Mondovino: The Other Wine Movie

In an effort to stop all of this endless post-marketing about the movie Sideways and its effects on the wine business, I propose we all start immediately arguing about the next wine movie to hit the theaters: Mondovino.

I had a chance to see this documentary by acclaimed filmmaker Jonathan Nossiter a couple of weeks ago in an intimate setting with several of the subjects in the movie present, along with the filmmaker. I guess it was sort of the Bay Area premiere of the film, which I believe is getting a wider theatrical release in the coming months.

I thought it was a great, thought provoking, very interesting, and a highly irresponsible piece of filmmaking.

Now, you’ll have to bear with me a bit, it’s rare that my love of wine and my formal training as a documentary filmmaker and photographer get to intersect, so I may get a bit, well, detailed on you, but trust me. The issues with this film are subtle yet insidious, and it takes a little explaining, along with an understanding of how movies like this get made to understand why I can brazenly call Nossiter irresponsible, reductionist, and in some cases, just plain rude.

Briefly, the film is a documentary about the globalization of the wine trade; the old small farm ways of winemaking and the new large corporate ways of winemaking; the historic styles of old wines and the new styles of wine that some say are influenced by Robert M. Parker, Jr. and consultants like Michel Rolland; and all of the conflicts, strong feelings, and money wrapped up in the collision of these ideas and traditions in modern times, all over the world.

Got the picture? OK. So what Nossiter did (thanks to his ability to speak 6 languages) is go around the globe to major wine regions and their countries, talking to important and influential as well as ordinary people about all the stuff I mentioned above. His cast of characters included the aforementioned Mssrs. Parker and Rolland, as well as the Mondavi Brothers, the Staglin Family, the Antinori brothers, New York wine importer Neal Rosenthal, Languedoc winemaker Aime Guibert of Daumas Gassac, Michael Broadbent, and more.

Many of these people say wonderful, insightful, and very moving (and scary) things about wine all throughout the movie, which is great. What is not great is the way that Nossiter has clearly made a decision to undermine certain people in the film while romanticizing others. If this were at random it might be passed over as possibly accidental, but unfortunately those people which he chooses to undermine are all representatives of the wealthy or corporate elite of the wine world (and one side of his filmic argument) while those who he glorifies are invariably the small, old world family winemakers that represent the other.

How does he do this? Using various techniques both during shooting as well as in post production.

One that is particularly devastating is his tendency to be interviewing someone on camera and while that person is talking, making the camera wander off of the subject and start (literally and figuratively) focusing on something else. Now sometimes documentary filmmakers do this because it helps them make edits to someone’s monologue, for the same reason that they often shoot details of someone’s hands as they are talking, etc. (these are later edited into a film as “cutaways” that mask the fact that a section of the interview has been removed). However, there are many occasions where Nossiter’s camera deliberately wanders off of the person talking for long periods of time and he forces you (as a viewer) to look at something else while you continue to hear the interviewee speaking. When a filmmaker does this, he is, in effect saying “Well, I know this person is talking to you now, but here’s something more important to look at that I think has meaning in relation to who this person is or what they are telling you.”

At best this is rude, like someone who can’t have a serious conversation with you without fidgeting and staring off into space rather than meeting your eye. At worst it is a nasty way of making an unstated point about your subject, as when a rich wine estate owner is talking to the camera, but Nossiter starts filming an old man arthritically climbing a ladder to clean the man’s gutters instead, or when a well-to-do winery owner is talking to the camera about the work that has gone into his winery and Nossiter starts filming the automatic pool cleaning device. Compare these types of interviews and footage, usually paired or bookended with either pop, rock, or occasionally folk music, to interviews with the aged old-world winemakers which show very little of the wandering camera syndrome and are usually paired with classical and older styles of music that conjure a nostalgic and romantic mood, and it’s hard to argue that Nossiter is treating his subjects with an equal amount of respect.

That word respect is important because it’s not objectivity. I’m sure Nossiter and many other documentary filmmakers would never make any claim to objectivity, per se, but all of the good ones would say that you have to treat your subjects with respect. Nossiter, in my opinion, certainly does not, and what’s worse, he seems to apply his disrespect to the folks who don’t share his point of view.

