Ideally, winemaking stems from a patient communion between man and nature, and yet wine is historically linked with the most technologically progressive societies. This not-quite paradox fuels Jonathan Nossiter’s engaging Mondovino, an impassioned polemic and a veritable lightning rod for controversy since its Cannes premiere. As a recent New York Times article begins: “If you want to start a fight, mention the documentary Mondovino to people in the wine business and step back.” Hardly a primer on wine itself, Nossiter’s exhaustive study spans three continents to gauge the effects of globalization and mass production on an industry founded upon artisanal methods of production. Interview subjects include Napa Valley’s entrepreneurial Mondavi family, NYC-based wine importer Neal Rosenthal, wine consultant Michel Rolland, and Robert Parker, the voice of wine criticism.
The operative buzzword in Mondovino is terroir, or territory, a term denoting that the wine’s flavor is a product of the territory in which it was cultivated. Wine conglomerates like Mondavi disregard terroir by manipulating the wine through technological maturation or by storing the wine in new oak barrels and attributing the taste to these modern processes. When Robert Parker approves of Mondavi wine, he undermines the livelihood of traditional winemakers in Ariane or Burgundy while indirectly boosting American industry. It’s the liquid iteration of urban sprawl.
This globetrotting shaky-cam DV epic eschews heavy-handed Michael Moore editorializing, addressing the chasm between global business interests and proletarian farmers—the fight for wine’s “soul”—through slightly subtler tactics. The multilingual filmmaker keeps an eye out for the hoi polloi hovering just outside the frame of the bigger story. Chauffeurs, gardeners, and field laborers!—clearly distinguished as “the exploited”—are caught on camera just as the viewer attempts to build respect for their idealistic exploitees. In one segment, a visit to a wealthy Florentine winemaking dynasty is interrupted by helicopters patrolling the city’s social forum. In another, a Napa housewife casually drops a bigoted remark when praising the Mexican laborers of her husband’s vineyard. Mondovino is so fast-paced and compactly edited (Nossiter plans to turn his footage into a 10-hour miniseries) that it becomes easy to view the character juxtapositions as evidence of a black-and-white battle zone.
To his aesthetic discredit, Nossiter employs a he-said-she-said technique when splicing interviews, but it often serves to highlight contradictions on both sides of the argument. The misguided Times article dwells upon “explicit links between fascism and what [Nossiter] calls monopolistic thinking about wine” without providing salient examples. For the most part, Mondovino declines the opportunity to demonize big business, but Nossiter clearly gives the purists the last word. Nossiter, a trained sommelier and devoted oenophile (as well as the director of 1997 Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner Sunday), is clearly enraptured with his subject, and Mondovino examines globalization with humor and compassion. Despite some lapses in editing—a South American detour seems tacked on, and the camera’s fascination with dogs is borderline obsessive—Mondovino is a remarkably focused docu-essay, beckoning audiences to form their own opinion on a complex and timely topic.