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Articles March,  2006

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 Mondo Mess

This is a "documentary" in the modern style--slanted, opinionated, simplistic, and unfair.  It seeks to prove, if I might sum it up, that annoying rich folks have destroyed the soul of wine--whatever that is. It is hard to count the faults of this movie without turning an article into an encyclopedia.  If it were just a matter of the director, Jonathan Nossiter, promoting his anti-globalization agenda, it would be bad enough, simplistic, naïve and irrelevant. It is more than that, though. It makes points by out-of-context cuts and by ad hominem attacks having nothing to do with wine. It stacks the deck by mostly only allowing its own preferred speakers to respond directly to various important points. It creates simplistic caricatures and situations.  You never get to hear the questions asked--only the answers. Given the intense biases displayed by Nossiter and the effort to stack the deck in other places, this leads one to distrust the integrity of his process even more. The movie is not even filmed well, to take the most basic point--many have decried its shaky camera work.

In short, this attack-umentary is at best naïve and tedious, at worst intellectually dishonest and a gross distortion of reality. It deserves the scorn of anyone knowledgeable about wine. Anyone not knowledgeable, who may not realize what they are not hearing, what Nossiter doesn't mention, should quite literally be told to suspend judgment until they learn more.  Jonathan Nossiter makes Michael Moore look like a dispassionate observer, and meticulous historian.

 Let’s start with the basic, childish construct at the center of the movie--a portrayal of good and evil through caricatures.  In this simplistic film, Robert Mondavi becomes a caricatured villain and Hubert de Montille becomes an eccentric hero, a rather incredible juxtaposition to anyone who knows of both of them.

Robert Mondavi is merely someone who risked every nickel he and his family had in his passion to convince the world that California could make great wine.  If modern California has a Moses, it is Robert Mondavi, armed with his conviction that California could not just settle for making simple quaffers.  Mondavi became a big company, but they were rarely rolling in dough. They more often seemed to be one step from disaster all the time, and as of this writing, Mondavi has itself been bought. You would never know any of that from watching this utterly misleading and simplistic film, which portrays Mondavi as a soulless machine.   In one section of the film, Guibert of Mas de Daumas Gassac, one of the eccentric “small grower” heroes, as portrayed by the film, lauds a wealthy French investor, Magrez, as an intelligent man who built a wine business out of nothing.  This is supposed to be in contrast to Robert Mondavi.  While even Nossiter can’t help but point out to Guibert that Magrez is also a big commercial company, Guibert’s implied denunciation of Mondavi goes unanswered. If you did not know who Robert Mondavi is and what he has accomplished, this film could leave you more than a little confused.

Nossiter spends a lot of time on Mondavi in France, but he doesn’t seem to want to discuss Moueix of Petrus in Napa, or Drouhin in Oregon, or Perrin of Beaucastel in Central California or Jean-Michel Cazes (Lynch Bages) representing Axa in Hungary, or important foreign involvement in other regions. A Danish winemaker was helpful in revitalizing a region in Spain  (Pingus in Ribera del Duero). A French winemaker makes wines for Peter Michael in California.  A Belgian makes wine in Burgundy, there are British and Americans in Bordeaux, at fabled estates no less (like Haut Brion).  All of these have been positive forces in their regions.  Mentioning all that might turn Nossiter’s film from the simplistic tirade that it is into an actual discussion.  It might also be noted, by the way, that not all French winemakers are native to their regions either. You can find guys from Alsace making wine in Sauternes (Chateau Coutet, for instance), and so on. The portrait Nossiter tries to paint of a unified local culture being destroyed by outsiders was never quite so clear in the first place. The world has changed. Communities are no longer so insular--which is a good thing for wine as it encourages innovation and progress. We no longer live in 1855.

Conversely, at the other end of the caricature scale, Hubert de Montille is more than the charming eccentric presented in the film. Even in the film, his own favored child calls him often "odious," and indeed he is, but we never find out why.  This is someone with anti-American credentials so strong that he once said in a restaurant to wine reviewer Pierre Rovani that he was “content” after the 9-11 terrorist bombing.  Might that create a particularly relevant context here given how much effort de Montille spends on inane arguments attacking America in one fashion or another in the film, ranging from his comments about American imperialism to Robert Parker being more or less in conspiracy with California wineries? That, to be clear, is not an ad hominem attack. It is an explanation of what underpins de Montille's extreme and frequently expressed views on America, its wines and its most famous critic.

