The film-maker who took on the wine world

When Jonathan Nossiter set out to investigate links between big business and traditional vineyards, he uncovered a bitter feud. The result, says John Lichfield, is 'Mondovino', a film worthy of Michael Moore
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The Independent Online

Aimé Guibert is a legendarily grumpy man but the producer of a well-tempered, and fantastically good wine, in an area known mostly for its terrible wines. The other night M. Guibert was even angrier than usual. He was addressing a room packed with almost everyone who is anyone in the French wine industry.

Wine traditions built over thousands of years are being destroyed, he said. The true taste and qualities of wines are being subverted by standardisation imposed by supermarkets and the abuse of power by a few over-praised wine critics and globe-trotting wine-makers. The hundreds of grape varieties which exist are being driven out by the so-called "noble 10" varieties (chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon etc) which are being planted in areas where they were not traditionally grown. "This is like burning a cathedral," he said. "We are burning cathedrals every day."

A man shouted from the back of the room: "I don't understand you, M. Guibert. You were the first person to bring cabernet sauvignon grapes into Languedoc 25 years ago. You did exactly what you are now complaining about other people doing."

M. Guibert, the owner of the Daumas-Gassac vineyard near Montpellier, created in 1979, shot back: "If you tasted my wines, you would know that I am restoring a tradition. Bordeaux has forgotten how to make cabernet sauvignon wines or, worse, it has deliberately sabotaged them. With my wines, you will taste the cabernet sauvignons of 120 years ago."

The debate, organised by the upmarket magazine, the Revue du Vin de France, continued for 90 minutes with similar exchanges of verbal blows and near insults. The wine world is passionately argumentative but passions have been raised to an unusually high level of fermentation this autumn.

The debate is not about the qualities of the 2004 vintage, said to be excellent for the most part, but the qualities of a wonderfully funny and mischievous documentary movie and the issues that it raises.

Mondovino, made by the American film-maker and wine-lover Jonathan Nossiter, went on general release in France this week and is released in Britain on 10 December. The subject is one well-trodden in the wine world but less well-known to the general audiences for whom the film was made.

The subject is "terroir" - the near-mystical French concept that the best wines are a symphony composed by a subtle dialogue between grape variety, soil and micro-climate - against the "New World" concept of sophisticated "wine-making" or carefully crafted, even imposed, taste.

The subject of the movie is also the influence of the American wine critic Robert Parker, who is no great lover of the idea of terroir. The subject is the influence of "flying wine-makers", including the legendary French wine-maker Michel Rolland, who sells his talents, and according to his critics imposes a standardised, if excellent taste, on the products of more than 100 top-quality vineyards all over the world.

The subject is the impact of big business (and especially the Californian Mondavi company) on the world wine trade. The subject is old wine labels versus new, overbearing, global brands.

"The film asks the question whether wine, one of the great achievements of civilisation, has become the first and worst victims of a dumbing down, or at least a narrowing, of tastes imposed by globalisation," Nossiter said. Mondovino gives you a glimpse into the lives and not just the opinions of the biggest names in the wine world (and some of the most obscure) from Burgundy to California, and from Sardinia to Brazil. The results are often devastatingly funny.

Mr Parker, the most successful wine critic in the world, the man who can make or break a vineyard, the man who has insured his nose for $1m (£540,000), is seen sharing his office in Monkton, Maryland with a bulldog that farts constantly. Patrick Léon, chief executive and technical director of Château Mouton-Rothschild, lengthily explains the complexities of the international wine business while, in the background, a very old man in very old overalls climbs very slowly down a very old ladder. Every movement of the old man becomes a satirical comment on the market-speak of M. Léon.

Nossiter - maker of half a dozen documentary and fictional movies, including Signs and Wonders (2000) and Resident Alien (1991) and the son of the late US television correspondent Bernard Nossiter - says that the film is "personal, not objective but definitely not angled to one point of view".

Hmm. The film clearly does have a point of view. It is on the side of old-fashioned wine-producers and intensely suspicious of the global wine business.

Nossiter is, in a sense, guilty of doing what many people in his movie accuse the global wine trade of doing: imposing a pre-conceived taste on some of his raw material. The advocates of terroir are given freedom to express themselves. The protagonists of the global-wide trade are mostly caricatured. (On the other hand, it is this contrast, and this manipulation, which make the movie very funny and watchable and likely to persuade wine drinkers to ask themselves new questions about what they are drinking.)

The representatives of terroir - including M. Guibert, the wonderfully quarrelsome De Montille family from Volnay in Burgundy and Battista Columbu, an eloquent wine grower from Sicily - are shown stumping among their beautiful vines to an accompaniment of accordions and violins.

