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For ‘Mondovino’ director, glass is half empty

Nossiter laments the globalization of the wine industry
/ Source: Reuters

The success of the Oscar-nominated comedy "Sideways" has made wine movies the order of the day, but the director of "Mondovino" says his documentary about the business is no feel-good wine film.

It's about the destruction of something sacred.

"I didn't want to make a wine film precisely because I didn't want to contribute to the great lake of snobbery and pretension that swirls around wine," Jonathan Nossiter said in an interview in New York where the film opens on Wednesday.

Filmed from Argentina to Italy, California and Burgundy, the film is a polemic against the globalization and homogenization of wine and the destruction of "terroir," a French term that translates as "land" but which for Nossiter has broader meanings encompassing cultural identity and individuality.

"It's a mirror of the world we live in," Nossiter said of his film. "Once I was midway through the film it became clear to me that where goes wine, goes the world, and that involuntarily I was getting a portrait of the world at large."

"People who go to see the film are not necessarily wine people," he added. "It's for people who never even imagined that wine was important to their lives."

"The film provokes the notion that wine is linked to your life whether you drink it or not, and it's an expression of the world you live in. The threat to the identity of wine is a threat to all of us."

Filmed over four years with a hand-held camera and a crew of no more than three, the film draws intimate portraits of the people who make wine, such as Hubert de Montille, an elderly Frenchman who maintains an uneasy relationship with his son who has taken over the family business and his daughter who works for a rival wine maker.

There are fading Italian aristocrats who speak French out of snobbery, an ever-smiling French wine consultant who appears to recommend the same recipe to every wine maker from Chile to Hungary and a colorful line-up of dogs.

No false objectivityNossiter shows all sides of the story, but the viewer is left with little doubt that the "villains" of the piece, for him, are the corporate powers such as the Mondavi brothers who run a global wine empire from their base in California.

Nossiter admits he was not objective but says he was careful to give every point of view a fair say. "It's not just some narcissistic little film about what the director is feeling, because who the hell cares?"

An American who grew up in France, England, Italy and Greece, Nossiter started his film career as assistant to the director on "Fatal Attraction". He won the Sundance Film Festival's Grand Jury prize for best film for the 1997 drama "Sunday", starring David Suchet and directed Charlotte Rampling in the 2000 drama "Signs and Wonders".

He is also a trained sommelier who has worked in restaurants since the age of 15, an experience that has brought him in contact with wine experts for most of his life.

"I've watched with colleagues, with growing alarm, the homogenization and the threat to the infinite diversity of wine," Nossiter said.

He dates the start of the rot to the "Reagan-Thatcher revolution" combined with a growing U.S. appetite for wine and the increasing power of wine journalists, notably leading critic Robert Parker whose ratings can sink or sell any wine.

"These forces coalesced in the '80s and started to produce their extremely bitter fruit in the '90s," he said.

"Wine, particularly in this country, started to get identified just as a luxury consumer product, something with a numerical rating that exists outside any relation to culture and to human beings," he said.

Nossiter said the push toward standardization and efficiency was destroying individuality and history.

"What makes humans and wine noble in my opinion is their ability to tolerate each other's defects," he said.

Nossiter edited 500 hours of footage to make the film and is also making a 10-hour mini-series from it.

He speaks with passion about the subject, calling for countries to protect their wines by declaring them part of their "cultural patrimony".

"It's the only chance for wine's survival; it has to be considered something sacred," he said. "It is a sacred relationship with our past, it is a living museum.

"What is happening to wine today is as outrageous as if we tolerated people going into MOMA and retouching all the colors of Picasso's 'Les Demoiselles d'Avignon' with acrylic just because it'll be a little shinier and brighter and easier for the public to understand," he said.