Devotees of the singularities of fine wines will undoubtedly nod their heads in agreement with the position taken by Jonathan Nossiter in this lengthy documentary: that the globalization of the industry and the power wielded within it by mega-manufacturers, jet-setting consultants and over-powerful taste-makers are leading to a one-size-fits-all mentality that quashes local distinctiveness and tradition, crushing varietal differences in favor of a bland universal uniformity. “Mondovino”makes the point ruefully, quietly revealing those whom it paints as villains while celebrating the hardy souls who resist the changes; but the tone has an air of resignation about it, a half-understood recognition that at best what can be mounted against the trends is a heroic, but probably futile, rear-guard action. It also presents the case in a meandering, almost lackadaisical way, not so much shuttling as stumbling from place to place and then circling back again and again, visiting and revisiting until the viewer might feel a bit of visceral jet-lag.
“Mondovino” is a title with a double meaning. It could imply simply the “world of wine.” But given the argument it presents, it’s clearly also intended to mean “Mondavi wine,” after the California family firm that Nossiter sees spreading its corporate tentacles all over the world and, in virtual collaboration with high-flying production consultant Michel Rolland and star American writer Robert Parker, altering tastes in wine by “taking over” previously independent local operations through canny joint ventures and then shifting production methods to meet the expectations of consumers whose preferences they have manipulated through the engines of popular culture and advertising. The picture concentrates on three areas–France, Italy and Argentina–to make the point, touching on two other important regions, Australia and Chile, only in passing. It offers engaging one-on-ones with smaller proprietors in all three, making near-heroic figures of individuals like a loquacious, pugnacious Burgundy grower whose children aren’t entirely in his mold, a Sicilian whose region produces a local vintage that’s reserved for the use of residents and guests (and who speaks with simple eloquence about how tradition is being erased by globalization), and a far wealthier Italian aristocrat who feels his operation was effectively stolen from him by a stealth Mondavi buyout. Special focus is put on a small area of Languedoc where a Mondavi takeover attempt was foiled by the election of a Communist mayor who obstructed their acquisition of land; the locals are given extensive, positive coverage (although the precise role played in the matter by Gerard Depardieu, whose intervention is mentioned as significant, is never clearly explained and the actor himself never appears). But the film isn’t simply a one-sided tirade. Its approach is more affable than strident, and Nossiter provides abundant screen time to the jovial (though somewhat sinister) Rolland and to the rather defensive Parker, as well as to members of the Mondavi family, who happily detail their accomplishments and dismiss criticism of their methods. Still, there’s little question where the filmmaker’s sympathies lie.
The genially unforced pace and repetitiveness of “Mondovino” is like a stylistic mirror of the sort of small-scaled, traditional, very personal and territorial wine-making the picture endorses in contrast to the Mondavi model, which in cinematic terms would come closer to the ideal of the mass-produced Hollywood blockbuster. But it must be admitted that the film, just like the old-fashioned techniques and traditions that Nossiter obviously cherishes demand persistence from a vintner, requires a good deal of patience from the viewer. Its feints, reversals, digressions and meanderings are surely meant to reflect the myriad, often contradictory attributes of a complex vintage; and it, like such a wine, can only be fully enjoyed by one equipped with a sensitive palate and receptive taste buds. That probably means that only a true wine connoisseur will be able to get out of “Mondovino” all it has to offer; but as a microcosm of the larger dangers of globalization it may appeal to a wider audience–those concerned about the ramifications of the phenomenon in all its manifestations.