Midnight in the vineyard of good and evil
The documentary 'Mondovino' portrays a stark divide in the world of winemaking
It's curious that for all its vaunted mystique, wine has so far proven a feeble source of inspiration for literary and cinematic imaginations. What distinguishes ''Mondovino," Jonathan Nossiter's documentary film, which opened here last week, from anything that has gone before (including the mischievous ''Sideways") is its wholehearted devotion to the subject. For once, wine and the people who earn their living from it are truly front and center, not just scenery. It's doubly disappointing then that so little -- apart from the scenery -- is particularly appealing here. In the contemporary world of wine, at least as seen through the lens of Nossiter's shaky handheld camera, pinot isn't the only thing that's noir.
The subject of the film is a cold war that has taken shape over the last couple of decades between artisanal winemakers, who cling to a traditional approach that stresses authenticity, diversity, and the primacy of place, and the energetic devotees of commercial wines, made in a uniform, international style that is technology-oriented and consumer-driven. Commercial wines are represented by a cadre of corporate types who think wine can be made anywhere the technology can be deployed (including, incredibly, the moon); artisanal wines by a motley troop of obscure but endearing small-holders whose love for the land and respect for the vines are sweetly palpable.
It's clear that Nossiter's sympathies lie with the artisanal winemakers, whom he portrays as a kind of endangered species driven to the verge of extinction by global capitalism and professional arbiters of taste. We meet Battista and Lina Columbu, an elderly couple patiently engaged in the reclamation of an ancient varietal on a rugged hillside in Sardinia. ''It's an ethical commitment," says Battista Columbu, his face as weathered and rugged as the landscape.
In their rustic dignity, the Columbus are offered as a reproach to the likes of Napa aristocrat Robert Mondavi -- whose PR staff insists he cannot be photographed from the side where a small Band-Aid may be visible. His son Michael is with him. Others singled out for a thorough skewering include winemaker-to-the-world Michel Rolland, the powerful Maryland-based critic Robert M. Parker Jr., and Wine Spectator staff writer James Suckling. Each -- with the exception of Parker, who appears merely naive -- acts and speaks like a caricature, making the filmmaker's task easier than it might have been. Why, one wonders, don't they have the good sense to just shut up?
The aggressive partisanship of ''Mondovino" has led to some inflammatory exchanges. For a few weeks, Robert Parker's website has posted a lively and at times acrimonious bulletin board discussion (erobertparker.com). One offended writer wrote that the film is nothing more than a vehicle ''to further [the director's] political/social agenda at the expense of truth and reality." Nossiter, in turn, fired off a lengthy rebuttal last week, calling his critics ''cynical industry apologists."
Among the specialty wine importers who stand firmly with the filmmaker is Neal Rosenthal of Rosenthal Wine Merchants Ltd., based in New York. For Rosenthal, who appears in the film, the controversy has a moral clarity that recalls the Good War. Those aligned with the corporate, globalizing faction and their heavily marketed, easy-drinking wines are ''collaborators," he says, while those who maintain the artisanal tradition comprise ''the Resistance." But how accurate is the characterization? Is wine really in crisis?
Some think not. Dewey Markham, an American living in Bordeaux who has written on the history of the Bordeaux classification, is critical of one of the film's most basic assumptions: that wine has very recently made a dramatic break with its past and taken a disastrous turn for the worse. ''Wine is always being made differently than it once was," Markham wrote in an e-mail. ''And the result is always a different style than it used to have. Where is it written that a given style of wine represents an immutable ideal?"
But Nossiter isn't addressing whether the standards have changed -- but how and why. In ''Mondovino," responsibility for this is laid squarely -- and not necessarily fairly -- at the door of Parker, whose 100 point scoring system, published in the quarterly The Wine Advocate, has become hegemonic. Parker has been called the most influential critic -- on any subject -- in the world. The former attorney's preference for deeply colored, densely fruity, powerhouse wines is well documented. Those wines that don't fit the profile aren't likely to be rewarded with a score that exceeds the critical 90 point threshold.
That big Parker scores translate into more sales and higher prices is confirmed by the lengths properties all over the world go to to tickle the critic's palate (the French call this ''Parkerisation").
Usually this means bringing in an oenologist who knows how to pack in the fruit and lay on plenty of new oak. In the film, this role is ably filled by the hectically animated Rolland, who -- between cigarettes and cellphone calls -- assures each anxious client that a round of micro-oxygenation is all that's needed to lift an underperforming wine. Artful editing gives the viewer the impression that Rolland supplies the same advice to every winemaker and the same wines are bottled by all his clients.
In fact, Rolland, who has consulted around the world, helps Nossiter make his case that today diversity is in retreat, uniformity is on the march, and properties that don't get with the program cannot expect success.
From his vantage of more than 30 years in the business, Fred Ek of the Cambridge-based importing company Ex Cellars has seen dramatic changes, but they're more evolutionary than revolutionary, he maintains. Ek agrees that the small producer is under siege, both from ''jazzed-up" wines that depend on residual sugar and ''blending tricks," which make them appealing to entry-level wine drinkers, and from a trend toward consolidation that makes it harder and harder for smaller entities to compete. ''That's not to say that traditional winemaking doesn't have a future," he says, ''it's just that it is under a lot of pressure right now."
Some of the pathos present in the film is generated as the controversy, real or imagined, sinks its teeth deep into the vineyards of families for whom wine is a way of life. None are more painful than the scenes shot among the de Montille family, who make wine in the Burgundian commune of Volnay. When we meet the elderly Hubert de Montille, on a hillside where vines have flourished for 1,000 years, he is bemoaning a new style of wine ''that expands horizontally in the mouth" instead of ''cutting vertically" through it. It isn't explicit, but the implication is that Hubert's go-getter son Etienne, who has assumed responsibility for the de Montille properties, is now making the kind of wine his father dislikes. The sniping between father and son is emblematic -- not just of these two different visions of how wine should be made, but of the mutual contempt the argument seems to engender on both sides.
Nossiter, who has made several previous films and prepared the wine lists at some notable New York restaurants, knows wine and has a lofty view of its historic role. He has said that he sees wine both as an expression of Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman traditions and as a guardian of Western civilization. To whom are we going to entrust this awesome patrimony, the film asks. Among the candidates are the ambitious heirs of the de Montille vineyards, the Mondavi family with its blathering PR teams and bean counters, and the woman who has been making wine all her life and who, from her tidy living room in the rural French southwest, explains shyly to the camera that ''after my husband died I decided to give all my love to the vines."