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‘Mondovino’ pokes holes in wine’s mystique

Forget ‘Sideways’: This is ‘Fahrenheit 9/11’ for the grape

A single shot in Jonathan Nossiter's “Mondovino” reveals its true focus.

Patrick Léon, co-CEO of wine producer Mouton-Rothschild, chattily describes his company's prowess, but the camera focuses on a worker tinkering with a gutter in the background. Léon may be in the picture, but the real action lies with the guy who's getting his hands dirty.

Nossiter sets up this split again and again: a proud peasant sensibility that he connects to the soul of winemaking versus modern corporate interests and their global reach, which he views as wine's greatest threat.

It's no surprise, then, that he chooses early on to feature Battista Columbu of Sardinia, who describes his work with the malvasia grape as an “ethical commitment,” a broadside against global consumerism's vast powers.

“Poor people also have the right” to make wine, Columbu insists.

While "Sideways" has gotten all the attention, a very different film is setting some big names in the wine world on edge.

Nossiter's “Mondovino” (ThinkFilm) is a love letter to maverick winemakers around the world, but it's also the wine equivalent of “Fahrenheit 9/11”: a screed against what he views as darker forces of globalization, which squeeze the individuality and the terroir — wine's sense of place — out of the bottle.

“Imagine a world in which you've eliminated all foods which are not sweet and sugary,” Nossiter says by phone as he sets up a new home in Brazil. “That's where we're heading in the wine world.”

A Sundance-winning director and son of Washington Post and New York Times correspondent Bernard Nossiter, he comes well prepared for his latest project. Raised in France and trained as a sommelier, Nossiter helped craft the wine lists in New York restaurants like Balthazar.

His would-be villain is Michel Rolland, self-described “flying winemaker” and mega-consultant. Couched in the back of his cruising Mercedes, his reach extends from his Bordeaux labs to Napa, Argentina and South Africa. Nossiter's lens captures him as he juggles cell phone calls, laughs with eerie gusto and exhorts clients to “micro-oxygenate” (the use of tiny bubbles to soften wine's tannins and punch up its taste).

Rolland speaks glowingly of his wines' “style.” When questioned about personal taste, he quips, “Yeah, it's called diversity. That's why there are so many bad wines.”

Unlike Michael Moore, Nossiter is a largely spectral presence in his own film, but his view is clearly that what Rolland views as a style is little more than a homogenization of taste, so that Bordeaux wine and Californian wine and Argentinian wine all taste the same — critically lauded but insipid, with little trace of their true origins.

Rolland has disavowed from the film, claiming at one point it was “reductionist, distorted and unfair.” In France, especially, the film has sharply divided the wine elite, who see Nossiter's film either as a long-needed broadside or a hatchet job.

As the film unfolds, Nossiter hops from Bordeaux to Mondavi's Napa headquarters to the Cafayate district of Argentina, deepening the dichotomy between struggling farmers and well-funded companies intent on dominating the marketplace.

Argentine vintner Antonio Cabezas, barely making ends meet, is proudly shown offering a bottle of wine as a gift, while the wealthy Etchart family lounges in its nearby estate, favorably comparing Juan Peron and Mussolini. (One of the film's occasional cheap shots.)

Top wine luminaries fair only slightly better. Robert Parker, the world's most powerful wine critic, is caught offering effusive praise for Rolland — which is crucial, because Parker's preference for big, soft, luscious wines are so frequently invoked by his critics as a major cause of wine's growing uniformity.

Parker is seen philosophizing on screen as his flatulent dogs lumber around his Maryland home, but at least he gets to make his case: that he brings a sort of equivocal consumerism to the snobby world of wine.

Nossiter doesn't seem to buy that for a moment, though. He unsparingly calls the modern wine industry a “crypto-fascist system,” and sees collusion between major companies like Constellation Brands, a retail network and even wine media like Parker or the Wine Spectator.

“The so-called fourth estate in the wine industry doesn't exist,” he says. “They're there to promote the status quo.”

Can you find the wine?
Largely lost in this shuffle are the people Nossiter holds up as heroes. This includes not only artisanal winemakers but also people like , who imports small but prestigious wines — including pricey selections from stars like Yves Cuilleron but also easily affordable $10 bottles like those from Provence's Commanderie de Peyrassol.

Nossiter's contention is that plenty of good wines from all over the world can be found for little more than the cost of a bottle of Yellow Tail. But most of us will never find them, because the market shoves big brands down our throats. Or, in the words of winemaker Aimé Guibert, who helped fight off a Mondavi project his Languedoc hometown of Aniane, “Wine is dead.”

I'm not entirely convinced by the dichotomies Nossiter sets up, but his points about wine's corporate makeover are hard to dispute. Look no farther than Robert Mondavi, who mostly spends his cameo sitting mutely as son Michael rambles on about making wine on Mars (you heard me right). Constellation bought control of his company, leaving an industry pioneer on the sidelines.

There are exceptions — Nossiter names Alsatian negociant Trimbach, for one — but he is unwavering in his belief that a mix of corporate muscle, permissive regulation and well-oiled marketing machines lead to more of us drinking boring, mass-produced wine. One look at the average supermarket wine shelf, and you can't help but think he's on to something.

"Mondovino" is set for limited U.S. release March 23.