The Mondavi family, and their absurdly manicured estate in the Napa Valley, are gently mocked by the camera angles and given eerie background music. M. Rolland, the flying wine-maker, a jolly man with a beard who laughs constantly, is shown in brief sequences, jabbering about "micro-oxygenisation", jumping into and out of cars, or talking on two telephones at once. He spends, the movie implies, no more than one minute in each vineyard.

Even though it defends the concept of terroir, the film has split the French wine trade. Mondovino was thunderously applauded after the showing given by the Revue du Vin de France but it was also heavily criticised by some in the audience.

M. Guibert said that it was "a work of art. I have had the sensation of having re-read Proust."

M. Rolland was also there but he could, for once in his life, see nothing funny. He complained that the film was "reductionist, distorted and unfair".

Just because he made the wine in 100 vineyards, he said, it did not mean all the wines tasted the same. His skill was to bring out the qualities of the terroir, to allow them to express themselves. "If you take three bottles of my wine from different vineyards and you taste them and you think they are all the same, then you don't know anything about wine. Full-stop. That's all."

In any case, he said, it was absurd to suggest that he only spent one minute in each vineyard.

There is no argument about M. Rolland's skill. The accusation is that he has distorted the taste of many of the greatest Bordeaux wines by imposing a style which has great immediate impact, but less subtlety. This is a style which, it is alleged, appeals to the great American wine critic, Mr Parker and guarantees a score in the high 90s out of a 100 in his magazine, the Wine Advocate, and therefore high prices and high sales.

This imposed taste - very good, just rather narrow and disrespectful of "terroir" - is now, the film suggests, spreading to top-quality vineyards, old and new, all over the world.

A great British expert on wine, interviewed in the film, Michael Broadbent, wine director of Christie's, speaks of a "Parker-Rolland style". Others talk of great wines being "parkerisé".

"Rolland is a pomerol man," Mr Broadent says. "He therefore makes pomerol in Medoc. He makes pomerol all around the world ... rich, smooth, something that appeals to the modern, global taste ... This is a real problem."

Au contraire, Mr Parker objects in the film (in between farts from his bull-dog), that his influence, and that of M. Rolland, have improved the qualities of wines all over the world. Previously (and no one disputes this) French and other critiques of French wines were often distorted by favouritism and reputation, rather than real quality.

The stars of the movie are the De Montille family in Volnay, home of one of the great red burgundies. They hate the influence of Parker, who admits he has no taste for the subtle charms of burgundy. Father (Hubert), son (Etienne) and daughter (Alix) quarrel over almost everything but they agree about the Parker-Rolland style, which they call "whore" wines.

Alix: "Whore wines come right on to you. And then they drop you." Hubert: "But the modern world is used to that. This world likes to be fooled."

The film dwells mostly on wines in the highest quality and price range, from €30 (£21) to €300 a bottle. These wines are probably beyond the reach of most wine drinkers but Mr Nossiter says the issues raised in his movie apply to cheaper wines too.

He told The Independent: "The arguments in the film, about authenticity or imposed taste, are just as relevant to someone wanting to buy a £6 bottle of wine in Tesco or Oddbins ... Your range of choice is being reduced all the time by dominant supply networks, who impose a certain kind of taste. This is just as true in, say, politics, or cinema, which is what makes the arguments about wine so fascinating. Wine is one of the great achievements of mankind, at once something sublime and something very basic, rooted in the soil."

In truth, the middle-market wines - the £6 bottle from Oddbins - are more directly affected by globalisation than the elite wines discussed by Mondovino. If there is a real threat to the survival of the concept of terroir, it is in this middle price range, not among the grands crus and premiers crus.

Everyone - even Mr Parker when cornered - agrees that great wine cannot be grown just anywhere. The argument for terroir - often betrayed in France by the intensive use of chemicals on allegedly magical soils - is harder to sustain commercially in the middle market.

Australian, American, Chilean and Italian wines have conquered the off-licence shelves by producing clearly branded, reliable "vins de cepage" (ie, wines based on a grape variety, rather than a place) with tastes imposed, or composed, by wine factories. French wines, sold according to 466 different "appellations" based on terroir or locality, have lost ground partly because consumers find them confusing (but also, it has to be said, because consumers find them unreliable).

Unreliability is part of the charm of an authentic terroir wine, but it does not go down well with the modern consumer, trained to believe everything should taste the same if it has the same label. French middle-market wine sales have slumped so badly that there is now an impassioned debate in France about whether to abandon, or weaken, the appellation côntrolée system for the middle price range.

Nossiter's film - although it does not directly address this issue - will be seized upon joyfully by defenders of terroir in all price ranges. It will also provide food, and drink, for thought - and great fun - for all wine-lovers.