According to vintner Aimé Guilbert, "It takes a poet to make great wine." But in the oenophilic documentary Mondovino, the watchword is "micro-oxygenate," a term that sounds increasingly comical once you've heard ronin wine consultant Michel Rolland repeat it like a mantra to one small vineyard owner after another. The thing is, "micro-oxygenate" doesn't scan. And that's pretty much filmmaker Jonathan Nossiter's point.
Along with megavintners the Mondavi family and Wine Spectator kingmaker Robert Parker, Rolland is one of the select group of people who determine which combination of tannin and oak reaches discerning palates worldwide, using the most modern, efficient methods available.
Not surprisingly, there are plenty of collaborators keen to get in bed with Mondavi et al., but that's nothing new in the history of the vine. The Frescobaldi heirs suggest that Mussolini non c'era male for Italy; Peron supported an Argentinian vineyard family's efforts; even Juif Mouton Rothschild sold wine to the Germans in 1940. But then as now there is also the resistance, in this case wizened, raisiny old men with a few hectares of vines in pockets of France and Italy who embrace the notion of terroir and dismiss the current craze for oak barrels and other homogenizing, sped-up measures.
Nossiter is not especially subtle in building his anti-globalization argument. He lets the tech-monied Staglins, who also collect, er, challenging outdoor art, hang themselves when they earnestly insist that the Mexicans working their California vineyards are also their friends: "They work for us, but we know their first names." And the film returns again and again to the impish patriarch of the de Montille family, Hubert, who is given to cheerful pronouncements like "I can be odious." However, he comes off as principled and passionate when he and his daughter Alix acerbically dismiss "whore wines," vintages that sell their taste up front but lack the staying power to taste as good in 15 years.
The camera rushes into these speakers' faces, filling the frame until you can count individual pores and lashes, then wanders away while they're still talking to watch animals or children in the background. This technique may be meant to emphasize wine's place within la vie quotidian, but it ultimately distracts. Yet, thanks to this fidgety approach, we learn that everywhere there wine is made, there are dogs, apparently, from wine critic Parker's famous and flatuent bulldog George to a black Argentinian dog affectionately called "Luther King" after the slain American civil rights leader.
When it showed at Cannes last year, Mondovino was almost three hours long. It's since been cut, which might explain why shifts between segments are handled awkwardly, often marked by odd silences on the soundtrack that had me wondering, more than once, whether we'd encountered technical problems. At its current running time, a still-leisurely 135 minutes, Mondovino plys the viewer with plenty of characters, history, science, and gorgeous globe-trotting locales. It's an interesting strategy to advocate for the old ways of making wine by taking the time to tell this complicated story, allowing details to accrete and flavor notes to blossom. But at its epic length, Mondovino lacks poetry. Its entire argument could fit neatly into a haiku:
is bad, terroir-istes insist.