Punch-Drunk Love

Filmmaker-sommelier Jonathan Nossiter uncorks a vintage wine-industry exposé

In a perfect world, Jonathan Nossiter's documentary Mondovino would impel as many tourists to Burgundy as those following Miles and Jack's sodden strides through Santa Barbara wine country in Sideways. But where Alexander Payne's Oscar-winner appeases, Mondovino agitates—it's a radical film from a radical filmmaker, a spear at the heart of wine and film industries alike, and a tour de force of investigative journalism. (It opens at Film Forum March 23; see J. Hoberman's review.) Over four years and eight countries, the trained sommelier Nossiter—whose previous films include the Sundance prizewinner Sunday and the anti-globalist tract Signs & Wonders—dipped his tipsy-cam into the zany demimonde of winemakers, critics, and their dogs. The result isn't just a film: Mondovino, which praises cosmopolitanism over globalism, is a way of life.

"I love wine very, very deeply," the rootless Nossiter tells me, over the phone from his new base in Rio. "Not just because it gets me sweetly drunk, though that should be enough. Wine is so deeply anchored in a Judeo-Christian tradition of love. I've spent 15, 20 years fermenting myself inside this great vat of love that wine is, and have borne witness to a drastic, terrifying shift starting in the '80s that seemed to parallel the shift I saw politically and culturally: the move towards the crypto-fascism of marketing and the oligopolistic control of production and distribution. The great lie of our time is to fabricate products with different surfaces, but where the content is unvarying. That's happening both in the wine world and the film world."

Even though he must be bloated from all the wine talk (and editing: Mondovino will appear on DVD as a 10-part series), Nossiter dives into the issues intertwined in his film: "whore wines," cinema, and politics (don't get him started on Bush or Berlusconi). The U.S. release caps a whirlwind year that has seen Mondovino shake up the French wine industry, stripping bare the influence of high-powered wine critic Robert Parker and his buddy, consultant Michel Rolland, on wine taste, ratings, and prices.

For many casual wine shoppers, dissing the Ebert of the wine world is tantamount to treason, but Nossiter was, from the beginning, irked by Parker's influence. "I didn't really know about the friendship between Rolland and Parker, but the scoring system I found odious—wine is so close to people that the principle of assigning mathematical certainties to their worth is quasi-fascist. Parker is the perfect expression of Bushism, because there's a veneer of bonhomie, human sympathy, and down-to-earthness, which is precisely what allows him to go so far in his inability to acknowledge the rest of the world. To me the film's most telling question is when I ask him, 'How does it feel to affect billions of dollars of other people's livelihoods?' And his answer is, 'I don't think about it that much, it's not my responsibility.' Then his dog farts."

Mondovino sees Nossiter engaging numerous powerful sectors of the wine industry, including the Bordelais ("I'm persona non grata in Bordeaux"), Napa's nouveaux riches, the Frescobaldis in Italy (who praise Mussolini for keeping the trains running on time), and the glossy periodical Wine Spectator, which Nossiter says is considering legal action. The fieriest ire has come from Rolland, he of the imperial command "Micro-oxygenate!" After viewing his Mephistophelian depiction, Rolland entered attack mode, writing op-ed pieces charging the "uncultured" Nossiter for having been nurtured on "Coca-Cola, hamburgers, and The Muppet Show." (The son of foreign correspondent Bernard Nossiter, he was mostly reared abroad.)

"Rolland's response has been apoplectic and apocalyptic," Nossiter says, "but he's used to naked flattery, like the way the White House press corps treats Bush. I felt no personal animosity towards him. All the time I was shooting and editing I thought he was a delightful character. I find it deeply dangerous what he does and the culture that he expresses, but as a human being I found him sympathetic—until I saw his reaction."

Against these conscienceless globalists, Nossiter presents standard-bearers of the international resistance to homogenization: the "terroirists"; the heartiest philosopher of terroir, the environmental influences that give a specific personality to a wine, is cantankerous Burgundian vintner Hubert de Montille. "De Montille's argument is that individuality is a given," he explains, comparing the "terroirist" with the auteur. "Trust that if you have something deep inside of you, you'll bring it. Think instead about what you can bring out from something else—in his case, a piece of land; the grape is his actor. If you spent all your time worrying about personal style, you'd never get any terroirterroir is about the notion of transmission and communication about something larger than the self. I find that very beautiful and convincing as a modus operandus for artists as well as winemakers."

Along with fellow "terroirists" Laurent Cantet and Ira Sachs, among others, Nossiter has founded Dependent Cinema, a loose organization of directors expressing dissatisfaction with the current state of filmmaking. In Mondovino, Nossiter puts his theory to the test by creating "a mise-en-scène that's searching to establish a relation between the physical context of any given scene and the subject's immediate experience." His handheld camerawork might infuriate, but this is a case where formal values are clear adaptations of ideological concerns.

"Whatever the film's faults—which there are obviously many—to me they are transformed by the vitality of the camera's curious eye and its life within the frame. The camera movement in Mondovino becomes aesthetic because of human needs; the camera moves in relation to what I felt was being exchanged. Sensitive audiences generally can feel when a camera is moving for the glory of the director's ego. The movement in Mondovino is part of the vitality of the life. I see the film as ebullient, jubilatory—to me it's a film of love."

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