Documentaries analyze social reality. If you want hard core social (or political or economic) analysis—you know, with data and theory—turn to academia. Even though they have nowhere near the amount of viewers as feature films, documentaries do however attract a larger audience than academia while being a similar sort of endeavor. So it was with great relish that I went to see Mondovino, the controversial new documentary about globalization in the wine world that opened in March in New York and rolls out in small movie houses across the country over the next few weeks.
If the film were a paper from one of my political science students, I would have returned it with lots of red ink in the margins. “AWK” (awkward!), “elaborate further,” “need stronger intro,” “redundant” might be things that I would scrawl. I will save my grade for the end of this review.
Though the documentary has some wonderfully candid moments of wine world luminaries, it remains scattershot in its argument and jiggly in its camerawork thanks to the camera’s midriff location on the cameraman. Though this film has been compared to Michael Moore’s documentaries for the similar styles of pamphleteering, Moore remains light years ahead of director Jonathan Nossiter in terms of coherence, presentation of argument, use of music and overall rhythm—not to mention humor.
If Nossiter could have clearly articulated his argument it would have run something like this: greater globalization in the wine trade, including corporations, critics and traveling consultants, has lead to a homogenization of wines that robs them of a sense of place. In short, brand equals bland. A voiceover narrative would have helped articulate this more clearly but instead Nossiter relies on suggestion, the fast edit, or worse, vague innuendo, to merely suggest his thesis.
It is the great fear of all wine geeks that we will be banished forever to a future of bland wines. But there is also the possibility that corporations with deep pockets will use profits from low-end wines to subsidize the production of profound high-end wines. Or that committed enthusiasts will start small, craft wineries. Certainly Champagne houses have shown that brands are not necessarily bland and can work very well at the high-end. Premium wines are the fastest growing category in the drinks business after all and competition is fierce.
The evidence that Nossiter provides to support his claim fits about as well as 12 bulky bottles of Turley fit in a regular wine case. To start, the Mondavi Corporation serves as the main lens for his tale of the perils of globalization. This is problematic because Robert Mondavi has done much more good than harm for the California wine industry-and the creation of a wine and food culture in America, soon to be the largest market for wine consumption in the world. Further, the corporation’s financial and management problems brought it to its own demise as an indepdenent entity when Constellation bought the company last fall.
Similarly, Robert Parker and Michel Rolland have contributed to globalization in their roles as all-powerful wine critic and “flying winemaker” respectively. But the wines that they advocate are “hedonistic fruit bombs” – anything but bland! Sure, some could quip that Parker’s palate is tired or Rolland’s apparent obsession with the one-size-fits-all solution of “micro-oxygenization” is too much, but net-net these global players have done a lot to raise the quality of wine around the world, not to lower it.
Certainly if one were crudely carving up the wine world into good and evil, American wine wholesalers would be an easy target even though they do not figure in the film. Consolidation of this middle tier of distribution means that the players become more focused on the products of big companies (to wit, Diageo, the largest drinks firm in the world now insists that its wholesalers have exclusive sales teams dedicated to their products). Do wine consumers in, say, Florida have access to the wines of Nossiter’s folk heroes, from Sicily or Guibert from Languedoc? Possibly not. In this light, Parker and his ratings are entirely optional; whether a wine is available at the local store is not.
In the end, all papers must get a grade and I give this movie a C-. (For those of you who finished your formal education long ago, grade inflation has made C- the new F.) Nossiter appears to have many raw talents such as his ability to conduct interviews in idiomatic English, French, Spanish, Italian and Portuguese. The topic is fascinating and important and very amenable to the camera lens. And even the argument may be salvageable with more thorough evidence and less repetition. I’ll consider this a rough draft.