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Wine, globalisation and change
on 27 February 2006
Mondovino is a very interesting film, whether you want to call it a documentary or an opinion piece. That someone has been making 2 hour+ feature film about wine (or rather some aspects of the wine industry of today), consisting mostly of hand-held camera interviews of various wine personalities, with no narration, is fascinating in itself. Some has likened Nossiter’s take on wine to the works of Michael Moore, but I think this is an overstatement. I don’t think those who agree with Nossiter will be as entertained by this film as Michael Moore’s fans were by Fahrenheit 9/11, nor do I think those who disagree will be as enraged. Don’t misunderstand me: Modovino definitely has an anti-globalisation and to some extent anti-American streak to it, it does set out to portray many of its characters in a disrespectful way by making them look pompous and ridiculous, and it does have some humorous elements to it. But it is not totally black-and-white or over-the-top when it comes to pushing the view that Nossiter seems to want to get across.
I had some difficulty in deciding on a rating for Mondovino. It probably deserves ***** for ingenuity and provocativeness, **** for effort and timeliness, but * or ** for fact-checking or balanced coverage of the reasons why winemakers and the wine industry in parts of Europe are in trouble. All in all, I settled for ***.
Perhaps the best way of describing the film is to group the characters along a good to bad scale, the way I read the story:
The very good guys
Wine growers in Europe (especially if they’re old and somewhat eccentric, at least if they seem not very wealthy), poor farm workers all over the world
The somewhat good guys
The now-active sons and daughers of the above growers, older growers who seem a bit richer (but have not incorporated or made joint-ventures with Americans), European wine writers
The somewhat bad guys
Bordeaux negociants (“whole-sale dealers in wine”, sort of), American wine writers, winemakers working as employees for corporations
The very bad guys
Americans in the wine industry, especially the Mondavis, most wine aristocrats, wine corporations (whether American, French or Italian), anyone who hires minimum-wage farm hands, wine consultants (especially Michel Rolland)
The Pyrenées, Bordeaux, Languedoc and Burgundy in France, Sardinia, Florence and Tuscany in Italy, Napa Valley (California) and New York in USA, Brazil and Argentina
Condensed version of the plot
Wine everywhere is made in the same style by big corporations, with no respect for local history, traditions or opinions, due to the influence of wine consultants and wine critics. A Mondavi project in Aniane in the region of Languedoc in France, failed due to local resistance and the subsequent election of a communist mayor. Some forefathers of present-day wine aristocrats and negociants were sympathetic to Italian fascism 70-80 years ago or traded with German WWII occupiers of France some 65 years ago. American millionaires like to build chateaus in Napa valley, be wine makers and want to seem good liberals by caring about their farm hands, but could very well be ego-inflated nouveau riche hypocrites. And dogs, dogs, everywhere dogs!
I think there are several problems with this story as seen from “the sidelines”, and by that I mean by someone such as myself, who enjoys wine a lot, but does not live in a wine-producing European country. Should innovative Australian and New Zealand winemakers not be allowed to sell their wine to the rest of the world? Shouldn’t I have the choice between an Australian Shiraz and a Rhône wine, between a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and a Sancerre? In that case – WHY NOT? In most other industries, being production-oriented rather than consumer-oriented went out of fashion decades ago. The companies that didn’t adapt no longer exist. The same thing has been happening to the wine industry for quite some time. That’s the REAL untold story behind the story in Mondovino... And I would claim that we, the wine consumers, are the winners! Quality is better than ever, and while some homogenization of styles have taken place at the low-price end, the selection of wines and styles actually available to a consumer somewhere in the world is a lot wider today than, say, 20 or 30 years ago.
Of course, wines, vines and winemaking are intertwined with history and culture, and many wine-producing areas are quite postcard pretty, but do we really want to adopt the view that making wine is an entitlement, as long as the region is old enough? Shouldn’t the quality of the wine, the production costs, the asking price, and the preference of wine-drinkers enter into the calculation at all? Am I supposed to be forced to buy wine I do not like, or don’t consider very interesting, or don’t think is worth its price tag? Or is, once again, the tax-payer supposed to pick up the bill?
Not too long ago, most wine was produced as a cheap, low quality and fairly undifferented bulk product to be consumed locally and regionally. Post-WW II technological advances was used to increase the yield, to make even more simple wine from each vineyard. In most places, this worked fine up until the 1970’s, and in some places up to the 1980’s. What has happened since then is that the local/regional consumption has dropped considerably, while new generations of consumers are more demanding when it comes to quality, and picky as well as trend-influenced when it comes to which styles of wine they like.
I suppose it would make a dull story to tell this, but it is much closer to the truth than what you learn in Mondovino. But, by all means, watch Mondovino! It’s interesting and provocative. But do check the facts for yourself!