Director Jonathan Nossiter gives the wine world a spin in Mondovino, a difficult documentary on a subject that many people would dismiss as so utterly removed from their lives as to be irrelevant. Especially for American viewers, it's also disorienting, rapidly throwing up titles identifying speakers even as their words are flowing onto the screen in subtitled French, Italian, or Spanish. Some of the film's points are repeated ad infinitum, while others flit by without satisfactory discussion. But I'd venture to say that even wine experts will learn something they didn't know by viewing Mondovino. Certainly, Nossiter challenges the viewer to see the wine industry, and wine itself, in a new light.
Essentially, Mondovino represents a clash of ideologies in the wine world, between the so-called terroir-ists (those who believe soil, or terroir, is the essence of individualistic wines) and the corporate giants, whose bulks of oaken barrels hold the wines that critics and the public must have in record-setting numbers. It's never in doubt where Rossiter falls in this argument: he's with the little guy steeped in tradition and regionality and against money-grubbing globalization.
The villains don't make it any easier on themselves with their egotistical (and, often, comically inarticulate) ramblings. Powerful wine consultant Michel Rolland—whose work apparently and absurdly consists of touring wine companies and pushing trends (micro-oxygenation all around!)—wears an unquenchable grin and regularly rolls with laughter. The wine world remains dominated by family dynasties, and Nossiter depicts individuals of each family who appear either defensive and Machiavellian or blithely and willfully ignorant of their corruptive upper-class decadence.
Some may be surprised to learn how thoroughly the wine industry has soaked into the political machinery of each country (particularly Italy, where the "Social Forum" movement is answered by skepticism and ever-hovering helicopters). Nossiter gives special attention to "the Mondavi Affair," a much-contested campaign by the Robert Mondavi empire to encroach on the small-village winery. Nationalism, globalization, and the role of government in commerce all get airings in vineyards as Nossiter's on-the-fly camera grabs interviews with the movers and shakers of the wine industry.
Nossiter's low-key approach invites constant and occasionally revealing interruptions, as well as some surprising confessions. Wine entrepeneur Bernard Magrez speaks of his horrid father and admits he was not much easier on his own son ("Everyone needs their share of beatings. You don't have to love anyone"). Even such apparently irrelevant details eventually seem part and parcel of the overwhelming scope of the business. For the giants of the wine industry, it's a matter of course to brush aside the little people, including the workers; one wine family matron hastens to point out that she ensures the worker's get a jacket or shirt or cap every year (perhaps the subject of the workers will get more coverage in the ten-hour home-video version).
As for the culture war, Nossiter turns his skeptic's eye to the crushing influence of critics (namely, wine-guide-maven Robert Parker and Wine Spectator Magazine). The circumstantial evidence on display is enough to suggest that the critics spend a fair amount of time in bed with the wineries. Nossiter clearly regards two aging, voluble, witty winemakers as the film's heroes: Aimé Guibert and Hubert de Montille. Guibert initially declares "Wine is dead," then qualifies his statement over the course of the picture; De Montille gives the film his heart as he tangles with the son who supplanted him and praises the daughter who works, at least for now, at a rival winery.
Mondovino is an engrossing tour around France, America, Italy, Brazil, and Argentina, with family and corporate drama that the director has likened to the soapy complications of Dallas. In fact, it's much more interesting. Here among the grapes is the flow of history, draining aging old-world tradition to its dregs as speed-oriented mass production tops it off.