Like a melodrama or a political tract–genres it sometimes resembles, in an honorable way–Jonathan Nossiter’s documentary Mondovino has a villain you can hiss at. In fact, there are three.
Chief among them is wine tycoon Robert Mondavi, whom Nossiter visits at his sprawling headquarters in California’s Napa Valley. Stone-faced and taciturn–he usually lets others do the talking for him–Mondavi is posed at a slight remove from Nossiter’s camera, in partial shadow, like a Coppola mob boss.
Cast in the role of Mondavi’s international hit man is dark-bearded, laughing Michel Rolland, a “flying winemaker” with clients in a dozen countries. Nossiter most often shows Rolland in the back seat of his chauffeur-driven Mercedes, talking on the phone and chortling over his own power as he prowls through the chateaus of Bordeaux. At each stop, he gives the same order: “Micro-oxygenate!”
Most ingenuous of the villains, though fully as dangerous, is the wine-rating journalist Robert Parker. Modest in demeanor compared with his friends Mondavi and Rolland, yet equally sure of himself, Parker enjoys making earnest speeches about the American frankness and self-reliance–no, the American democracy!–that he believes he has brought to the world of wine. Recorded at his home in Monkton, Maryland, he delivers the first of these orations beneath an autographed portrait of President Ronald Reagan.
If wine is the result of an age-old “religious relationship among human beings, the living earth and the climate”–so says Aimé Guibert, proprietor of a small chateau in Languedoc–then Mondavi, Rolland and Parker must be the satanic trinity. Through an alliance of entrepreneurial muscle, technocratic prestige and journalistic influence, they have built up an ever-growing international demand for a single flavor of “great wine” that can be produced regularly, in ample quantity, without regard for the idiosyncrasies of this or that plot of soil. First the Bordeaux were homogenized. (“Now Bordeaux worships only money,” Guibert complains.) Then came the Tuscans. (“These are all the same wine,” admits the owner of the Vinci wine shop in Volterra, waving at the multitudinous labels.) Now Rolland is advising winemakers in Argentina, Parker is scoring the results in the 90s and the Mondavi company is expanding into yet another territory.
It is a joke, but just barely, when one of the world-conquering Mondavis predicts that he will make wine on Mars. It is glib, but only a little, to call Mondovino the Sideways of antiglobalization films.
I must add immediately that Mondovino is itself a global product. Nossiter had financing enough to bring his video camera to four regions of France, to Tuscany, Sardinia, London, New York, Maryland, California, the northeast of Argentina and Pernambuca, Brazil. His intellectual capital was even more impressive; it taught him the connections among all these places and enabled him to converse fluently with the residents of each. Having invested these considerable resources in Mondovino, Nossiter is now marketing it internationally to an art-house audience made up of people much like himself. In terms of income, education and freedom of movement, they will surely have more in common with him than with his final interview subject, an impoverished Indian named Antonio Cabezas, who makes wine on a one-hectare property in Argentina. And given the consumerist tendencies of the art-house class, you can bet that some members of this audience will reduce the politics of Mondovino to a matter of good taste. From now on, they will turn up their noses at those bland Pomerols, preferring to seek out the rare and authentic wines of Antonio Cabezas.