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.