Italian Wine News


"Mondovino" – Free spirit in the cellar
Liam Lacey, The Globe and Mail Writer – May 20, 2004

CANNES -- In vino veritas meets cinéma vérité in the documentary Mondovino by American director Jonathan Nossiter. The two-hour-and-40-minute survey of the worldwide battle for "the soul of wine," as the director puts it, was a late entry into the Cannes competition this year.

  "Mondovino" direrctor, Jonathan Nossite

"Mondovino" direrctor,
Jonathan Nossite

  American directors t Cannes 2004

Saturday, May 15, 2004 – American directors in Cannes panel are: Michael Moore ("Fahrenheit 9/11"), Xan Cassavetes ("Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession"), Jonathan Nossiter ("Mondovino"), Nicole Kassell ("The Woodsman"), Jonathan Caouette ("Tarnation"), and Jacob Estes ("Mean Creak"), with moderator Roger Ebert.

  Photo by Brian Brooks.

The 42-year-old Nossiter has an unusual double career: He's a wine writer and award-winning sommelier who works with several New York restaurants. He is also the creator of such films as Resident Alien (a profile of Quentin Crisp), and the smart and intriguing fictional films Sunday and Signs & Wonders.

To promote the film, his French production company offered wine tasting on the beach, featuring several wines mentioned in the film. Nossiter moved about, earnestly asking people not only how they liked his wines but what reservations they might have about his film, especially its sprawling length.

The next afternoon, sitting on a plastic lawn chair in front of the Grand Hotel, sipping water from a wine glass, he explains how wine and cinema came together for him.

"I love wine," Nossiter says. "I can't stand the snobbery of wine, but I love the beauty of how a good wine allows people to talk with a kind of charge. When you get drunk on good wine, up to a certain point, it increases lucidity. It's an essential part of living for me, but I think my real subject is homogenization. This could have as easily been a film about cinema around the world."

Nossiter, who calls himself a mongrel American, was raised mostly in Europe (his father was a foreign correspondent for The Washington Post and The New York Times). He speaks half a dozen languages, which he uses in the film to interview various vintners. After studying classical Greek in university, he worked in Parisian hotels and earned his sommelier certificate there. He also went to art school in Paris, until he decided, after seeing Federico Fellini's , that film was more to his taste than painting.

He works in both wine and cinema, and refuses to rate which is his greatest love: "There are wine lists I've made that I'm at least as proud of as anything I've done in film," he says.

Initially, he planned a half-hour film that might take "two or three months at most to complete," as a kind of stopgap between feature films. He ended up spending 3½ years on the project, creating both the feature film and a 10-part television series.

The story, he says, flowed easily from the film's subjects.

"Winemakers have these incredibly ramped-up, intense personalities. I think that comes from fighting against and working with nature, and creating something complex yet unbelievably ephemeral."

There's Aimé Guibert, a Languedoc vintner, who talks about wine as an antidote to modern barbarism. He helped lead a local fight against California giant Robert Mondavi Winery's plan to turn a French forest into a vineyard.

We meet Hubert de Montille, an obstinate Burgundy vintner who squabbles with his humourless corporate son Etienne, while sharing values with his rigidly purist daughter Alix. She rejects modern "whore wines" that come on as vibrant and strong but have no staying power.

"The winemakers' relationship to nature, commerce and culture is singular," Nossiter says. "Whether this is a good film or bad, I think this film takes the pulse of our times, though it's the pulse of wine instead of blood."

As Nossiter's film visits vineyards from France to Italy, California and Chile, it gradually reveals a picture: In the past 20 years, winemaking has changed more than it did in the previous 200. And the changes are cataclysmic, moving toward the homogenization of taste, dominance of marketing over art and destruction of an artisan tradition.

The year that changed the wine world was 1982. Bordeaux had a vintage that mirrored California's in its ripeness, sweetness and easy drinkability. Michel Rolland, the world's most successful wine consultant (serving winemakers in 12 countries), capitalized on it, persuading people to make sweeter, riper wines, which again greatly boosted the California-type product.

This revolution coincided with the arrival of critic Robert Parker, a Maryland lawyer who had little background in wine beyond a small newsletter but, Nossiter says, "viewed himself as a democratic popularizer, who was the perfect spokesman for a generation of Americans who knew nothing about wine, but were becoming aware that it was part of the finer life.

"Parker began screaming that this was the greatest Bordeaux ever because it coincided with his palette, which you could argue was not very sophisticated at that point. In essence, Bordeaux, which had been like the films of John Cassavetes or Martin Scorsese in the seventies, suddenly turned into Star Wars. Or Luc Besson imitating Star Wars."

"Star Wars" means a California influence on red wine that has become dominant around the world, produced in new oak barrels, with a Merlot flavor aimed at mass taste, without the acidic edge of wines that are more gradually aged.

The American wine market boomed, with estates such as Mondavi, Harlin and Staglin at the crest of a multibillion-dollar business. Parker, whose judgments are important enough to cause share prices to rise and fall, offers it critical validation.

All these figures appear in the film, and though Nossiter's interviewing approach is gentle and knowledgeable, there's not much doubt on which side he stands: with the stubborn French, Italian and Chilean individualists, as opposed to the nouveau-riche, brand-obsessed Californians.

So far the French have loved the film, though some Americans have "said my passport should be taken away from me," Nossiter says. "I don't think my film is remotely anti-American, but we live in crazy times.

"I'm afraid we'll soon live in a world where all wines will taste essentially the same but with different labels, the way so many other products are already sold," he says. "This is a Huxleyian-Orwellian scenario, which scares the hell out of me in culture and in politics."

Originally published on The Globe and Mail - ©2004 The Globe and Mail

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