The Nossiter Net
The net that shall enmesh them all
Edited, Written, and Published by Josh Nossiter
The Morning Mendacity
Monday, April 11th, 2005
The Nossiter Net is cast  to snare some of  the riper rascalities of the day.  Comments?  editor@nossiter.net
Mondovino, the provocative documentary about wine and wine makers by Jonathan Nossiter, my brother, takes pains to avoid confrontation.  There are no staged shouting matches, no Michael Moore-type stunts.  Instead, the camera leisurely follows the protagonists as they roam around vineyards or cellars or living rooms.  Jonathan gives the subjects of his film a lot of rope.  That some now feel they hanged themselves says more about the subjects than about the filmmaker or his methods.

That’s the view in Europe anyway, where millions have seen Mondovino;  it’s still playing in Paris, five months after its release.  Here in the U.S., the reception for Mondovino has been confounding.  At a San Francisco screening, the audience reacted like a tea party where a hip flask is whipped out.   One sided!  Opinionated!  The indelicacy of a film maker with a point of view!  And how unfair to portray defenceless multi-millionaires like the Mondavis, the Antinoris, and the Frescobaldis in a less than flattering light.  In the national press, the critics have carped about classist cheap shots, bothering to talk to the chauffeur of a plutocratic wine consultant, for example, or unearthing the pro-Mussolini  views of members of the Italian wine aristocracy.  One somehow imagined covert support for 19C British style imperialism.  Another made me think of FDR’s famous plaint about political attacks on his little dog Falla.  Mondovino, this critic claimed, was so reductivist that even all the dogs in the film were divided between good pooches and bad.

On the Robert Parker online bulletin board, most of the regulars see the film as  propaganda in a war between rich and poor, big and small, haves and have nots, businessmen and peasants, Europeans and Americans.  The film maker, say the posters, is a left-wing anti-globalization extremist who also contrives to employ tactics worthy of the fascists (a word, strangely, that few there seem to know how to spell) and the Nazis.  Too bad my brother didn’t play more baseball.  Most teams could use a good lefty rightist.

It’s no secret that both the world’s most influential wine critic, Robert Parker, and the world’s most powerful wine magazine, The Wine Spectator, favor a particular style of wine.  It’s equally well known that pricey consultants help wine makers craft their wines to please the Parker and Wine Spectator palates.  With high Parker and Wine Spectator scores, vintners sell more wine, at a higher price. High-scoring wines also tend to get favorable reviews and free publicity in the clubby wine press, further boosting sales.  While by no means monolithic -- the sheer number and diversity of wineries around the world provides a counter-weight -- the economic incentive to make wines in what’s euphemistically called the “international” style is potent.

The heart of Mondovino is the tale of those who resist the siren call. Plenty of wine makers large and small, from destitute Argentinian farmers, to philosophizing Sardinian growers, to wealthy Burgundian aristocrats, stubbornly carry on making wine to their own taste.  They ignore the dictates of the “international” style, the high alcohol content, the almond-vanilla flavors of new oak, the soft feel in the mouth, and the fruity aroma reminiscent of jam.  For them, a high score from Parker or The Wine Spectator is less important than producing wines that, in different ways, reflect their cultural identity and the characteristics of the region, or the vineyard, the wines come from.  They are animated by the profound conviction that wines should express the idiosyncrasies of their makers, and of their makers’ relationship to their vineyards, cultures, and families.

This venerable conception of wine-making is called terroir, a French word whose literal translation of “land” captures only a fragment of the word’s true meaning. The fact that the chief spokesmen for the terroiristes in Mondovino is Brooklyn Jewish wine merchant Neal Rosenthal, whose own domain consists of  a Manhattan shop and a Queens warehouse managed by Haitian immigrants, speaks to the true nature of terroir.   Neither a brand name, nor a variety of grape, not a plot of land nor a micro-climate, terroir is more about the relationship of an individual to his world.  A terroiriste winemaker strives to say something about that relationship in his wine.

If there are battle lines drawn up in Mondovino, they are between the terroiristes and the internationalists.  This is no struggle between rich and poor, Americans and the rest of the world, globalists and anti-globalists, traditionalists and modernists.  It is a war for the soul of wine, and for the dignity of those who make it.  Mondovino is anti-rich? The film’s literal poster child is a wealthy Burgundian aristocrat and patriarch, Hubert de Montille, whose wine is as opinionated as his wisdom.  Mondovino is anti-American? The film’s true hero is the highly successful New York businessman, Neal Rosenthal, whose good taste and ethical sense constitute his own terroir.

U.S. critics of Mondovino seem intent on labeling the film an anti-globalist polemic, a naďve and wrong-headed condemnation of free trade and the globalized economy.  Jonathan, who lives for the chance to sample wines from Uruguay to Sardinia, whether he is in Paris or New York or Rio de Janeiro, finds this a puzzling criticism.  More than most, he recognizes the virtues of a global economy that allows his brother to buy Hubert de Montille’s Volnay at the local wine shop, down the street from his home in San Francisco, half a world away from its source.

Where Mondovino takes its stand is against global homogenization.  Call it cultural central planning, on the Soviet economic model, in which the preferences of a dominant economic power group are imposed everywhere, to the detriment of localism, variety, diversity.  That’s the effect of the influence of Robert Parker and his acolyte, consultant Michel Rolland, who plays a prominent part in Mondovino.  Parker and Rolland are not exponents of globalization, but rather of gustatory hegemony.  They’re not concerned with the free interchange of different wines from everywhere, to everywhere.  For them, there's “our” wine, and bad wine, a position Michel Rolland stakes out in Mondovino.  Mondovino incidentally is accused of being “too political,” as though such a thing were possible. But is there much difference between Rolland’s position and President Bush's “you're with us or against us” view of foreign relations?

The alternative to globalism is protectionism, a multi-laterally suicidal economic program.  Mondovino is no advocate of that.  For Rolland and Parker, there's the jammy fruit-bomb, or bad wine.  For the true globalist, there's room for everybody;  if a market exists for Newton Chardonnay (likened by one critic to a melted Popsicle, though beloved by Robert Parker), by all means make it.  Those who would rather drink Jean-Marc Roulot’s Meursault or a Lazy Creek Gewurztraminer should be able to do so with equal facility.

So many different agendas have been imposed on Mondovino that it’s become a cinematic Rorschach test.The fact of its being a lyrical, entertaining, and remarkably funny world tour of a subject most of us know only through our taste buds has somehow gotten lost.  Mondovino is rich in memorable characters, family drama, and gorgeous scenery.  Jonathan dedicated his film to our late parents, who left us neither vineyards nor chateaux.  Their legacy instead is a lifetime of separating the real from the fake and the honest from the charlatans, questioning those who hold power, and discovering tenderness in surprising places.  If that is the Nossiter family terroir, Mondovino is a true expression of it.

©
Joshua C. Nossiter, 2005
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