Mondovino

“The culture of the vine,” Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1787, “is not desirable in lands capable of producing anything else. It is a species of gambling, and desperate gambling, too, wherein, whether you make much or nothing, you are equally ruined.” Jefferson, progenitor of the Democratic Party and of American viticulture, could when necessary be a gambling man because he was a wise one; from experience he deeply understood one of civilization’s toughest, most pragmatic requirements: coordinating the cultivation of taste with the cultivation of place.

If his wry wisdom isn’t included in Mondovino, Jonathan Nossiter’s film about the globalization of the modern wine industry, it might be because Jefferson was, however cautiously, an optimist. Nossiter, a disgruntled sommelier-cum-filmmaker, has become sort of an angry drunk on that notion of equal ruination, apparently without ever enjoying the flavor if its humbled humor. Indeed, he has low hopes for a future culture of the vine, and his movie might be just undiscriminating enough to help fulfill its own bleak prophecy.

Mondovino posits a dialectical battle between the globalist Goliaths of wine business and the regional Davids of wine cultivation. For Nossiter that means the unctuous wine consultants, disproportionately influential critics, and conglomerating multinational (but especially American) corporations versus a handful of adorably cranky or beguiling old-timers, without many hectares between them but well-attuned to the timeless edification of oenophilic rhapsody. At stake is the very soul of fine wine, as manifest in what the French call terroir, a sense of place, or the palatable results of soil and climate and tradition and fate. Will it all succumb to the despoiling creep of capitalism?

This is what moviefolk call a high concept, and what winefolk call over-manipulation: while immediately gratifying, perhaps, the construction is also something of an affront to civilized taste. Which reveals an unfortunate irony: that by indulging the anti-corporate chic so totally, Mondovino may preclude real progress, both for muckraking movies and for wine appreciation.

Not surprisingly, Nossiter has been likened to Michael Moore. But instead of aping Moore’s populist pose, the urbane, well-traveled, multilingual Nossiter strains for authority as the ultimate sophisticate. He proceeds from the idea that partisanship is most pronounced, and most welcome, in matters of taste. His response to the wine industry’s recent (and sometimes absurd) efforts to democratize and demystify its product is to guard the thing most jealously—and, actually, to re-mystify it. Ostensibly Mondovino wants to deliver wine culture from the dark cellar of clubby Reaganite aristocrats with tacky tastes, and decant it for an even more exclusive set of sneering, socially super-conscious urban hipsters. You can already imagine the bumper stickers: “Friends don’t let friends drink Mondavi.”

That would be Robert Mondavi, whose vast international corporation is central to Mondovino essentially because, as Hubert de Montille, an opponent, observes, it “cultivates a brand.” In Burgundy, where de Montille works, they cultivate terroir instead. “It’s not quite imperialism,” he says, “but when you have power, as the US does, you impose your culture, you try to impose your tastes.” Of course Nossiter‘s stance—that it is quite imperialism—has become a brand of its own, and nowadays the with-it way to impose your tastes is by making a polemical documentary.

For a connoisseur, though, Nossiter doesn’t seem to care much about aesthetics. The best tool, or weapon, in his overlong, redundant and not especially mouthwatering narrative, is a natural gift for disarming conversation: poker-faced, he coaxes self-incriminations from his chosen villains with relaxed impunity. But formal laziness or some pretense to cinema verité betrays the composure, with conspicuously unstable handheld camera work, quick, indiscriminate zooms, and meandering focus. Add to this an impulsive, overwrought editing scheme, and not only has Nossiter ruined the fun of his captured indiscretions, by further decontextualizing them, but he’s actually undermined his own tastemaking authority.

Chalk it up to building the brand. Nossiter certainly proves that among the first casualties of working in a consensus-approved style is the aura of independent legitimacy. A better way to advocate alternatives to the in-your-face approach to winemaking would be to avoid the in-your-face approach to filmmaking. Hubert de Montille goes in for old-fashioned rigor; too bad Nossiter lacks it.

Apparently he doesn’t mind. When another French grower, Aimé Guibert, talks about the “fascism of monopoly distribution,” the filmmaker gleefully shepherds the metaphor by heading off for Italy, where he gets a patrician from the Frescobaldi wine family to actually say that at least Mussolini made the trains run on time. Later Nossiter collects juicy invective from Neal Rosenthal, a New York-based wine importer who believes that the “Napaization” of taste suppresses terroir, “much like our freedom is being suppressed now,” and figures the vanilla flavor imparted by new oak wine barrels is “dangerous” and “evil.”

