A filmmaker who doubles as a sommelier, Jonathan Nossiter undoubtedly knows his wines. In “Mondovino,” he looks beyond mere wine appreciation to examine the world winemaking industry as a reflection of cultural change, disappearing tradition and the marginalization of independent thought. Both intimate and epic, the sprawling docu feature is overlong, disorganized and perhaps a little drunkenly structured. But while not all the many arguments laid out are fully developed, the consistently fascinating material provides an uncommonly eloquent, provocative statement against globalization that’s sure to stimulate thinking audiences.
Given the richness and complexity of the subject, a more streamlined feature version stands a strong chance of specialized theatrical play. But separation into multipart television programming seems a more viable commercial avenue. Originally programmed at Cannes out of competition, pic was bumped up among Palme d’Or contenders at the start of the fest.
While “Mondovino” seems at times to be about American imperialism or the cultural clash between France and the U.S., it’s more pointedly about the might of marketing over manufacture, corporate muscle and greed over artisanal enterprise, uniformity over individuality. As such, the film mines a fertile vein of universal themes and parallels with other commercial areas — not least among them the film industry — that serve to make it more compelling.
On top of this thematic wealth is a gallery of warmly observed, engaging characters, any of whose stories might be fodder for deeper exploration. These include Aime Guibert, a feisty Languedoc holdout who staunchly resists the appropriation of his land and traditions by foreign companies; Battista Columbu, a Sardinian family winemaker who reflects on the supremacy of nature and the price of progress; Yvonne Hegoburu, a 77-year-old widow in southwest France, who planted her vines in memory of her late husband; and Hubert de Montille, a proudly independent-minded Burgundy vigneron, cheerfully at odds with his humorless son Etienne and closer in spirit to his strong-willed daughter Alix, despite the widely accepted view that French winemaking is a man’s business.
Often present on camera in an unintrusive way, Nossiter makes it clear early on where his sympathies lie but is careful to avoid didacticism, presenting all possible viewpoints and letting the cultural-political subtext coalesce organically.
Even so, a number of individuals and entities emerge that take on the semblance not quite of villains but of self-serving figures partly responsible for bleeding the individuality out of winemaking. Among these is leading wine consultant Michel Rolland, a highly paid oenologist to companies in 12 countries, including Napa wine giants Mondavi, Harlan Estate and Staglin, representatives from which all appear extensively.
Not too stridently but cogently nonetheless, voices in the film illustrate that the marketing success of these and other labels has led to the “Napa-ization” of reds all over the world into new-oak, Merlot-accented wines designed for mass rather than boutique production and quick consumption as opposed to slow maturation. American investment and technology in foreign vineyards, particularly in France, appears to have furthered this dominance, as have influential American critic Robert Parker and other wine writers, charged with serving the interests of the powerful Californian winemakers. (Parker views his achievement as having brought American democracy to the caste system of wine appreciation.)
While there’s a certain amusing strain of Europhile snobbery through the film, Nossiter allows any ridiculing of the American subjects to come from their own mouths.
By far the most persuasive portrait of wine-world voraciousness comes via the Mondavi powerhouse. A bid engineered by Rolland and backed by the town’s Socialist Mayor to gain a foothold in Aniane, France fails when a leftist municipal government is elected to the delight of locals like Guibert. Dismissing them as hick peasants who don’t know what’s good for them, the Mondavi machine moves on to Italy, buying into two aristocratic Tuscan wine families.
A local wine merchant matter-of-factly points out how acquisition by Mondavi and subsequent consecration by Wine Spectator magazine allowed the price of one Tuscan wine to triple in a short period.
In feature form, the docu attempts to cover too much ground. Digressions on such things as deforestation, Italian winemaking under fascism or indigenous Argentinians being forced off their land by the booming wine industry perhaps merit the more detailed exploration a television series would allow. Wine-producing countries like Australia and Chile are mentioned only in passing.
But despite its unwieldiness, Nossiter’s film successfully and sometimes poignantly shows how wine production is inexorably linked with culture and civilization but is slowly losing its identity and soul, how the almost religious relationship between the winemaker and his terroir has become secondary to technology and marketing.
Comfortably conversing with the locals in French, Italian and Portuguese as well as English as circumstances require, the director displays an aptitude for disarming his subjects and coaxing them into revealing themselves, whether or not he’s on their side.
Working with a small crew that included himself and Stephanie Pommez sharing camera duties and Uruguayan filmmaker Juan Pittaluga on sound, Nossiter takes full advantage of the immediacy, intimacy, discretion and mobility offered by digital video to give the project an alert and energized investigative feel. Blowup to 35mm is more than satisfactory.