country, in the Napa Valley, raises another of the film's fundamental issues — class. The Mondavis, of course, are Napa's nobility, attracting worshipful praise from a host of lackeys. Robert Mondavi, we're informed, is more than a winemaker. "He's also become a philosopher," a spokeswoman enthuses. How's that? Well, "he has espoused a philosophy of wine," she explains.

    Below the philosopher-kings dwell a class of enological earls epitomized by the Mondavis' neighbors the Staglins. The French have given us a perfect word for people like the Staglins — arrivistes. The Staglin Family Vineyard not only produces wine — it stands as a monument to the owners' egos. Their estate, says patriarch Garen, is a way of "creating this wonderful space as a showcase for our wines, our lifestyle, our commitments to charity." Allowing us to appreciate her lifestyle, Shari Staglin assures us that the sculptures in her garden were made by "the number-one funk ceramic artist in the United States," as well as "the guy that used to be number one." Nothing but highly ranked art for these connoisseurs. Allowing us to appreciate her commitment to charity, she explains how they annually give the Mexican workers "a T-shirt or a hat or a jacket — whatever we're doing that year." How generous, these friends of the working class. Haughty and yet clueless, the Staglins are a great find for a documentary maker — paragons of the kind of naked egotism that the more aristocratic Mondavis are too savvy and, um, philosophical to show openly. If they weren't American, they'd be characters from Moli¸re.

    The T-shirt-enjoying workers themselves don't get more than a couple of minutes on screen (in fact, their only contribution consists of holding their tongue), and the film could have been even stronger with the addition of their stories. Of course, that movie would have been three or four hours long instead of merely two and a quarter. As it is, "Mondovino" perfectly conveys a lesson — no, wait, "espouses a philosophy" — about globalization. The ultimate point of "Mondovino" is really a warning about all aspects of life — it's a very close look at how global business is steamrolling the individuality of what used to be an intensely personal craft. It's a masterful documentary, and benefits from the romance of its subject and the pungent spirit of its people — full-bodied with notes of tradition, pride and irascibility. It tells nothing less than the story of our age. A similar story could be told about anything from textile mills to your corner drugstore, but who wouldn't rather watch a movie about wine?

    As it turns out, the Mondavi millionaires aren't the only philosophers in the wine business. Crusty Bordeaux old-timer Hubert de Montille offers the following thoughts: "Where there is wine, there is civilization. In the people of the Middle East, of Babylon, of ancient Greece, there was wine. It was not always good, but there was wine. Wine meant an absence of barbarism."

    Down in the De Montille cellars, piping out samples from a barrel of the latest vintage to visitors, his daughter Alix espouses the old-fashioned philosophy that "the wine you make is a reflection of who you are."

    "Dad," she says in front of old man De Montille, "can be very charming — but also very disagreeable. He can be pretty acerbic, and his wines are sometimes the same way."

    "It's true," dad admits. "But they're still good after 15 years!"

    APRIL 21, 2005

    Reader comments on Mondovino:

  • Mondovino correction   from mark miller, Aug 31, 2005
  • "Mondovino"   from D.Voripaieff, Jan 17, 2006
  • Mondovino reflects our age   from Luciano B. N. de Moura, Jul 20, 2006
  • Mondovino: Political Aspects of Wine Making   from Sammish, Aug 28, 2006
  • fight back   from roy smith, May 10, 2008

  • Post a comment on "Mondovino"