The great globalization debate is given fine artistic expression in Jonathan Nossiter’s globe-traipsing new documentary Mondovino.
As the wine economy expands, it’s being ripped apart by new winemaking
techniques and the increased connectivity of the world economy.
A former sommelier at New York City’s Balthazaar, Nossiter doesn’t hide his predilection for the small winemaker. Mondovino is openly on the side of the artist-farmer who creates wines within the boundaries of his own land. The French term terroir translates to soil but in the world of wine it also connotes the “old” ways of winemaking that is more expressive of the individual winemaker, his land, grapes and the fickle moods of Mother Nature without overt technological interventions. That is, wine that manifests the idiosyncrasies of the time and place from which it came. Big business, on the other hand, would prefer a reliable and consistent product with appeal to a broad market. The difference could be articulated as big business versus little people, or as constancy versus character.
Within the film’s lengthy 2 hours and 15 minutes, Nossiter interviews many of the most powerful people in the wine business. We get comment and perspective from the Mouton-Rothschild estate; the Mondavi family; Italy’s two most powerful wine families, Frescobaldi and Antinori; and that’s not to mention New York wine distributor Neal Rosenthal, wine consultant Michel Rolland, and wine writers including Robert Parker and Wine Spectator’s James Suckling. These are contrasted with the less powerful but passionate voices of smaller winemakers from Mas de Daumas Gassac in France’s Languedoc and Domaine de Montille from Buourgone, and other small producers from Sardigna, Argentina and Brazil.
Most of the time the powerful appear interested in their market share while the farmers are involved with creating a wine of pure expression. Both groups, though, are ultimately concerned with survival.
The film suffers from disastrous camera work that at times makes the otherwise fascinating adventure unbearable. Mr. Nossiter has directed several films and it is surprising with this experience that the film isn’t more professional in its cinematography. Regardless it is a must see for anyone with an interest in wine or in the changes brought on by a global economy.
Nossiter draws from his subjects what appear to be candid discussions about wine and its future but his own ideals are not far from the surface as the small farmers are presented favorably while the powerful are at worst arrogantly myopic, on average naively destructive and at best merely self-interested. Though Nossiter’s depictions aren’t as one-sided as, say, those of Michael Moore, many of its portrayals are unbelievable considering all these people clearly knew they were being recorded. The gloating of wine consultant Michel Rolland is particularly offensive, while Parker, whom I know and like, comes across as idealistic, if a little naïve about his influence and the impact he has on wine, taste and profits.
Nossiter’s interviews do reveal close relationships between producers, consultants and such powerful purveyors of taste as Parker and Suckling. While not stating it the implication of complicity among them all but hangs in the air when Nossiter asks if Suckling’s Wine Spectator rating of his Tuscan landlord’s wine would influence his rent. While avoiding the intimation Suckling goes on to lament the French and how they lost the wine world to the Italians, a comment that’s both out of place and silly.
While the romantic may find the charm of the artist-farmer appealing, and the self-satisfaction of the powerful distasteful, the issue is more complex than personality and while Nossiter does give us a portrait of the forces in today’s wine world, he doesn’t prove anything nefarious is at work.
If we are to attempt to understand and have a hand in what our future holds for wine — for the sake of our earth, our economy, our taste and the beauty of our existence — then preservation no matter the cost is not an option but preservation by choice is. It is only by educating the consumer that these smaller entities have a chance. It is true that in many ways their product is superior, regardless of whether a Parker or Wine Spectator recognize and promote the product (and quite often both do). However it is up to the farmers to find a way to market their goods to a wider market.
Ultimately the individual consumer will be in control of the destiny of this industry, it will be tragic if we lose all individuality to the corporate giants but it is not necessary. Certainly the American consumer has become, quite rapidly, much more educated and demanding in other sectors, most notably agriculture where we demand more and more organic produce and hormone-free meats and are willing to pay a premium.
Why not the same for wine?
As much as consumerism is derided, chided and criticized it is a powerful tool that when properly understood empowers. As a matter of fact I’m going to enjoy a bottle of the magnificent Mas de Daumas Gassac tonight, as a matter of duty of course.