Whenever you think you have seen the ultimate in heavy-handed emoting, Nossiter will surprise you again. It doesn’t take long to find out who the bad guys are. Anyone  or any winery Nossiter wishes to attack is preceded by screen information telling you how wealthy they are, or how many bottles of wine they produce. Admittedly, Nossiter’s ham fisted approach becomes almost amusing after awhile. You wonder how someone could actually spend so much effort to make a film like this and fail to see how its own broad brush and cartoonish strokes hurt whatever points it might make.

While Nossiter doesn’t seem to want you to know much about either Robert Mondavi or de Montille---which would, after all, destroy the simplistic and opposing caricatures that the movie sets up---he has no hesitancy in elaborating on biographies when it suits his purpose.  When he interviews the Frescobaldi family, for instance, Nossiter keeps asking questions designed to draw out admissions that the family supported fascism in the 1930s and 1940s. In a similar ad hominem attack, Nossiter interviews the CEO of Mouton Rothschild, and makes sure to linger on a photograph of President Ronald Reagan in his office. He interviews the Staglins in Napa Valley, and spotlights comments on irrelevant issues that are obviously intended to prove they are arrogant and condescending to their workers. He pointedly--as if it proves a point--links Imperial Britain to Bordeaux first growths.

These personal attacks and digressions must prove…..what? That some winemakers are right wing? That they are jerks? That they have the wherewithal to afford nice things? That they are not ashamed of achievement and success and money? That in turn proves…what? The Nossiter technique is simply to smear a little on tangential issues, and then assume that answers all questions. No further discussion required.  Of course, in typical Nossiter fashion, the interviewed get no chance to defend themselves or address issues that Nossiter creates primarily through scenes, visual graphics, in the film (as with the lingering close-up of Ronald Reagan, or switching to a scene showing a fast food outlet after getting a Parker quote, one of the many cheap shots in the film).  Does the fact that Mouton is a substantial corporation these days mean it cannot make good wine or even that it is damaging wine regions?  Is it really true that only a peasant grower whose great grandparents were born in the region and who makes little money in a little domain can ensure the soul of wine?  Taking all the nonsense that Nossiter splatters against the wall, something like that must be his point. It seems to follow inevitably from the crude attack on anyone with money, or size or power, especially if not native to the region in question.

Nossiter "facts" are a curious thing in this movie. Take, for instance, the Staglin (supposed) condescension to their workers. If Nossiter is really concerned about them, it is odd that he does absolutely no investigation or reporting to determine if the workers are in fact well treated and happy.  I guess he didn't really care enough to do any actual investigative reporting, preferring instead to rely on his "smear a little, assume that answers everything" technique. Everything is by innuendo. Then,  the viewer can assume that everything evil must flow therefrom, a classic logical disconnect, classically improper argumentation. 

Let's assume hypothetically that Nossiter has it right on this tangential issue--the Staglins are arrogant and condescending. So?  Do they make bad wine? Are they ruining Napa? Should they be hung at dawn, and their property turned over to Mexican itinerant workers who will be permitted to make the wine instead?  Nossiter’s fuzzy reasoning and weepy emoting never connect the dots.  A simple ad hominem attack, the more tangential and unrelated the better, evidently, answers all questions.  It is, of course, much easier to toss in a few such things than it is to actually discuss important issues that have facets and nuances--and whose resolution might not always support the little guys of whom Nossiter is so enamored. Therein lies the problem, of course--to Nossiter, there are no grays, just blacks and whites,  the evil rich interlopers versus the poor, native born peasants. Sloppy thinking, sloppy reasoning, predetermined results.

Nossiter spends ample time pointing out political connections, as well as ancient history in the case of Frescobaldi, but no time at all letting his targets address issues directly. That, again, might get him answers he doesn’t want and destroy the simplistic framework he has created.  For instance, one might discover that foreign investment and corporate interests have often greatly improved wine around the world. In Mondovino, foreign investment is automatically evil--the better to pound on Nossiter’s globalization theme. All we see are poor oppressed peasants, and neo-fascists, in Nossiter’s typically childish exaggerations.  Money seems itself to be evil. You can't be true to wine if you are rich and have lots of money, evidently.

