Putting wine on the wide screen

Would you credit it? You wait 30 years for a decent film about wine and then two come along at once. Alexander Payne’s mid-life buddy movie Sideways set in southern California wine country is currently playing to enthusiastic reviews in the US while Jonathan Nossiter’s 140-minute documentary Mondovino has just been released in France and is already stirring up a storm in wine circles in both the UK and US, even though it will not be released in either country until December 10 and early next year respectively.

Perhaps we wine lovers had to wait until this point in the development of a global wine culture before there could possibly have been any film director with sufficient love and knowledge of wine, together with the confidence that there might be an audience interested in it, for such projects to have got off the ground.

But it is precisely the development of that global wine culture that worries Nossiter. He chews and chews away at just what is being lost as a result of the globalisation of the wine world as though it were a particularly juicy bone of interest to the dozens of dogs which feature almost as much as wine throughout Mondovino – its title presumably inspired by the Mondo Cane shockumentaries of the early 1960s. For him, real wine is still made by sunlit peasants in the Sardinian back of beyond or on their single hectare in the Andes while globetrotting consultant oenologists and predatory corporations do their best, by making wines to a formula, to erase the geographical distinctions that until now have defined this unique commodity.

There is absolutely no doubt about who is the villain of this particular piece, the world’s most successful roving winemaker, Michel Rolland who, from his lab and wine farm in Pomerol, advises 100 clients around the world, most notably in California and Argentina. The French newspaper Liberation even described the Rolland depicted in the film as Mephistophelian.

I have seen Mondovino only once so can give only my impressions rather than chapter and verse, but it did seem to me that the skies darken and the soundtrack blackens too when Rolland hoves into view, typically cackling maniacally in the back of his chauffeur-driven black Mercedes travelling from château to château to prescribe micro-oxygenation. The Mondavi family of the Napa Valley (which Nossiter visits for the first time when making this film) are merely, if equally cruelly, made to look stupid. Michael Mondavi, his father Robert not hearing a word in the background, is caught saying that future Mondavi generations’ making wine on Mars would be “cool”.

The heroes are equally clear. Nossiter seems to hang on every, sometimes tactless, word of free-thinking Hubert de Montille and his family who make Volnay’s most uncompromising wines. Aime Guibert of Mas de Daumas Gassac who successfully fought a local incursion by the Mondavis in his little bit of the Languedoc (and, incidentally, imported Cabernet Sauvignon into this land of Syrah and Grenache) is also given ample time to stick the knife into Rolland et al.

I saw Mondovino in Paris at a special viewing and “debate” organised by France’s leading wine magazine La Revue du Vin de France, and most entertaining it was too. All the great and the good of the tight-knit French wine world seemed to be there, only just including Rolland whose arm had to be twisted particularly tightly to attend and “put his point of view”, as the magazine’s editor put it. I happen to think that Rolland’s influence has been generally beneficial in underdeveloped wine countries such as India and Argentina, perhaps more questionable close to home. But I have never felt anything approaching pity for him until this media circus at which he had to be dragged, for once unsmiling, on to the podium, wedged between the editor and Jean-Luc Thunevin of Ch de Valandraud (who got off relatively lightly) and forced to listen to Guibert and de Montille’s repeated reproaches of his use of oak.

During the showing there was a particularly loud laugh from this French audience for Robert Mondavi’s publicist’s perhaps unwise description of her boss as a philosopher of wine, and some more indulgent chuckles for the entertaining tensions within the de Montille family. Silence greeted Mondavi’s claim that the French owed their success in the wine world to great marketing. Nor was there any reaction to what to me was one of the most interesting of many indiscretions that Nossiter somehow managed to capture, the head of France’s wine police alleging, if my French was up to scratch, that he suspected many vignerons of resorting to fraud in order to impress the powerful American wine critic Robert Parker (who appears in the film but not quite as memorably as his flatulent bulldog).

There are all manner of asides – in fact I wonder whether Sideways would not be a more suitable title for this film than for the American comedy. We have a Jacques Tati ladder episode which completely steals the thunder of Mouton Rothschild’s winemaker (sic) while a domestic scene featuring the aristocratic Frescobaldi husband and wife would be pure gold in any film. Some of the visual punctuation marks seem mere distractions but there is no doubt that Nossiter has an assured eye, a keen ear and a strong point of view.

At the post-screening debate and in interviews the director, son of American journalists brought up on both sides of the Atlantic, argues that he is neutral, it is the participants who paint their own pictures. But this is surely at last slightly disingenuous. With hundreds of hours of film in the can Nossiter presumably had an embarass de choix as to which nuggets to include. Perhaps it was only me who noticed the cut to Rolland with a bulging leather briefcase immediately after Lodovico Antinori remarked that the oenologist was inordinately fond of money.

But the sum total of the nuggets is splendid – even if, like Rolland, you leave the film intensely irritated (in Paris he growled that even the modest 1994 he served Nossiter for lunch at the end of the single morning they spent together was too good for him). And even if the doggedly, if you will excuse the word, shaky camera and dodgy sound quality annoy you beyond measure. Michael Broadbent of Christie’s has a brown stripe down his forehead for much of his interview about Rolland’s influence, for example.

I take my hat off to Nossiter for having invested the time, effort and ingenuity in order to spur us into debate about some of the major issues affecting the fast-changing world of wine today and for wearing his heart so obviously on his sleeve.

In general terms the French have reacted warmly to this two-hour love letter to the sort of wine they think they make, and terroir, wittily noted from a cab he is sharing with Nossiter in Brooklyn’s Orthodox Jewish district by preservationist New York wine importer Neal Rosenthal. His comments on wines that typically garner high scores from American critics – “it’s evil the vanilla-isation of wine – like our domestic politics. It’s the Resistance versus the collaborators” – may be grist to Nossiter’s mill but they are presumably unlikely to help the film’s reception in the US.

Such British wine critics as I have so far read are rather sniffy about Mondovino’s length (a longer version was shown at the London previews) and meandering narrative, but there is even more to come apparently. Nossiter has also cut his year of nodding encouragingly at guileless interviewees around the world into 10 one-hour tv films apparently. I for one spent a most agreeable day with him and an a single assistant on the terrace of the River Café in London just over a year ago. I was initially rather miffed to learn that not a minute of this encounter had made it into the finished film. Having seen it, I felt rather relieved, but also certain that it will be our short conversation about my shoes and Issey Miyake that will be shown in the long tv version.

There are some older threads on the Forum that discuss Mondovino and Rolland (use the forum search to find such references).