Wide World of Whine

Controversial documentary 'Mondovino' just might drive you to drink

Mondovino, the most controversial documentary in the history of time, opens at Minneapolis's Lagoon Cinema this week. You think I exaggerate? On wine websites, death threats have been issued. In the wine press, blood feuds have multiplied like Pinot Noir stains on a Thanksgiving tablecloth.

All because filmmaker Jonathan Nossiter flew through seven countries on three continents filming various prominent wine folks, mostly French and Californian, as they stride forward on the front lines of wine globalization, or, alternately, don't stride at all, and muse on why.

Yea, as I write to you, a line has truly been drawn, in flaming bile, forever separating those who consider Pomerol a perfect state of being and those who consider it a region overestimated.

Pastoral poster child: Burgundian winemaker Hubert De Montille in 'Mondovino'
Pastoral poster child: Burgundian winemaker Hubert De Montille in 'Mondovino'

What's Pomerol? Oh, sugar, if you don't know what Pomerol is, then you need to just turn the page and read something else, because this tempest in a teapot ain't for the likes of pretty little you.

Okay, okay. You want to know what Pomerol is? Well, I'll tell you, but it likely won't do you any more good than a dead hound in a rain barrel. You're already excluded from the Mondovino tempest and will have to find something else to fight with wine folks about.

If you must know, Pomerol is part of Bordeaux, that part of France that is the oldest, most esteemed, and best-known wine-growing region since the dinosaurs. Yet, while most of Bordeaux has much to do with the Cabernet Sauvignon grape, Pomerol, and especially its standard bearer, Château Pétrus, makes a wine that is almost 100 percent Merlot (though sometimes some Cabernet Franc is blended in). Is Château Pétrus the most delicious wine in the world? Beats me. I checked Haskell's website while I was writing this paragraph and was simply gobsmacked to note that they have a bottle of the 2000 vintage for $1,600. The 1996, described by Robert Parker as "monolithic," "backwards," and "requiring patience," can be had for the low, low price of $1,400.

Who's Robert Parker? Why, he's only the most important wine critic to ever spit in a bucket. Now, you just imagine yourself a cross between George Washington, Superman, and a glowing orb, and you'll get the idea. Or, alternately, you just imagine yourself a middle-aged journalist with a few extra pounds and a beard who started writing about the wines of Bordeaux back when they were bought exclusively by rich British guys with monocles.

When Parker started, he had the audacity to give the wines he wrote about number scores. His American and Japanese followers used Parker's number scores as their primary buying guide, and since American and Japanese money has been so important these last three decades, Parker's influence has been outsize. And so, the wines that Mr. Parker really, really likes, such as those of Pomerol, have gotten to prices that are really outsize, and a number of people have come to imagine that all of wine is on some kind of march to perfection of a hundred points, that hundred points being a good year of Château Pétrus.

Importantly, some Napa Valley wines share a similar profile to Château Pétrus, which is to say they are rich with red fruits, black fruits, and truffles on the nose; supple and silky in the mouth; deeply colored in the glass; and, overall, rich, powerful, pure, oaky, superbly concentrated, elegant, rich, and powerful. Hey, did I mention rich and powerful? Just like the people who make them, buy them, and sometimes even drink them.

How does this affect people who pay less for their evening beverage than they might for diamond jewelry? Mondovino, the documentary, never directly addresses this. What filmmaker Jonathan Nossiter does address is what a bunch of French folks think about this fairly recent Parker and Pomerol ascendancy, and the town-flattening hurricane of money that follows it. As you might imagine, the people who are profiting from it think it is just swell. The people losing money, tradition, and power think it is simply awful.

The reason Mondovino is so controversial comes from the fact that Nossiter clearly has a favored side--the old-school wine makers who are losing the globalization battle--and he uses what many see as dirty tricks to get his point across: Folks on the winning side are filmed so that they are out of focus or look in some other way grotesque, and inordinate attention is paid to any servant or worker of theirs who might enter the shot; good people are shown in their homes or in nature. Folks on the winning side are asked where their ancestors or company predecessors were during the Nazi or Fascist era; the good people are spared such rude queries. The bad people always have cell phones going off. The good people always have dogs that run free.

As someone who counts herself pretty much invariably on the side of underdogs, diversified native agriculture, and dogs frolicking in the vineyards, and solidly against millionaires in limousines with hazy fascist connections, I was amazed how much I disliked Mondovino, and how much sympathy I felt for the villains. I think this had to do with how familiar and tired this territory was for someone who reads the food and wine press (homogenization = bad, globalization = bad, small = good, me go home now?) and how often the movie passes off loosey-goosey liberal-pastoral nonsense as wisdom.

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