Mondovino: shaky, not stirring

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.

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7 Responses to “Mondovino: shaky, not stirring”

  1. […] Michel Rolland, the globetrotting consulting enologist, is perhaps best known for playing the role of Mephistopheles himself in the documentary Mondovino. He was shown cackling in the back seat of his limousine smoking cigarillos and urging various winery owners in Bordeaux to “mico-oxygenate.” The film portrayed him as on par with Robert Parker, the Emperor of Standardization and Globalization (read my review of Mondovino here). […]

  2. I generally agree with your review. Nossiter clearly had an agenda (which is fine) but some participants got slashed pretty badly (undeservedly) while others got puffed up. An example of the latter, Hubert de Montille was portrayed as a crotchety old farmer in his denim overalls dedicating his life to preserving the old way of making Burgundy. In fact, de Montille is a prominent Parisian lawyer whose winery is a hobby. James Suckling probably deserved the Borat treatment he received bur Michel Rolland recommends “micro-oxygenation” to a relative handful of his many clients. Neal Rosenthal, one of the traditionalist heros, comes off as slightly crazed, like someone who forgot to take their lithium. Poor Robert Mondavi didn’t have a clue what was going on because he is deaf while Michael exhibited the hubris (making wine on Mars) which probably helped lead to the sale of the company. For those who only saw the film in the theater, the DVD has at least an hour of additional material, some of which is good stuff. Parker is asked how he likes de Montille’s wine and he says, “I can’t drink that shit”.

  3. […] “Mondovino: shaky not stirring” [Dr. […]

  4. I just happened upon this and couldn’t resist. I think you’re taking “Mondovino” far too seriously. How do I know? Because you never mentioned the dogs!

    The movie is less documentary than it is entertainment. I’ve seen it several times now and I’m convinced that Rolland knew he was being set up to play the villain, and decided to give Nossiter what he wanted. The various references to Nazi collaboration are more melodrama than anything else. Even the heartwarming tale of the de Montille family seems a bit contrived after a while.

    I do think Parker and especially James Suckling got exactly what they deserved; every time Parker says “As an American…” I want to slap him upside the head. And Suckling in particular seems to have no clue as to how corrupt he actually is.

  5. […] Even though its themes were widely discussed in the wine world, audiences did not flock to see Nossiter’s 2004 documentary, Mondovino, which racked up only $200,000 in box office gross according to IMDB. (Sideways was north of $100 million, by contrast.) I found Mondovino to be shaky, not stirring. […]

  6. I’m trying to view this in the 5.3.354 version of the google chrome browser and the background looks kinda messed up. I think you should it out.

  7. Just figured out that this is much better if you watch the ten-part dvd–ideas are far more clear, but obviously, no way could he have a theatrical release of that proportion.
    And yes, there’s an amazing sense of humor at work in the longer work.


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