Message in a Bottle


Wine is more than once extolled as the essence of civilization in Jonathan Nossiter’s DV documentary Mondovino. The major point of this vineyard marathon is that civilization is inexorably succumbing to the homogenizing forces of globalization. Mondovino is mainly bathed in Mediterranean light, but the movie justifies its travelogue title with jaunts to California and northeast Brazil. Nossiter hangs out in Sardinia and accompanies the “flying winemaker,” superstar consultant Michel Rolland, on a number of lightning house calls, during which he invariably advises his clients to “micro-oxygenate” their product (a process that no one quite appears to understand). There’s also an excursion to a humble vineyard in the Argentinean outback and a long interview with the Staglin family on their Napa spread, complete with wooden dining table modeled on the one in
Godfather II.

Also in Napa, Nossiter is told by a Mondavi family retainer that patriarch Robert is not simply a businessman but also a “philosopher.” For his part, the cosmopolitan Nossiter—who won an award at Sundance for his 1997 drama
Sunday—is a sommelier as well as a filmmaker. There’s passion to his championing artisanal, localized wines—especially those produced by colorful rustic eccentrics prone to gloomy assess
ments like “Wine is dead . . . and cheese .
. . and fruit.” Nossiter subscribes to the anti- globalist notion that terroir
—literally soil, but more generally the site-specific geological qualities of a particular vineyard—is more important than the label on the bottle. (The denunciation of merlot delivered by the antihero of
Sideways might be seen as a related attack on merchandising, were he otherwise not so solipsistically devoted to California wines.)

Mondovino has its own particular terroir. The mode is jagged, informal, and highly personal. Nossiter frequently puts himself on-screen, and in an unarticulated running joke, never resists a close-up of some indulged canine slobbering over the cheese. (By their pets, you shall know them. Wine critic Robert Parker is rendered all the more memorable by his flatulent bulldog.) The handheld camera, slightly saturated colors, and constant wine chat provide a mildly inebriated feel that, given the movie’s rambling structure and leisurely length, slides easily into disorientation.

As an essay,
Mondovino has an arbitrary, patchwork feel. The U.S. release version is at least a half-hour shorter than the cut that was shown to mixed response last May in Cannes—and Nossiter is preparing a 10-hour TV miniseries. What’s constant in Nossiter’s argument is the cross-cutting between the globalizers (Mondavi, Rolland, Parker) and the “terroirists” (the de Montilles of Burgundy, the Columbus of Sardinia, New York importer Neal Rosenthal). As presented by Nossiter, the Mondavis and their allies come across as megalomaniacal. But aren’t they also democratizing the wine “experience”? Rolland, who laughingly blames diversity for the number of bad wines, believes that great wine can be made anywhere—and by the time the movie ends one of the younger Mondavis is dreaming of making wine on Mars.

Not everything is black and white. (Son of a Mosel wine grower, the young Karl Marx wrote one of his first articles exposing the exploitation of vineyard workers, although that never complicated his own taste for the grape.) Good terroir does not necessarily make for impeccable morality. Some French old-timers dissipate viewer sympathy with offhandedly disinterested references to their Jewish neighbors who disappeared during World War II. Likewise, the Tuscan aristos complain that they sold their birthright to the multinationals and then wax nostalgic for Mussolini, while certain French foes of Mondavi-dom are only too happy to have homeboy Gérard Depardieu fronting some other globalization thing. (And even the Mondavis, it turns out, can be purged from the company that they founded.)

Understandably unhappy that his unguarded pronouncements and gleeful demeanor make him seem like a hustler, Rolland has attacked Nossiter as a crass trickster rigging his argument with Spielbergistic special effects. But Nossiter’s temperament as a filmmaker (if not his craft) is closer to Renoir—it’s all about the light, the long takes, and the ensemble cast, as well as the willingness to allow that everyone has their reasons. Nossiter has an eye for stray details and a knack for relaxing his subjects— although the scene with the naked guy trampling his own grapes may make you sorry that you ever gave up drinking Ripple.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on March 15, 2005

Archive Highlights