Mondovino: Jonathan Nossiter’s Documentary

Jonathan Nossiter’s documentary, Mondovino, offers a global look at the wine industry, past and present.
It serves as a nice companion piece to Alexander Payne’s “Sideways,” a serio-comedy about how to survive male menopause with wine and women. Payne shot his film in California’s wine country, a site that also features prominently in Nossiter’s work.

Set in three continents, and switching (not always smoothly) from one locale to another, “Mondovino” weaves together three main tales: the family succession saga of Napa Valley power brokers, the rivalry of two aristocratic Florentine dynasties, and the efforts of three generations of a Burgundian family to preserve their land. These struggles are subjected to the exploits of a gleefully mischievous pirate from Bordeaux, who spreads the gospel of modernity from Italy to New York to Argentina.

In its current shape, the docu is superior to the version I saw in Cannes, a messy, excessively long work. That version, which premiered in competition in Cannes, felt like a work in progress. We all predicted that due to its running time, repetitious structure, and rambling narrative, “Mondovino” would have hard time securing American distribution.

The courageous distributor ThinkFilm proved us wrong. I don’t know if Nossiter was pressured, but the new version is shorter by half an hour (it’s now 135 minutes), tighter, more coherent, and more entertaining. It’s still too long, a result of the fact that Nossier may be too close to the material.

Wine has been a symbol of Western civilization for centuries, but, arguably, the fight for its soul has never been as desperate as it is at presentboth money and pride are at stake. Surprisingly, the battle lines are not the usual locals versus multinational, simple peasants versus powerful industry captains. Prior to his film, which he not only directed but also shot and edited, Nossiter thought of wine as linked to friendship and pleasure. He became interested in the subject, when he first worked as a waiter in Paris as an adolescent. Later, he got a degree as a sommelier in New York, where he made wine lists for restaurants.

Nossiter’s father was a foreign correspondent for the Washington Post and the N.Y. Times, so he grew up in France, Italy, Greece, India, and the U.S. He credits his father for getting “the feel for a given country just by talking to all kinds of unlikely people.” Having met winegrowers from around the world, Nossiter realizes that “wine’s singular world is representative of the world at large.” “Wine is more like people, in its infinite complexity, Nossiter says, “It’s one of the clearest expressions of both the Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman traditions.” But rather than preserving these traditions as rigid artifacts, it keeps them fluid, vital and modern. In “Mondovino,” wine is used a metaphor for being “a guardian of Western Civilization.” Hence, it goes without saying that an examination of the current state of wine calls for an exploration of the past and an eye for the future.

Nossiter views winegrowers as farmers, businessmen and artists, with all the complexities and contradictions that these roles entail. While the attachment to the earth is simple and dependent the whims of nature, the wines they fashion are linked to greater cultural ambitions. Like other artists, winegrowers give pleasure and provoke exchanges between people. However, the difference between the two is that the winegrowers’ work is necessarily ephemeral, avoiding the artist’s need for posterity.

Wine is used as a symbol of socio-cultural and industrial change. According to “Mondovino,” it’s not a coincidence that there was a wine boom in the U.S. in the 1970s. California wine at that time was sometimes excessive, too intense, or even challenging to swallow. But it was intriguing, radical and invigorating, with winegrowers sharing the desire for discovery and experimentation. In the 1980s, during the Reagan era, wine began to change, and the previously raw and unpredictable liquid became polished and media-savvy. Wines were designed for prestige and economic power.

The small Californian wineries from the 1970s, which resembled the Burgundians, began to sell out to big business. Coca Cola bought Sterling Vineyards in the 1980s, and a decade later sold it to Diageo, a multinational company. The next evolutionary phase was the voluntary co-opting of small-scale artisan production (“organic farming,” “terroir”) into the cultural and economic needs of the new world order.

Nossiter set off with Uruguayan filmmaker Juan Pittaluga to explore winegrowers from different regions. Early on, they were struck by the intensity of father-son relationships and how that intensity was manifest in the production of something as tangible as wine. The notion of personal transmission from generation to generation, of what gets passed on and what dies away, became the grail of their cross-cultural adventure.

