Film review – Mondovino

Australia New Zealand Wine Industry Journal 2005, Vol 20 pp. 41-42

Mondovino has acquired a reputation as the Fahrenheit 411 of wine, a diatribe against its McDonaldsification.  It portrays the battle, so we are told, between wines of terroir – wines that speak of where they come from – and the global impersonality of the corporate wine that is becoming more widespread.  A preview in April gave me the opportunity to find out more.

Director Jonathan Nossiter, American by birth, but having lived in France, England and elsewhere, has the unusual qualifications of being a successful film-maker and an experienced sommelier.  Nossiter himself does not comment on his subjects, but from the pointed editing and some clever imagery it’s easy to see where his sympathies lie.  (Several of those subjects we also meet in Lawrence Osborn’s brilliant book The Accidental Connoisseur which is essential reading for anyone interested in Mondovino.)

My first reaction to the film was “what’s all the fuss about?” but, on further reflection, the issues are potent, yet handled in a subtle way.  I had half expected this to be an Old World versus New World battle, but the lines are less clearly drawn, and not all the Old World protagonists fare well.  Instead, the central question seems to be “can you make great wine simply through wealth – buy the land, hire the consultant, get the 90+ reviews – or does great wine derive largely from the site?”  The passage of a hundred years would provide the answer but we’re all in a hurry.  Thus we meet the Mondavis, the Staglins in the Napa, the Antinori and Frescobaldi families – all accompanied by their press attachés – and Leo McCloskey of Sonoma’s Enologix, whose computer will help you dial up your winning wine.

Most vocal amongst the terroirists is Aimé Guibert of Mas de Daumas Gassac in the Languedoc, who comes across as quite rabid.  He proclaims “wine is dead”, along with cheeses and fruits.  “Wine is a religious relationship”, he declares, holding himself as one of its few defenders.  Less rabid in his defence of terroir wines is Hubert de Montille from Volnay, (who I would just love to sit down to dinner with).  His love of Burgundy shines through, and even his more contentious generalisations, like “where there’s wine there is no barbarism” can be taken more sympathetically than Guibert’s ranting.  Even de Montille has his struggles, notably with his daughter, who is winemaker with Burgundy’s corporate bandit Boisset (accompanied by his press attaché).  

Nossiter also shows us the more obscure producers, some barely eking out an existence, the most charming of whom is Battista Colombu, who produces Malvasia di Bosa in Sardinia (with not a press attaché in sight).

While the supporters of terroir are presented more sympathetically than the corporates, Nossiter allows the former to show their inconsistencies.  Guibert, having fought to prevent the Mondavis developing a vineyard in the Languedoc, is prepared to welcome Gérard Dépardieu and his corporate backer, Bernard Magrez, from one of Guibert’s particular hates, Bordeaux.

The corporate world of Italian wine receives long attention, particularly the struggles within the Antinori families.  The reasons are not entirely clear although it’s significant that, as with the Mondavis, more time is spent talking of investment than wine.

Amidst the heavier moments are glimpses of comic relief from Nossiter’s delightful obsession with dogs.  We see them in many countries and many settings, including sniffing each other intimately. 

Guibert maintains a particular rage against Bordeaux.  Clearly in his sights is consultant Michel Rolland, who is driven from cellar to cellar by his mobile-phone- answering chauffeur.  “Micro-oxygenate” seems to be the reply to every phone call.  The editing creates the impression, undoubtedly unfairly, that Rolland spends only minutes with each client, although there’s a wonderful moment when Rolland forgets the name of his clients, the Staglins.

I was initially disappointed that the film challenges few of the (often outrageous) opinions recorded, but Nossiter clearly prefers to act as observer, allowing his subjects to justify their attitudes or dig their graves, as the viewer judges.

There are some hysterically funny moments, like the withering look Vittorio Frescobaldi gives his wife Bona, when she explains “the film crew are here”.  He walks out.  Opus One’s vineyard manager Mitchell Klug’s patronising of the Mexican labourers is just as telling, as he struggles before commenting positively on their contribution.  A cut to the face of one of the Mexicans shows what he thought of the relationship.  Klug’s attitude to them was shared by Shari Staglin, who declares she values them so much that “we even give them a hat and a T-shirt”.  Another great moment is when Staglin, in one of several fashionable outbursts, points to a statue created by “the number one ceramic artist”.  (I wonder how many points the Ceramic Advocate gave it.)  He had now dropped to number three, she said.  He had died.

Many of the terroirists rant against Robert Parker Jr, an obvious target for many of the Europeans.  However, Parker himself comes across well, supremely confident in his judgement, and rather bemused by the attention his writings get.  The interview is punctuated by Parker’s farting bulldog, which makes you wonder about Parker’s sensitivity to H2S. 

Mondovino has outraged many, particularly for Nossiter’s subjective use of imagery and, in some cases, unsympathetic editing.  However, it’s entertaining throughout, if a little long.  It’s unlikely to change many opinions but it will reinforce many.

Mondovino was shown earlier this year at the French Film Festival and screens in Australia from 28th July.

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