'Mondovino': A Fine Vintage From the Grapes of Wrath

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 13, 2005

If they gave Academy Awards for best use of dogs in a motion picture, the Oscar this year would surely go to "Mondovino," a lively, engrossing documentary by Jonathan Nossiter.

Dogs of every shape, size and provenance serve as the doleful Greek chorus to "Mondovino's" larger story, which is about the history of wine and the cultural and political impact of globalization on its production. Although the film's canine co-stars at first seem to be included purely for comic relief, soon they become symbols for what is at stake in a fierce battle between local artisanal producers and such Big Vino corporations as Mondavi. Will wine ultimately go the way of the temperamental, idiosyncratic mutts or the safe, overbred types favored by the masses?

Although it's clear that Nossiter sympathizes with the mutts, he does a terrific job of teasing out the cultural and economic contradictions within the argument. The director, whose name may be familiar from such wonderful past films as "Resident Alien" (about author and boulevardier Quentin Crisp), spent three years on five continents talking to vintners, consultants and critics. He emerged with a duly sprawling, sometimes discursive snapshot of where wine is today. Interviews with such longtime vine growers as Aime Guibert and Hubert de Montille reveal the ambivalence, even outright hostility many small-scale European wineries feel toward the multinational corporations that are trying to buy them out. But whereas it's easy to sentimentalize the feisty Gallic commitment of the traditionalists, it's also true that the forces of standardization have democratized what was once a purely elitist pursuit.

At issue is the concept of terroir, or the ineffable sense of place that is part of the bouquet and taste of locally produced wines. It's just that specificity, some say, that is being homogenized out of existence by such huge producers as Mondavi, egged on by the powerful American critic Robert Parker and his friend Michel Rolland, the peripatetic wine consultant. (Some of "Mondovino's" funniest sequences follow Rolland, who could have been plucked from a Tom Wolfe novel, on his meetings with winemakers, whom he invariably orders to "micro-oxygenate." Ka-ching!)

For those who are devoted, both philosophically and aesthetically, to preserving terroir, the influence of Parker and Rolland on the market, through their cozy relationships with Mondavi and other big producers, is nothing short of a conspiracy. And, as "Mondovino" travels from France to the Napa Valley to Italy to South America, what starts out as a relatively innocuous fight between wine lovers begins to take on surprisingly high political stakes, as the two sides shape up into a sort of microcosm of McCapitalism and its discontents. If what's good for General Motors is what's good for America, then what tastes good to Robert Parker is what American wine drinkers are being served.

"Mondovino" features a huge cast of characters, and at more than two hours, it sometimes lets the audience lose track of who's who. The best advice is to relax and let the film spread out on the palate, like one of the wines it so mouth-wateringly depicts. For a movie that is essentially composed of shots of talking heads, "Mondovino" does a good job of evoking its subjects' own terroir, whether they're the landed gentry of an ancient aristocracy or an Argentine peasant humbly offering the filmmaker a bottle of his handmade vintage. For many wine -- and movie -- lovers, last year's "Sideways" was less a film about the joys of connoisseurship than one about alcoholism. "Mondovino," at last, is the real thing -- a movie that, beyond the political, economic and cultural forces it portrays so well, is ultimately about the unapologetic pursuit of pleasure.

Mondovino (135 minutes, in French, Italian, German, Portuguese and Spanish with subtitles, at Landmark's E Street) is rated PG-13 for brief frontal nudity on a pinup calendar.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company