Sunday, March 22, 2015

Wine now -- and forever: Jonathan Nossiter's full-length MONDOVINO debuts via Icarus Films

If you saw and fell in love with Mondovino, the 135-minute documentary movie from 2004 that tackled the question of whether or not "fine wines" were becoming "mass produced" around the world as one of the earlier products of globalization, here is some very good news. We knew, even at the time of the docu-mentary film's release, that this movie was a cut-down version of the more than nine hours made by Jonathan Nossiter (SundaySigns and Wonders) for French TV that really got into things. But would we ever be able to see the entire series? At last, more than a decade later and thanks to KimStim and Icarus Films, we can.

The newly released (in the USA) MONDOVINO: The Series lasts 550 minutes on four DVD discs, and there' s not one of those minutes I'd want to give up. I remember thinking at the the time that I watched the shorter movie version that I wished it could go on much longer. Now we can bask in all that was left out from that two-hour and fifteen minute film. It's a lot -- not so much that any of the many personages that dot the film were totally left out, but now, we come back to them again and again, as Nossiter (shown at right) pieces together everything that was happening to wine production, marketing and sales during this time period.

Here is a brief overview of the ten chapters, the first of which, Where's Asterix?, peaks our interest immediately with the question of why no one in a small French town wants to talk about The Mondavi Affair and what, exactly, happened here and why. Nossiter begins to probe, and we meet some of the wine folk who will appear again and again throughout, including one especially reptilian fellow (to my mind, at least) named Michel Rolland (shown above).

With Chapter 2: Magic Potion we spend some more time with Burgundian wine maker Hubert de Montille and his family (above), and as we hear him and his speak about their life and work, suddenly many of those formerly silly-sounding adjectives describing wine begin to make sense. We also see some of the elitism of the wine owners and growers vis a vis the students who are hired as grape pickers.

Chapter 3: Rome Wasn't Built in a Day whisks us off to Napa Valley, California, where expressions such as synergy and feng shui are bandied about. The wealthy wine folk here come across as generally shallow, image-conscious, entitled hypocrites. (Above are shown two members of the Mondavi family.) Simply hearing what the local liquor store owners have to say about these people pretty much seals the deal. Mr Nossiter never bulldozes; he simply asks questions and allows his interviewee's answers to become the noose that effectively hangs them.

We move from the French Pyrenees to Sardinia in Chapter 4: Pax Panoramix, and meet a Brooklyn-based wine importer Neal Rosenthal and learn about young wines versus the old, with some very interesting and apt comparisons between wine production and plastic surgery. There's even a bit about Nazi collaboration during WWII.

We meet famed (or infamous, depending on your "take") wine critic Robert Parker (above) in Chapter 5: The Appian Way, and also learn about a then-relatively-new mode of production called "garage wines." You may note along the way the occasional look at the household pets or local birds. Nossiter has an eye for all sorts of fun moments and odd objects.

We also begin to hear more and often, especially in Chapter 6: Quo Vademus, the word terroir, and we begin to understand the great important of this. As the Wine Spectator editors explains, "Terroirs go against the business of globalization." We also see more of wine critic Robert Parker, hear the love story of the De Montilles, and discover some delightful stuff about one of our favorite actresses, Charlotte Rampling.

Chapter 7: All Road Lead to Rome tackles wine fraud and the psychology of the wine lover. We hear the prattle of the so-called "industry" wine-makers, especially the head of one company who has decreed that a certain inscription, in Latin yet, be written on every employee's tie or jacket, even though he has not bothered to learn what those actual Latin words are. Mr. Parker's arrogance and egotism are also on fuller display. "It's the Hollywoodization of wine," as distributor Neal Rosenthal insists.

We're back in Italy for Chapter 8: Crossing the Rubicon, in which Wine Spectator's then-editor, a Mr. Suckling, says it all in his description of the terroir problem: "They just weren't making wine that people wanted -- except for the locals." The locals, of course, has been producing and drinking wine for decades, even centuries. But what the hell do they know? Mr. Nossiter never stoops to stating the obvious (as I just did), but with a tad's worth of extrapolation, you'll get there, too. We see the children and the dogs again, as the kids do their homework (school is closed, interestingly enough, due to wide-spread, anti-globalization protests).

Around this time, you will begin to wonder if the filmmaker managed to get any footage in which these royal families of wine -- including especially the Mondavis of California -- were not spouting lies and PR platitudes. They treat us and Nossiter as though we were dumb children who must be educated. In Chapter 9: Et tu Brute? we learn about the Antinori and Frescobaldi families and their links to the Mondavis. They deserve each other. In a small but classy Italian wine shop, the husband of the owner explains that all these wines taste the same; they have no identity at all. And we meet the gorgeous Ferragamo family, about whom, "They're too pretty," a member of the Frescobaldi family opines.

We travel to Argentina, for the series' closing chapter, Veni, Vidi, Vendidi, in which a long-time family winery sells its product -- as well as the family name -- to, yes, Michel Rolland, shown above, left. (The  time spent in the car with M. Rolland's driver -- above, right -- may make you wish that Nossiter had gotten the guy alone for some good inside gossip.) And so another country sees its wine co-opted, mass-produced and rolled out with, gosh, a flavor very much like that of the rest of the "best wines" in the "civilized" world. That Argentine family -- pompous, entitled, classist and racist -- could stand in for just about all of the rest of the new wine aristocracy. Finally, we visit, Paraguay, which, in the words of one fellow, is the land of the fake. But at least it is able to admit this.

When this series ends -- all too abruptly -- you'll simply want more. I wish Mr. Nossiter could do it all again, and bring us up to date on what has happened in the 12-15 years since he began his amazing work. Although, from the looks of our world today, the result would depress us even more. And yet Mondovino, The Series, is so consistently vital and so much fun for anyone with a fondness for wine that as depressing as it is, it is also utterly absorbing and absolutely fascinating. And it's available now in a four-disc set, for sale by its distributor, as well as by the usual suspects. 

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