PRINT March 2005



JONATHAN NOSSITER’S documentary on the globalization of the wine industry, Mondovino—which opens this month in New York and Los Angeles—deals with its subject intelligently and ardently, but it makes its case against globalization so quickly (and so convincingly) that the ensuing amplification is anticlimactic. And there’s a lot of amplification. Nossiter, a filmmaker and professional sommelier, doesn’t take easy potshots at the internationalizing businesspeople he talks to; he lets the camera do it for him. Still, he listens carefully to both sides in the debate between the small vintners who cling heroically to the old methods—especially to the celebrated concept of terroir, the notion that where a wine is made should wield a far more profound influence on its character than how—and the modernists who advocate the transformation of the grape through new chemical techniques, and whose champion is Michel Rolland, the renowned and busy wine consultant who, in Nossiter’s movie, is constantly advising his clients to “micro-oxygenate.”

What Nossiter is documenting is the same Wal-Martization of everything that’s being played out in a host of industries that were once made up of many small businesses. The vineyard-gobbling corporations in Mondovino aren’t faceless, though, because only a generation ago most of them were small producers themselves. (Nossiter’s central case is the Mondavis of California.) And wine is different from other industries in the utter fanaticism—comical to those who don’t share it—traditionally associated with the production and delectation of the product. Nossiter treasures the artistry in artisanal winemaking. But he also understands that winemaking, like filmmaking, is a business, and that no businessperson can be blind to the vast profit potential of international marketing.

Without question, unique and diverse flavors and textures are being cruelly homogenized. Just as a Gap and a Starbucks have made their way to a corner near you, there’s a quaffable (and relatively affordable) Château Mouton-Rothschild on the shelves of your local wine shop—though it may not bear much resemblance to the Mouton-Rothschild of a half century ago. Something valuable has been lost. But, of course, what’s been lost is a treasure that was mostly just available to the rich anyway. (Michael Broadbent, the founder of Christie’s wine department, points out that, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the great supporters of the grand Bordeaux were the English aristocracy.) Yet if French wines have been smoothed out and standardized in line with blander—meaning, obviously, American—tastes, encapsulated in the palate of the insanely influential American wine critic Robert Parker, the shift isn’t a question of corruption or conspiracy. It’s one of historical process. Capitalism advances according to an iron logic, and Parker, the vintners, the négociants, and the consumers are all playing out their historical roles as inexorably as if Karl Marx had written Nossiter’s script.

The movie has a few small-budget technical problems: The sound synchronization is miserable (unless there was just a glitch in the print I was shown), and the shaky handheld camera is nauseating. But the bigger problem is what the camera does to so many of the people who are foolhardy enough to step in front of it. As moviegoers we’re all but conditioned to regard the little guy, the rebel, the fighter against the system as a hero, and Nossiter’s resisters—in particular the de Montille family of Burgundy—are his heroes. But the de Montilles aren’t exactly peasants, even if their small winery doesn’t rival the awesome estates of the globalizers whom Nossiter’s camera expertly flays. Plutocrats seldom come off attractively on-screen, and we’re repelled by the smugness of California’s new landed gentry well before they platitudinize about rewarding their Mexican laborers with “a T-shirt or a hat or a jacket or whatever we’re doing that year”; we’re put off by the decrepitude and decadence of the old Italian aristocrats even before they reminisce about the excellent things that Mussolini did. On the other hand, Neal Rosenthal, one of Nossiter’s good guys (“It’s evil,” he exclaims, with genuine moral outrage, at the over-oaking of French wines), has the good fortune to be photographed away from his home. Yakking in a car and in a restaurant, he looks like a man of the people, but since he’s a successful New York wine importer, I have a feeling that if he’d been shot in his own, no doubt very comfortable place he might no longer appear to belong to a species utterly apart from that of the Staglins and the Frescobaldis and the Antinoris.

It’s not that I disagree with Nossiter’s biases (though I have a Louisiana-formed palate and would probably be bewildered by the austere wines that the de Montilles regard as their monument). But whatever my reservations about capitalism—and they’re substantial—I’m loath to sneer, as Nossiter’s camera does, at capitalists who know how easily fighting the logic of the system can turn into being swallowed up by those who go along with it. I despise Wal-Mart and everything it stands for. But I have cousins who were lucky enough to inherit a big chunk of Wal-Mart stock, and I’ve never thought I had the moral authority to tell them they should dump it.

Craig Seligman is the author of Sontag & Kael: Opposites Attract Me (Counterpoint, 2004) and an editor at Absolute New York.