Responding directly to Mondovino's exaggerations concerning big, wealthy winery owners, Jancis Robinson said on October 6, 2005: "It is not just small, homespun operations that disprove this myth about "industrial" New World wine. There could hardly be better-funded wineries than Napa Valley cult winemakers Araujo Estate Wines and Harlan Estate, yet here every bit as much effort is put into refining every detail of vine growing and winemaking as at France's first growths - perhaps more, because they don't have a centuries-old track record to fall back on. I am not the only wine traveler to feel that there is no one in the wine world more meticulous than California's top vintners, with their precision viticulture, yield monitors in their vineyards and the most expensive oak barrels in the world in their cellars."

The flip side of the coin, by the way,  isn't black and white, either. The little guys often make lousy wine. The Languedoc region that Nossiter visited, for instance, was derided for decades as one of the world’s worst, churning out cheap swill with no concern for quality. It is not, by the way, a new revelation to note that small growers are not always honest, competent or effective. 

"Too much sentimentality has been wasted upon small producers....Dirt and disease are integral parts of peasant life....Third-rate vines which produce nasty fruit but a lot of it, mildewed grapes which the owner is too poor or obstinate to reject, dirty barns, foul vats, ancient and ill-smelling wine-presses, masses of flies and muck---all these are the tolerated plagues of makers of "little local wines."  --Raymond Postgate, Portuguese Wines, 1969.

This is not exactly a new discovery, by the way. Some three hundred years earlier, John Locke wrote: "The grapes often are also very rotten, and always full of spiders. Besides that, I have been told by those of the country, that they often put salt, dung and other filthiness, in their wine to help, as they think, its purging. But, without these additions, the very sight of their treading and making their wine...walking without any scruple out of the dirt and into grapes they were treading.....were enough to set one's stomach ever after against this sort of liquor."
--John Locke, 1679,Observations upon the Growth and Culture of Vines and Olives

Peasants uber alles?

One discussion curiously missing from this movie is the most obvious---is wine better today? Most everyone would say yes. So, is it possible that bigger companies and foreign investment have played a role in improving wine production and technology? This discussion is essentially missing from the film. It is not something that even occurs to Nossiter. Nossiter’s is a particularly romantic view of wine, long on emotion, short on substance. The problem with romance is that it has little use for facts or logic.   When Nossiter cross-examines Robert Parker on the effect a bad review may have on a small grower, Nossiter seems to use the scene to project offense at the concept that Parker's reviews might harm such a person, a noble worker of the soil, a little guy continuing his family tradition (evidently, of making crap). One wonders what Nossiter thinks Parker or other critics should do instead. Should we drink bad wine as a social obligation? I guess this amounts to a theory of: buy lousy wine to support the incompetent.

As bad as the ideology of the film is, even more troubling is the way the deck is simply stacked to support Nossiter’s illusions of wine. All filmmakers, writers and authors have opinions, but an opinion has no validity if not based on some reasonable attempt to assemble the relevant facts. When Nossiter pretends to assemble facts, and then leaves out most of the story, or simply engages in character assassination,  it is fundamentally deceptive and intellectually dishonest.  For instance, he will quote Neal Rosenthal about terroir and sense of place. Then, in his traditional ham fisted way, he cuts away to Michel Rolland in a car, supposedly the epitome of the traveling winemaker.  The point is made visually, by graphics in the film---and no one gets to respond to the cheap shot--and irrelevancy. Nossiter will, however, quote Broadbent in a typical rant on Chateau Kirwan not tasting like a Margaux. Broadbent is evidently having some trouble picking out the Margaux terroir and thinks the Kirwan seems  more like a Pomerol to him.  Does Michel Rolland get to spend any time defending his wine? Does he get to address Broadbent directly? Does Parker get to address the issue? Does he get to comment on Broadbent’s unintentionally hilarious statement that he would rather drink a Kirwan that is not particularly good than one that didn’t remind him of (what he sees as) Margaux? Well, no. After all---once again, we wouldn't want to get caught up in a discussion of wine quality and have to deal with the fact that the caricatured villains may actually be making better wine than a lot of the "heroes."  Alas, there is no point dealing with shades of gray when one has so much fun with black and white, heroes and villains, caricatures of all types.

