If Sideways is a comedic masterpiece inspired by wine culture, then Mondovino is its dreary opposite, a overly long and literally unfocused documentary about the wine industry. Jonathan Nossiter, who produced, directed, shot and edited the film, interviews rustic grape growers as well as aristocratic viticulturists and globe-trotting oenologists, a range that requires him to travel to vineyards, wineries and warehouses on three continents and speak in four languages. Yet the film fails to capture the terroir of the matter, to borrow a term of art that, for Nossiter, represents not only the spirit of wine, but the heart and soul of civilization.
Nossiter certainly knows his subject, having worked as sommelier for Balthazar and other trendy New York restaurants before turning to filmmaking. He's an adequate if not an exacting journalist, benefiting from the experience of his father, a foreign correspondent for The Washington Post and The New York Times. But he botches his role as cameraman and editor, turning a promising concept into an amorphous, amateurish exercise all the more disappointing because he had access to an impressive array of industry giants, including Robert Mondavi, who in less than 40 years built a worldwide billion-dollar business.
Mondovino, a clever pun playing on the California vintner's name and the Italian words for world and wine (as well as the sobriquet attached to the cult-movie genre), advances the argument that wine is being ruined by the forces of globalization. Rapacious multinationals such as Mondavi expand the market for their brands by manipulating tastes and undercutting competitors. Grapes cultivated with the aid of chemicals and pesticides and fermented using modern methods that nudge their palette to global tastes are more predictable in all ways, thus more economical. Smaller artisan winemakers attuned to the unique soil and climate properties of different regions-the aforementioned terroir-find it increasingly difficult to merchandise distinguished but unknown wines.
"Wine is an almost religious relationship between man and the natural elements," opines Aimé Guibert, owner of a vineyard in the town of Aniane, in the Languedoc region of France, who mounted a campaign against the Mondavis when they attempted to buy land nearby. Alas, this worshipful attitude is waning. "Wine is dead," he complains bitterly. "And not just wine. Fruits. Cheeses..."
Anyone who has strolled through Les Halles in Paris, only to find the McDonald's more crowded than any local café, or wandered around Greenwich Village in New York, where there's a Starbucks on every other corner, might make the same lament. On the other hand, such whining (forgive the pun) smacks of sour grapes. The trend toward consolidation is a fact of modern life, and while this has imposed a certain sameness on what used to be distinct pleasures, it also makes an array of products affordable to a greater number of people. If modestly priced merlots from California taste exasperatingly similar to those from Australia and, for that matter, France, there are plenty of varietals for the more adventurous, as Sideways makes plain.
Mondovino's premise isn't the problem, however. Nossiter's unsubtle editing amounts to a kind of hatchet job, his prejudices overruling his artistic and common senses. Here's consultant Michel Roland, one of the most powerful men in the industry and, apparently, one of the most pampered, being chauffeured from winery to winery where, at each stop, he swills, spits and declaims-"Mircooxygenate!"-as though it were a shaman's spell. And here's critic Robert Parker defending his unprecedented influence on the business while his decrepit bulldog farts away in his study, to the delight of the film crew.
Some of this is funny. When Michael Mondavi muses that his heirs might one day make wine in outer space ("Beam me up, Scotty, send me some wine from Mars...or something"), we realize that wealthy entrepreneurs talking shop are just as vapid as movies stars discussing politics. But Nossiter doesn't realize his own preoccupations are equally silly, as when he repeatedly turns his camera on framed photographs of Ronald Reagan (mounted on the office walls of a number of interviewees) as though Republicans, somehow, have spoiled wine for us all. "They're suppressing their terroir," says American importer Neal Rosenthal of Bordeaux winemakers, "just as our freedoms are being suppressed here, in the U.S."
Worse still is Nossiter's annoying habit of constantly fiddling with his camera, a technique, if one can call it that, best described as ADD, attention-deficit direction. Zoom in on the subject's right eye, zoom back, track passing cart laden with oak casks, pan to barking dog in the courtyard... "I've always operated the camera a lot in the films I've made," he states in publicity material for the film, "but never with so much sense of intimacy and joy of discovery. Even if the camera seems like it had a little too much to drink at times."
Mondovino proves as self-consciously cloying as such pronouncements suggest it will be. Perhaps the ten-part series planned as a follow-up to the theatrical release will be a bit more sober.