“Absolutely fascinating that this still exists,” Rosenthal says, meanwhile, of the Hasidic Jews on the streets of his native Brooklyn. “This is terroir.” Yet his rather fetishized detachment, emphasized by a gaping camera, makes us feel like intruding tourists. Still, presented alongside people like the insolent wine consultant Michel Rolland, who looms over world maps pointing out his spheres of influence and distractedly dispenses rote-learned winecraft advice by cell phone, Rosenthal is supposed to seem more sensitive than insulated, more righteously indignant than fanatical.

Although he misses the easy target of the recent ill-advised American boycott of French wines over the matter of Iraq, Nossiter is pleased to show us wine critic Robert Parker’s autographed photo of Ronald Reagan. But when Parker cites the influence of Ralph Nader on his own enormously influential methodology, the camera, as if unable to cope with potentially exculpating information, quickly averts, fixing its gaze on Parker’s scowling, farting bulldog. When Parker describes his rating system as democratic and revolutionary, Nossiter whips over to a Burger King billboard, reading “Have it your way.” These aren’t responses, or even expressions of ideas, really, but rather gags, a sloppy shorthand for the sort of visual quip we and Nossiter have seen in other movies like this before. Instead of making any sincere effort to understand the global wine market, or the cultural climate from which arose the phenomenon of Parker, let alone the man himself, the movie shrugs off those imperatives, preferring instead to cash in on its sniffing, pre-decided superiority.

It would be tedious to itemize all of Mondovino‘s distortions, but helpful to point out a few doozies. First, that the refined taste and tradition it laments, as epitomized by the mystique of Bordeaux, was initially codified not by spiritual communion with the earth and time alone, but with great help from a trade arrangement between British aristocracy and French marketing wizardry in the 19th century. Second, that many foreign companies have owned many hectares in California for decades, and countless old-worlders have moved in, deliberately, to derive excellent and inimitable wines from American soil. And finally, that Mondavi and Parker have so far not obviated individualist winemaking but in many unprecedented ways encouraged it, with one obvious result being the bounty of wines now available at all price points. Yes, for true believers, the Napa Valley has become a nightmarish tourist trap. But plenty of the wines are still good there, and, more important, as Jay McInerney once wrote, “All of those tourists, like many of their fellow Americans, know how to pronounce Cabernet Sauvignon.”

So, given his penchant for the easy quip, and his willful trafficking in litigious hyperbole, it seems perfectly fair to call Nossiter a shameless hypocrite and insufferable snob—the sort of bullying sommelier who passive-aggressively talks you out of the bottle you want for reasons unclear and untrustworthy. And, to exercise the prerogative of discriminating taste, it’s also fair to say that Mondovino is unbalanced and a little green, astringent, too bitter, and probably won’t age well. But at least it’s not a fruit bomb.

Its real feat is coming off as at once elitist, nostalgist, and arguably—to anyone who’s ever sought out an obscure Burgundy, paid too much for it, and found it wantonly hateful—apologist. For a progressive filmmaker, that adds up to a major PR problem—worse, even, than the persistent misconception that rosé and white zinfandel are the same thing. It shows that transferring liberal ire onto matters of taste is dicey, for it succumbs to the enemy’s tactics, long considered a kind of culture war crime.

Yet old against new remains wine culture’s central battle. In the film, Michael Mondavi hopes that in ten or fifteen generations his heirs will be making wine on other planets. “You know, that could be kind of cool,” he says, grinning. “Beam me up Scotty; send me some wine from Mars, or something!” Here the insinuation of a fine line between kooky California dreamer and insatiable, reflexive conquistador is a point well taken.

But Nossiter, who’s proven his facility for going native in geek-friendly subcultures, might also take Mondavi’s point and consider the wisdom of no less an authority than Star Trek‘s own captain Jean-Luc Picard (that rustic aristocrat Patrick Stewart). One of the captain’s adventures, also not cited in Mondovino, is a brief sojourn to his native terroir in 23rd century France. There resides his artisanal winemaker brother Robert, who never went in for high technology, be it intergalactic or malolactic. At the table, when Jean-Luc can’t identify a vintage by taste alone, Robert admonishes him: “You’ve been drinking too much of that artificial stuff. What do you call it, synthahol? It’s ruined your palate.”

“On the contrary,” the captain coolly replies. “I think that synthahol heightens one’s appreciation for the genuine article.”

That seems like a well-cultivated vision of the future, one even Thomas Jefferson might have gambled on.

Originally published in The New Republic.