The cut-away technique Nossiter uses becomes more ominous as it becomes more deceptive. For instance, de Montille calls Parker an advocate of the USA, whose winemakers hide lack of terroir in new oak. Parker ratings are made by a “good, American patriot,” evidently as part of a conspiracy to destroy French wines and make them like Americans. This is all American imperialism. (The film has a distinctly anti-American feel to it...)  As previously noted, you don’t find out about de Montille’s views on America, which might be relevant in judging this tirade, despite Nossiter's amazing attention for detail when discussing Frescobaldi history.  Plus, analogous to the caricature of Mondavi, you don’t find about Robert Parker's background. That's Robert Parker, the famous, flaming Francophile, whose favorite regions are Bordeaux and the Rhone Valley, the same Parker  who was particularly condemned early on by Californians as being prejudiced against them. De Montille’s accusation of Parker being in some combine with California is hilarious in this factual context, but this again is not something you will ever learn in Mondovino.  Nossiter doesn't mind wasting a lot of time on Parker's dog and its farts, though.

Instead, you will get another Nossiter cut-away after de Montille's comments about Parker pushing California. Here now is a scene where Parker is conducting a tasting, and talks about introducing American techniques to his approach to French wine. He was talking about his pro-consumer approach---that is, making even fabled wines prove they are worth the money and are well made, an approach hearkening back to the Ralph Nader-ish consumer techniques that inspired him. The cut-away and juxtaposition of scenes by Nossiter makes it seem as if Parker was pleading guilty to de Montille's charge that he was trying to Americanize French wine. It is a remarkably deceptive filmmaking technique,  and the points at issue in the two scenes were not even the same. Do you disagree that Nossiter intended this cut-away to be evidence that de Montille had a point, that it was deliberately intended to provide the viewer with The Answer to de Montille's accusation? Then... why was the scene quoting Parker in the tasting there in the film in the first place? If it wasn’t supposed to be related to de Montille's tirade, it is an inexplicable tangent with no introduction. Given that it is in fact not related, we must assume, given the juxtaposition, that Nossiter thinks it is.  Either he is not capable of seeing the difference, or he doesn't mind being misleading. Simply put, Nossiter’s filming reaches the point of intellectual dishonesty with techniques like this.

I could go on--and at times I have. Nossiter is less concerned with wine quality, I think, than his emotional and romantic illusion of noble peasants toiling the soil of their native land. (I suppose, Hubert de ("de," being the sign of nobility in France) Montille, a former lawyer, fits this profile.) Locals are, of course, the only possible and rightful owners of everything. The vineyards are theirs to keep and to hold forever, and no one can make wine there unless he has family roots going back a certain number of generations. We should evidently accept the results, no matter what.  On the other hand, if you are rich, you are bad. If you are a corporation, you are bad. No more Haut Brion from those silly Americans! No more Léoville Barton from that silly Brit. No more Pinot Noir in Oregon from Drouhin. The land can only be tilled by those native to the region, and preferably there for a long time. Nossiter might deny that this is his thesis, but something along those lines certainly seems to me to follow logically from the scenes he creates. His vision of wine is grossly simplistic.

In GQ Magazine, Nossiter indicated that California wineries were trying to discredit him (translation for the rest of us: "tell the truth").  Actually, one doesn't need to discredit Nossiter. His film does that for him. This emotional and naïve view of wine is fundamentally sophist.  It doesn’t begin to address, to note the bottom line, whether wine quality has actually improved in recent decades (answer: unequivocally yes!). It doesn't begin to address fairly the respect  foreigners can show for local regions, or, often, how bad the “traditional” stuff was. Add the unfair argumentative techniques, from crude ad hominem attacks to deceptive cut-aways, and this is not just a bad film---it is a Mondo mess, intellectually dishonest and disreputable on every fundamental level.

Rent this from your local library if you must. But please don't buy a copy. It doesn't deserve such support.


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