Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Jun 27, 2005 4:22 pm 
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Dry, but fruity, and long on the palate

Mondovino is an extraordinary documentary. It's self-indulgent, quirky, opinionated and overlong, but it's likely to be indespensible, because it's a devastating anatomy of the growing conflict between authentic local production (the French key word is "terroir") and the globalization of wine by which family origins are forgotten and the emphasis is on quick satisfaction, forward flavor, and standardized tastes.

The maker of this film is Jonathan Nossiter, polyglot, sommelier, happy tippler, photographer, director, and star interviewer in his documentary film – which began as a quickie, but wound up taking four years to make. Nossiter appears as fluent in Italian as he is in French, and perhaps in Spanish and Portuguese too. He's often on screen, addressing everyone in their native language, but it's his camera that's obsessed with sometimes annoying details, above all dogs.

Never mind, though; he manages to get everybody to open up to him, including many of the leading "players" of the international wine market, including those who come off the worst in Nossiter's documentary. And even those dogs turn out to have meaning. Isn't one's dog the clearest metaphor for a person's true nature?

It's obvious Nossiter likes Battista Columbu in Sardinia and Hubert de Montille in Volnay best – and it's obvious why. They're different sorts of men: Columbu is radiant and serene, de Montille querulous and acerbic. But they stand equally for what may be a vanishing world -- one where wine-making is authentic, personal, local, humane, where it's identified with place of origin not brand, done for pride of craft not profit, or – what the Michel Rollands and Mondavis want – for worldwide, nay, universe-wide market domination. Both dream openly on camera of making wine on other planets and of selling it to everyone.

De Montille comes across as mattering more than the Mondavis or any of the other aristos and plutocrats. He has only a few hectares. He makes wine that's severe, edgy, not for everyone – like himself -- and long-lasting. He's true to himself. A big focus of Mondovino is how the California Mondavis – who've already collaborated with overblown first growth bordeaux Mouton Rothchild to produce a pricey California hybrid, Opus One, since the Eighties -- recently tried to get hold of a big slice of burgundy. But a communist mayor took over the town from a socialist one and the sweetheart deal was off.

The Wine Spectator becomes, as Nossiter shows, one of the manipulators, and manipulation is an essential aspect of globalization. So too is Robert Parker, of Monkton, Maryland (who gets interviewed and his flatulent bulldogs thoroughly photographed). Parker has always been independent, but his wine ratings (and his taste) have come to wield too much power over the world wine market. French wine-makers are terrified of him, and that situation has undermined their independence. Parker, it turns out, has long been very friendly with Michel Rolland, a super-star French wine consultant (whose Mercedes limo we get to ride around in), and it turns out that the kind of heady, forward, fast-developing wine Parker likes is also what Rolland encourages wine-makers to produce – and globalization means not only eliminating small producers but homogenizing wine styles. Hence Rolland's ebullient charm is suspect, but so are Parker's so-called authenticity and independence.

The richness of Nossiter's picture comes out in the way he delineates wine families and their different, sometimes squabbling, members – most of all the de Montilles, the stubborn, feisty and wise old Hubert; his energetic son Etienne, who works for the powerful negociant, Boisset; and his daughter, Alix, in personality closer to Hubert, who decided to leave Boisset because they want her to lie -- to put her seal on wines she hasn't supervised the making of.

Nossiter's eye and ear can be devastating. The rich Staglin family in Napa Valley emerges as self-congratulatory and self-deceiving nouveaux bores. Their and other ruling wine families' condescension, outright racism, and covert or past links with the fascists and even the Nazis is another of the persistent filmmaker's gradual revelations. As one Nossiter interviewer has said, "don't get him on the subject of Berlusconi and Bush"; but Berlusconi is just fine with the wealthy Italian wine-making families.

Another sympathetic dissenter to the globalizing bandwagon is New York wine importer Neal Rosenthal, who knows the importance of terroir and the inroads against it. Rosenthal was present as a speaker after two of Film Forum's afternoon showings of Mondovino -- a local hero, of sorts, for the documentary's US premiere.

It's hard to do justice to the film or even list its full roster of figures. Michael Broadbent, longtime Wine Director at Christie's, a dry, aristocratic Englishman, once a leading authority and wine tastemaker, now eclipsed, as all are, by Parker, appears on screen to fill in the central role the English played in the growth of France's finest wines. Bernard Magrez, head of a huge Bordeaux dealership; the Antinoris of Florence (aristocrats with fascist lineage). . .the list goes on and on. One doesn't want to stop, and one sees why Nossiter's film is too long. Because it's all there in the details: this is what the controversy is about. Little things matter. Mondovino is annoying (the jumpy camera, the dog farts), but also riveting and important – a film not to be missed. And for the truly interested, there is a ten-part TV series from this material reportedly on the way. 1 April 2005

Mondovino, 135 mins., debuted Cannes May 2004, when it was nominated for the Palme d'Or. Other major festivals. Opened theatrically in NYC 23 March 2005.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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