This year’s Oscar nominations recognized the considerable merits of the film Sideways, an intelligent romantic comedy portraying a passionate interest in wine which is set among the vineyards and wineries of Californian wine country. It will appeal to wine lovers and stimulate a lot of discussion.
I wonder how much discussion will be generated by Mondovino, a film presented at the last Cannes film festival. It is a documentary about the ‘globalization of wine’ made by Jonathan Nossiter, an American resident in Paris. Perhaps it won’t have the same box office success, but it certainly won’t pass unnoticed in the wine world.
The director examines taste, wine as a culture of the land and the mechanisms controlling the production of the top world labels. He makes forays to the US, Europe and South America, meeting the Mondavis, Frescobaldi and Antinoris, the critic Robert Parker, the wine consultant Michel Rolland, and also small producers such as Hubert de Montille in Burgundy, the Colombus in Sardinia, the Bianchettis in Brazil.
The theme is the familiar tension between the diversity manifest in different terroirs and the standardization of taste. The wine made by small producers, firmly attached to the traditions of their locality and the historical character of their wine, are opposed to the brand, the wine with international taste of which Mondavi, Parker and Rolland are among the main champions. Nossiter attempts to analyze the historic and economic factors — including simple expediency or sincere conviction — which have resulted in many wines from the most varied localities resembling each other to an incredible extent, with work in the winery having greater impact than work in the vineyard.
It all seems to be filmed in an objective, unbiased way. The interviews are direct without any added comments, but we know that a director has a thousand ways of making his point. We see the contrast between the rich Argentine producer Etcharts and the nearby Indian small farmer with less than one hectare of vineyard. The differences between the purity and love for the land revealed in the words of the Sardinian Columbu and the limited, narrow perspective shown by the Mondavis. They are seen describing their acquisitions in Italy (Ornellaia bought by Antinori and resold to Frescobaldi, their only Italian partner) or in Argentina; they speak of their worldwide activities with Rolland (who acts as a global consultant) and the controversies preventing them from moving into Aniane in the Herault after heated debates and accusations of imperialism by local people.
These are the some of the issues mentioned in the film, which suggests that the Mondavis (supported by Rolland in technical matters and Parker as a critic) are leading the charge to conquer the world so they can impose a single taste.
It isn’t particularly one-sided (even if Nossiter perhaps dwells too much on the fascist or Peronist past of some of those involved and their ancestors — this is not very relevant if you are wanting to talk about wine) it is just what has been happening over the last twenty-five years. Saying it is imperialism is perhaps rather extreme, but we should remember that wine has always been one of the foremost expressions of human civilization.
Wine has always been part of history and reflects it in a wonderful way. It is therefore a natural sign of the times if many of the top labels are sold by those best able to influence us using their wealth, networks and the opportunities provided by globalization — a process that exists and cannot be denied.
What should we do, buy and drink? It is not only a question of the pleasure connected to uncorking and drinking a bottle of good wine, but involves the value and respect for the land, the environment, the work and the small producers.
Apart from the big wine dynasties (the Mondavis, incidentally, have had to sell the family company listed on the stock exchange to an even larger group: the globalizers have been globalized, victims of their own game), this documentary features the Mexicans in Napa Valley, the family disputes in medium-sized Burgundy producers, the Indian who proudly gives a bottle to the director, the Sardinian (who unlike the Mondavis is still there, he hasn’t sold out to any group) who says that he does not need to chase money at any cost, that it is a question of respecting the land and there should be room for everyone.
A good point — room for everyone. But there should also be justice. It is a question, as a French journalist wrote about the film, of seeing whether “the wine justifies the means”. Once again it is not just a simple question of taste.
First printed in La Stampa on January 30 2005