Wide World of Whine

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

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.

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.

At one point one of the good guys concludes, deeply, "It takes a poet to make a great wine."

Does it, really? Tell you what, buddy, you take Anne Sexton, Walt Whitman, and Lord Byron, I'll take a pile of software money and 12 migrant grape pickers, and we'll see who makes a great wine. And that is all I have to say about Mondovino, the movie, which, at two hours fifteen minutes, felt to me like four hours of trigonometry homework. If you're in the trade, you should go. If you're not, you'll likely be bored senseless or misled.

That said, I do have a lot more to say about the issues raised by Mondovino, and especially about how you can have a more interesting wine-drinking life if you participate in a way of thinking that doesn't have people's secondhand ideas of Pomerol at the top.

How does this distant idea of perfect Pomerol affect people who pay less than $15 a bottle? One word: Yellowtail. Oaky, sweet Australian Shiraz is, in a very distant way, trying to be Pomerol. So is syrupy California Merlot. Coincidentally, to my palate, these are also the two wines on earth that have the most in common with Coca-Cola. I watched Mondovino with three people from Wine World, on separate days: French wine importer Chris Osgood, who finds wines from the Languedoc for local distributor the Wine Company; Michael Arnold, who works for wine distributor Cat & Fiddle; and Jeanne Moillard, a young woman who lives in Burgundy and was in town promoting the wines of her family company, Moillard.

Each of these people wanted to talk about something that is more about our lives than it is about the movie: They wanted to talk about how aligned American and Australian palates have gotten to the idea of wine as a sweet, vanilla-toasty beverage, and how difficult it makes their passion of selling more distinct wines.

"To me, these wines taste like candy bars," said Chris Osgood, speaking of American or Australian mass-market reds. "In France, traditionally, wine is made to go with food--not to stun and overpower it. Every time I have one of these big American or Australian wines with a meal, I feel like I'm eating bites of a Snickers bar between bites of the meal. When I was 21 or 22, I definitely liked wines like that; I always thought, 'This is bigger than the last thing I tasted, therefore it's more memorable.' When you develop your palate you learn that bigger isn't necessarily better. What's memorable is the relationship between the food and the wine. With food and wine, in Europe, it's a chicken-and-egg thing: The two grew up together, they go together like people in a marriage, the sum is greater than the parts.

"For me, opening a wine is like opening a travel book: You get the geology, the geography, the history, the cuisine, and the climate of a single place, all packed into one bottle. And that is dying. The Sylvaner grape is just about gone in Alsace, suddenly there's just a lot of Chardonnay."

To counteract this homogenization of the world, Osgood brings in several Languedoc wines that have idiosyncratic character. We tried a few of his wines while we talked about issues that weren't in Mondovino. Château Eugénie, a Cahors Malbec (called Auxerrois in France) that's available for about $12 at Surdyk's, Liquor Depot, France 44, and Zipp's. This dark wine doesn't have the obvious fruit or friendliness of a wannabe Pomerol. Instead it has a strongly mineral nose, a scent of plums or prunes, and the funkiness of truffles, all hung upon a bracingly angular and stiff structure that cuts through the world like an axe blade.

You want a different experience than soda pop? Look no further. This Château Eugénie seems like it would be forceful enough to stand up to any steak coming off the most char-laden backyard barbecue, or, in winter, to prickle up the palate to prevent a cassoulet from becoming too unctuous.

Osgood also has an unusual wine made from the Négrette grape, a small, very black-skinned grape grown outside of Toulouse. This wine, Château Bouissel, is available for around $10.99 at Solo Vino, Thomas Liquors, and Surdyk's, and, for a dollar or two more, in an oaked version at Sutler's, in Stillwater. It's an unusual wine, deep black, very acidic, full of red cherry, red fruit, and various Grenache-like elements, as well as a unique nose of saddle-leather and cassis. Osgood said that the Négrette grape came to Toulouse during the crusades, that the knights brought it back from Malta.  

You want to participate in unique regional culture? Knights. Malta. No kidding. Possibly even chain mail and swords. Château Bouissel. Again, I could see this as a good barbecue wine: Because of all the acid, it would be ideal for something both barbecued and spicy, like a garlic-filled lamb sausage, or something with pork and sweeter spices such as cinnamon. The final wine Osgood and I tasted was a Cabernet Franc from the Loire Valley, les Poyeux from Saumur Champigny, which costs $12.99, exclusively at Surdyk's. This French Cabernet Franc was aggressive and intense: figgy, violet-scented, fiercely tannic, with a stiff, practically crystalline structure and a tarry density. It was the exact opposite of a Coca-Cola wine: It was like a bone corset on a gamine smoking a Gauloise.

The next day, as if on cue, Michael Arnold, Jeanne Moillard, and I tasted a new-world Cabernet Franc he handles, from teensy California producer Smith Wooton. It was bursting with the fragrance of violets and roses, real blackberries and raspberries, and a bit of the brambly scent of dried raspberry leaves and vines. It was very acidic and nicely knit, in the manner of a true food wine. Still, tasting the same fruit in the hands of the two cultures seemed to suggest something about the French palate and its love of structure, something a worldwide taste for Coca-Cola wines is threatening to destroy.

I couldn't help but think that the real problem at hand was not Robert Parker and his taste for Pomerol. The real problem is that so many of us fail to have any interest in our own taste. Instead of tasting, pursuing, cultivating, and being interested in ourselves, in the infinite possibility of our own physical experience of the sensual world, we run to other people's idea of status, be it other critics' wine taste, or filmmakers' inclination to demonize that taste. So I say to you: Try some unusual wine this summer. You might fall out of step with the drumbeat of the world, but you also might gain your self.

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