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December 23, 2004

Mondovino - Jonathan Nossiter

Posted by Richard D. North

Directed by Jonathan Nossiter
certificate PG, 2004

Thirty years ago I was in love with the authentic, and I took it to be the rural and the peasant. I thought it more likely to be found in southern France than in England. So off I went, annually, to work with a peasant family near Sainte Foy La Grande (in the southern Dordogne). We toiled on a few hectares of vineyard and the farmhouse (bungaloid beside the stone cave) looked out over manicured bull calves and cages of rabbit, whose demise came when la patronne stuffed her forefinger down their throats.

Almost immediately, I realised that we made wine which perhaps wasn't very good (I was no judge, and couldn't care less) and certainly wouldn't travel. I also realised that I was valuable because I was funny, cheap and available. This last was the bit which educated me: peasant life was then history. No natural-born young peasant willingly stayed on the land: his parents a little bemused imported me as a paysan-manque. I say then: now, clever pseudo-peasants who know their marketing and their writing of grant-applications can make a better living than my canny, tough, rather unimaginative employers and friends. In short, the modern pseudo-peasant understands and uses globalisation, which of course consists in the access of any producer, anywhere, to affluent markets, anywhere.

And so to Mondovino, which has been showing in many cinemas and is the latest movie billed as an anti-globalisation paean. The case is that big-time American producers (the California-based Mondavi family) have teamed up with a showman wine doctor (Michel Rolland) to produce a modern, uniform, world-taste wine whose merits are then bigged-up by a world-taste guru, the American critic Robert Parker, who has got an armlock on the taste buds of the modern consumer. A few wise European producers (the Rothschilds and various noble Italian families) have done deals with the Mondavi family, and thus with this unholy cash nexus.

In what is an over-long but quite engaging film, we meet all these characters, and they are either disarmingly honest about what they're up to, or very clever dissemblers. Each makes a robust defence of what they do. The film does the usual thing of the lefty-documentary: it does talking head interviews, whilst the camera prowls the location for telling texture and subtexts, and - especially with those of whom it disapproves - hangs about disobligingly when the interview is over in order to catch the silly little awkwardnesses and preenings which make fools of all us pundits. To be fair, many of Mondovino's victims are quite silly enough: there is a hilarious Californian woman who described deeply empathising with her Mexican workers, a passionate cross-culture concern manifested she insists, by giving them promotional T-shirts, and even jackets, when these things are about.

Naturally, the film has heroes. These are the small-scale producers who are presumed to be doing badly in the new globalised wine world. These are the men and women who are making individualistic wines which are drenched in the natural spirit and certainly the rhetoric of locality and of terroir. Quite how they are losing out, I have no idea. The more the world accepts the argument - and lord knows many do - that big and uniform is ugly and boring, the more these pseudo-peasants (and some are plainly fairly grand by the standards of my old employers) are given a copper-bottomed, gift-wrapped, global market.

So that's one good beef about the movie: it supposes that the creation of a vast new market will necessarily kill off - rather than reinforce - others of a quite different stamp.

It may indeed be true that the modern uniform, Parker-ised wine taste is whoreish, duplicitous and vacuous (as the terroir-merchants say). But there is another way of discussing what has been going on in wine. It has been realised to the considerable shock of the appallingly xenophobic and snobbish French that all over the world there are soils and climates - and, yes, winemakers - who can make wines of every class. What's more, the modern consumer has realised that they can buy wine according to grape type rather than region of growth. And they also believe that this or that maker - which Mondovino's heroes dismiss as brands, as though brands were bad - do represent a style or quality that one can like or dislike.

Indeed, it's interesting the degree to which this film might have done better if it had been a wry look at every sort of snobbery and absurdity in the world of wine, granted that it is at least as comical as any other luxury good. But this is a piece of work along the lines of the Slow Food movement (which similarly milks and rubbishes modern globalised markets for the local). The eco-gush of the cultural diversity brigade is quite as silly as the cod-philosophy with which the Californians like to add a dash of culture to their new creations. As to who makes the better wines? Globalisation has ensured that more and better sorts of wine are now on offer more cheaply, and more conveniently, than ever in history. Now, you get not only to pick your poison, its grape type and region of production, but your narrative too.

Richard D. North's Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence will be published by the Social Affairs Unit in 2005.

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Dear Sir,
Your cynical, condescending and rather facile narrative has convinced me that I must see Mondovino.
Carolyn Perkes

Posted by: Carolyn Perkes at February 7, 2005 10:05 AM

As a filmaker myself, I must say that Jonathan has done a great job as a filmaker to document the wine world from different angles. The Directors comments on the DVD from Jonathan is worth watching as it gives so much more details on his style, reasons and outcomes of this documentary.

Highly recommend watching it.

Posted by: Aydin Odyakmaz at September 12, 2005 05:25 AM
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