A Fahrenheit 9/11 for oenophiles.

March 9 2005 5:23 PM

A Fahrenheit 9/11 for Oenophiles

The wine world gets its own incendiary documentary.

Through the grapevine
Through the grapevine

On a visit to Burgundy last November, I found the place giddy over Mondovino, Jonathan Nossiter's documentary about the globalization of the wine business. The film, a surprise hit at the Cannes Film Festival several months earlier, had just opened in Beaune, Burgundy's main town, and the locals who had seen it were clucking with delight. Mondovino makes its U.S. debut March 23, and having finally seen the movie myself, I now understand why they were so smitten. At a time when the French wine industry is in crisis and France believes that its way of life is threatened by American economic and cultural imperialism, Mondovino affirms for the French that sinister forces have indeed been conspiring to weaken their winemaking tradition. Whether the film can make that case to the rest of us is another question.

Nossiter, an American now residing in Brazil and a former sommelier turned filmmaker, has been described as the wine world's Michael Moore, and there is much to the comparison. Just as Moore often appears in front of the camera in his documentaries, Nossiter is frequently seen and heard in Mondovino. And like Moore, he has a remarkable knack for getting people to make complete asses of themselves when the tape is rolling.

For example, while interviewing members of the Frescobaldi and Antinori families (Italian aristocrats making some of Tuscany's most modern—and some critics would say soulless—wines), Nossiter brings up Mussolini. "What you need to know is that Italy, at that time, needed a strong, energetic hand, and fascism did bring about a certain order," Albieria Antinori says. Dino Frescobaldi helpfully points out, with not a trace of irony in his voice, that under Mussolini "the trains ran on time." The Wine Spectator's European bureau chief James Suckling also puts in a brief, memorable appearance. Suckling, who resides in Italy, delivers an incoherent rant about three-star restaurants, the French government, and the French soccer team, and jokes about awarding his winemaking landlord, Salvatore Ferragamo, a higher score than his wine really deserved. I suspect the Spectator is going to have a bit of a PR problem on its hands when the movie opens here.

Nossiter is also like Moore in that his film is more polemical than persuasive. Mondovino is a screed against globalization; Nossiter rails against the pernicious influence of conglomerates and branding. He suggests that the wine world is being overrun by corporations, consultants, and all-powerful critics, and that as a result, wine is becoming homogenized—an industrial product that evinces no sense of place, or, as the French call it, terroir. There may be something to this argument, but Nossiter argues his case with all the subtlety of a bulldozer.

The American importer Neal Rosenthal declares in the film that the wine universe is now divided between "the resistance and the collaborators," and Nossiter takes a similarly stark view. Mondovino's heroes are Aime Guibert, the proprietor of the renowned Mas de Daumas Gassac in the Languedoc region of France, and the acclaimed Burgundian producer Hubert de Montille. Arrayed against them are Michel Rolland, the Bordeaux-based oenologist who is the world's most sought-after wine consultant; the Robert Mondavi family; other large-scale wine producers, such as Mouton-Rothschild; the critic Robert Parker; and the Wine Spectator. The film is loosely centered around Guibert's effort to prevent the Mondavis from establishing a winery—and, it seems, an American foothold—in the Languedoc. Though the wily old farmer wins the battle with the Mondavis, he, de Montille, and Nossiter all believe that the war is being lost.

When Guibert first appears on the screen, he is seen walking through a vineyard, glumly declaring, "Wine is dead." De Montille is also a fount of pessimism. In one of the film's loopier moments, he even tells Nossiter that the French wine industry's woes are the result of an American plot. "In the U.S., in California, they know all about marketing: 'Let's hide our lack of terroir with the taste of new oak. We'll explain that wine should taste like the vanilla of new oak. … And we'll convince the French, who really do have terroir, that that's what sells.' "

None of the film's alleged villains seem quite this villainous, although a few of them are amusing enough. Rolland comes across as a smug, oily witchdoctor, perpetually jabbering away on a cell phone in the back seat of his chauffeured Mercedes-Benz and seemingly dispensing the same advice to all his clients ("micro-oxygenate, micro-oxygenate"). Garen and Shari Staglin, who own a winery in Napa, Calif., that has won accolades from Parker and the Spectator, ooze privilege and pretension and project a sunny, bubbleheaded callousness toward their Mexican employees.

But the problem with Nossiter's cartoonish rendering of the wine world is that not everyone plays the roles they have been assigned. His treatment of Parker is particularly inept. He tries hard to cast the famed critic in a menacing light; at one point, when Nossiter is about to meet with Parker, we are shown ominous scenes of factories and smokestacks shot from the window of the train transporting him to the critic's home. When Parker is later interviewed at the wheel of his car while driving on the outskirts of Bordeaux, the camera does a quick midsentence cut to a giant billboard for Burger King. And yet Parker comes across as pleasant, funny, and infectiously passionate about his work, and Nossiter's clumsy effort to portray him as a malignant influence serves only to make him a more sympathetic character. There's good reason to be concerned about the power Parker wields and to question his preferences (starting with his taste for the grotesque 2002 Newton Unfiltered Chardonnay I drank the other night—a melted popsicle masquerading as a wine that somehow earned 96 Parker points), but Parker has also made many valuable contributions, and to pretend otherwise is dishonest and self-defeating.

In the same way that Michael Moore compromised the effectiveness of Fahrenheit 9/11 by showing prewar Baghdad as a place of smiling children and kite-filled blue skies, Nossiter seriously undermines Mondovino's credibility by depicting the wine world in such black-and-white terms. Even viewers completely unfamiliar with the wine business will likely come away feeling that the film is absurdly one-sided—and they'll be right. Is the growing American influence over the wine industry truly imperiling the French winemaking tradition? Probably not. Actually, a strong case can be made that the awakening of the American consumer market is the best thing that has ever happened to French winemakers—the good ones, anyway.

Delicious as it is to have a documentary devoted to wine, and as entertaining as Mondovino sometimes is, the film represents something of a blown opportunity. Nossiter raises some legitimate concerns about the future of wine, but mostly he raises doubts about his own judgment and commitment to the truth. He has made a film that perfectly mirrors the style of wine he deplores: obvious and manipulated.