Another example of this is an interview he films at a certain point in a Napa vineyard with several people that I think are the PR people for Mondavi (I may be mis-remembering which Winery, but these are the folks who represent an example of “corporate wine”). At a certain point Nossiter starts interviewing one of the field workers who happens to be in the vineyard (in Spanish) about what it’s like to work for the winery, etc. His choice of language is clearly about the comfort of his subject. Good marks for that. He then turns and starts talking (in English, I think) to the PR person, who seeing that the language has shifted to Spanish starts trying to answer in Spanish. This is obviously that person’s choice to try to do this, but unfortunately his Spanish is not that good. So he ends up sounding like an insincere second grader. But the conversation has been building to this point around the relationship between the winery and the workers, and Nossiter has just spent several minutes getting the workers’ side of the story. Rather than getting the winery’s side of the story in response, he simply chooses to use this man’s stumbling Spanish as an answer, which makes the winery look inept. He doesn’t ask more questions or ask the person to answer in English, or if he does, he conspicuously leaves the answers out of the film.

As a final example, there’s a whole grey area of dialogue and monologue elements included the film which I think are deliberate choices of the filmmaker to show people in a poor light. I say gray area, because as a filmmaker you are not expected to protect people from themselves — people often say stupid, damning, or offensive things, and as a director it is not your responsibility to edit them out to make your subjects look better. For instance, when Nossiter is talking with an established Argentinean winemaking family, who happen to be expatriates, the man makes clearly racist comments when asked why there aren’t more native Argentineans growing wine. You can’t eliminate stuff like that, which is clearly that person’s point of view in answer to your question.

On the other hand you have small bits of dialogue that you can choose to emphasize or eliminate at your will. At a certain point in the film Sharalyn Staglin makes a comment about how they do nice things for their migrant workers, like give them t-shirts and hats, etc. Unfortunately in the context of the narrative that Nossiter has been building at that point in the film, he uses that as the “final statement” on the subject for the moment, and as a result the Staglins come off seeming incredibly shallow and out of touch, not to mention exploitative. Nossiter ABSOLUTELY knows that this the effect of this line of dialogue, and by leaving it in the film he is in effect saying, yes, I want to convey that impression. The problem is that 1) this is not a nuanced, let alone true portrait of this family and 2) it shows a fundamental lack of respect for his subjects.

Likewise there’s a very funny sequence in the film that is absolutely at the expense of the dignity of Michel Rolland, the famous French wine consultant, where Nossiter edits together several occasions where Rolland is dispensing advice to clients on the phone or in person, and all that you hear him saying over and over again is “Micro Oxidation.” Nossiter is making a deliberate choice here and telling you the viewer that this is basically all that Rolland tells his clients to do. This is, of course, a gross oversimplification of his advice and is again a choice which drives an underlying agenda, I believe, of portraying Rolland and the winery owners he works for as mechanistic, unartistic, capitalist creators of wines that are stylistically homogeneous.

Rolland is furious with Nossiter about his portrayal in the film, saying that he (Rolland) really is “a peasant, a man of the fields” and that the film completely mischaracterizes him. Nossiter certainly spent a lot of time with Rolland over several days, and unfortunately I don’t think Rolland has much ground to stand on for most of his complaints, but in the end, I think he, like many of the people who graciously let Nossiter into their lives and gave him time, energy, thoughts and words, definitely have something to complain about.

Finally, I think the film misses a big opportunity to deal with some of the real complexities and subtleties of the issues surrounding the increasing globalization of the wine market. What the film reduces to two primary arguments (old world tradition vs. big business) is a much more complex dance. I’ve rambled on for too long here to tease out them all, but here’s one example of a missed opportunity. For every winery owner who is using Rolland to improve his wines to get better scores and therefore make more money, there is a small winemaker somewhere just starting out on a dream of making wine for a living. The global marketplace makes both of these things possible. We must also remember that many of the large, global wine companies out there that we all love to hate started as the dreams of someone. What was Robert Mondavi, then, if not someone who had a dream about earning money while following his passion?

Let’s fight for diversity, yes, let’s consciously try to mitigate the enormous power that Parker has in the marketplace, let’s support those old traditional winemakers who have been doing the same thing for hundreds of years. But let’s not, please, turn the discussion into an argument that vilifies the new and glorifies the old.

Go see the movie. Then think about it. Then go buy a bottle of your favorite wine no matter whether it is made by a little guy or a big guy. Drink it. Remember what life is all about.

If you’re interested in another, perhaps more learned take on the movie, here’s the New York Times review (306k PDF) of it.