Posted to on March 25, 2006


There has been a bumper crop of documentaries on globalization in recent years, including "Life and Debt", "The Corporation" and "The Take". But it would be difficult for me to imagine anything topping the 2004 "Mondovino" in terms of dramatic and political depth. Taking as its theme the power of Mondavi and other huge wine multinationals to run roughshod over much smaller but superior vineries, it would not evoke the same sense of outrage as films devoted to the plight of landless peasants or sweatshop workers. In addition, unlike a Naomi Klein or a Michael Moore, director Jonathan Nossiter does not editorialize. He simply allows his villains, such as they are, to make the case against themselves through their obsessive concerns with "marketing" and "brands". All in all, one is left with the rueful sense of the inexorability of Walmartization into every nook and cranny of the planet, including French and Italian vineyards dating back to the early Middle Ages.


The film is basically a tour of the world's great wine-producing regions, from France to Italy to Argentina. Everywhere he goes, Nossiter interviews principals on either side of the barricade. There are men and women, usually elderly, who see wine-making as a kind of blend of art, agriculture and religion in which "terroir" is the key element. This term can be described as a "sense of place" that is critical in the production of wine grapes, coffee beans or tobacco or anything that satisfies the palate while stimulating the nervous system. These substances have been with humanity from the dawn of history. When they convey the mysterious combination of soil, water and sunlight of their native roots, they remind us of where we come from in the deepest sense. However, this "sense of place" collides with the needs of big wine-making businesses to produce a product that can be delivered to the marketplace anywhere in the world and at a price that will eliminate the competition. In that process, civilization's greatest treasures will also be eliminated, in the same fashion as a museum being looted.


Nossiter accompanies wine consultant Michel Rolland as goes on his rounds in the Bordeaux wine producing region. Rolland is a supremely smug and self-amused individual given to laughing at his own jokes to the point of annoyance. Traveling around the world, he dispenses advice on how to make wines that are more marketable. This often involves "micro-oxygenation", a technique that involves introducing bubbles into fermenting wine in order to shorten the traditional aging cycle, which obviously gets in the way of efficient profit-making.


Rolland is also a forceful advocate of "Napa-izing" the French vineyards, which in his eyes are filled with uneconomic practices. But when Mondavi came to Languedoc with plans to buy up huge amounts of land, they were stopped in their tracks by the Communist Mayor Manual Diaz who understood it quite rightly as a typical imperialist incursion. When asked for his opinion on why they rejected Mondavi's bid, Michel Rolland dismisses them as a bunch of "dumb peasants." Also interviewed is the previous Mayor, a Socialist, who was all too happy to do business with Mondavi. Some things apparently never change when it comes to social democracy.


The Mondavis, like all of the other "bad guys" in "Mondovino", are not cardboard figures. They clearly got into the wine business because they had a love for wine, but as their business grew they became transformed. Robert Mondavi, the patriarch, eventually found himself in bitter disputes with his sons about the direction of the business, which were only resolved, as son Michael puts it, when they became incorporated and put the "family" side of the business behind them.


Nossiter interviews the Staglin family, another major Napa grower, who are somewhat easier to detest. The husband Garen was in the air force during Vietnam and flew bombing missions for over a year. Afterwards, he was an aide to Henry Kissinger whom he described as a major inspiration. His wife Sheri claims that they get along famously with their Mexican vineyard workers who they treat like "family," which amounts to bestowing t-shirts with the company logo at Christmas time.


It turns out that the Mondavis have an easier time doing business in Italy, which is blessed by having an Prime Minister who is on record as stating that Mussolini was "not that bad." If anything the Italian aristocrats who partner with Mondavi are even more sleazy than the Staglins. When Nossiter asks their opinion on Mussolini, Dino Frescobaldi points out that "the trains ran on time." Albiera Antinori, another Mondavi partner, says "What you need to know is that Italy, at that time, needed a strong, energetic hand, and fascism did bring about a certain order."


We learn from the documentary that the big-time trade publication "The Wine Spectator" is totally committed to the Napa-ization of the wine industry worldwide. It's European bureau chief James Suckling is a perfect twit who compares the French unfavorably to the Italians, who are not burdened with a socialist government.


But the most repellent figure has to be Robert Parker, the powerful wine critic who has spearheaded the homogenizing process decried by the film. In a March 22nd NY Times profile on Parker, the paper's own wine critic Eric Asimov (son of the science fiction author) referred his appearance in "Mondovino":


Jonathan Nossiter's documentary "Mondovino," released in the United States in 2005, juxtaposed Mr. Parker with a Burger King sign and portrayed him as an emblem of opulent globalized wine and an enemy of diversity, terroir and nuance. A 2005 biography, "The Emperor of Wine" by Elin McCoy (Ecco), expressed concern about a world dominated by "the tyranny of one palate."


Given the NY Times's general embrace of globalization, symbolized most dramatically by Thomas Friedman's obnoxious columns, it should not come as a surprise that Asimov's article is basically an opportunity for Parker to defend himself against such criticisms.


The film ends with a trip to Argentina where it contrasts two growers, one a bourgeois businessman who has brought in Michel Rolland for advice and the other an indigenous peasant who grows wine grapes for love rather than profit. He makes about $60 per month. The businessman blames "laziness" for Argentina's problems, while the Indian makes wine in the same way that indigenous peoples in the Americas cultivated tobacco, chocolate, and alcohol from time immemorial--as a way of celebrating their humanity and their connection to the Eternal. When Nossiter drinks a glass of the Indian's white wine, he reacts as if he has tasted the nectar of the gods.


("Mondovino" is available on DVD/Video from your better stores and on the Internet.)