In almost every encounter, Nossiter’s preconceptions were turned on their head. For example, self- declared conservatives turned out to be more radical and progressive than left-oriented families. The film begins in Bergundy, because what happened there in the 1970s was also interesting from a political standpoint. Burgundian winegrowers were isolated from the economic and cultural pressures of the modern world. Their wine had been appreciated for centuries, but they had long dropped out of fashion. Wanting to join the emerging global marketplace, they succumbed to the new trends, including the indiscriminate use of chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. Miraculously, their attachment to the land was so strong that they quickly discarded these toxic expressions of progress and concentrated instead on finding personal ways to express their patrimony in a modern idiom, to create a vital bridge between ancient and contemporary culture. They were trying to protect a simple idea, expressed by Sardinian winegrower Battista Colombu: “The most critical act in a deceitful world that tries to destroy our individual dignity is to protect that dignity at any cost.”

Nossiter felt welcome even by those who didn’t share his ideas, a result of a natural conviviality in the wine community. “Mondovino” captures the magic in the natural transformation of grapes into wine. And though the world of wine has been veiled for too long by a vow of silence, anyone who drinks or makes wine is instinctively gregarious.

Nossiter avoids the snobbery involved in wine connoisseurship, the ridiculous jargon about the “aromas of pear blossom,” or “the scent of my grandmother’s lace underwear.” Unfortunately, wine has become associated with exclusive aspects of a certain lifestyle, especially in places that are not traditional winegrowing cultures, like the USA, England, and the Far East. In those regions, wine has become a symbol of elitism and pretension. Nossiter encourages his interviewees to describe the wine in their own subjective terms. Even the most inexperienced drinker can immediately spot a phony approach. Rather admirably, he gets really close to the spectators’ POV, to people who are sensitive to everyday pleasures.

Nossiter tries to avoid a simplification of the struggle between the two opposing worlds, the winegrowers who maintain traditional values, and those who support globalization –what some call “the international taste.” “Mondovino” attempts to be balanced and tolerant of opposing views. One of the docu’s most interesting sections concerns Michel Rolland, a famous oenologist who works with major wineries in twelve countries. Rolland is “the Spielberg of the wine world,” as his colleague suggests in the film. Reflecting his era, Roland understands the trends of his time and knows how to capture them in a product that anticipates the consumers’ desires. Undoubtedly the world’s best-known winemaker, Roland is a successful business consultant adapted to the global marketplace. He completely transformed Argentinean wine, first introduced by Jesuits in the seventeenth century.

As for California wine, Nossiter suggests that today art has been abandoned as a symbol of prestige in favor of wine: “It’s more prestigious in an international society to have your name on a wine label than to have your portrait made by a painter.” At the end of the 1980s, Californian wine imposed itself on the global marketplace in sales and in influence, particularly in countries like France and Italy.

I have not seen any documentary that boasts such a diverse cast of characters (see below), from Bordeaux society to humble pioneers in the Brazilian backwoods. The wide range of people, from all socio-economic strata, is akin to a feature with an international cast of stars. Nossiter obviously enjoyed access to leaders and power brokers, which allowed him to reveal the human face of globalization and to film the psychology of those with influence. In ondovino,” which was shot over two years, he prods effectively his non-actors into the most vivid expression of who they are.

The Mondavi brothers, for instance, see themselves as creating a dynasty that could grow wine anywhere, even on Mars. However, their ambitions have turned against them. For Nossiter, it’s as if the wine world has blended Balzac’s world of “Lost Illusions,” with the TV series “Dallas,” with the Mexican soap opera, “Pueblo Chico, Infierno Grande” (“Small Village, Big Hell”). Recently, the Mondavi Corporation replaced the family in running the company. What the Mondavi brothers set in motion a decade ago by aggressively going public and competing in the global marketplace has come back to bite them. The empire that their father so painstaking built up from nothing is no longer under their control.

Thanks to the pioneering work of Tommaso Vergallo at Digimages, the 35 mm end-result feels closer to the texture of 35 mm films of the 1970s, a period Nossiter cherishes. The film was shot with two friends, the Uruguayan director Juan Pittaluga and the Caribbean-Brazilian photographer Stephanie Pommez. In the process, the camera became an extension of Nossiter’s identity and perception of the world he encountered. Nossier says he has never operated the camera with such intimacy and joy of discovery. And indeed, at times it feels as if the camera itself had too much to drink. This is the main problem of Mondovino: Nossiter is too much in love with and too close to his material.