JONATHAN NOSSITER (Director)
Screenplay by Jonathan Nossiter
Velocity/Thinkfilm, 2004, 135 minutes
Mondovino is billed as, “A documentary on the impact of globalization on the world’s different wine regions” (Internet Movie Database, 2009). The film’s cinema verité style intersperses clips from interviews with 39 wine professionals. Featured winemakers include California’s Mondavi family (Robert, Margrit, Michael and Tim), and Burgundy’s de Montilles (Alix, Etienne, and Hubert). Naturally there are wine writers such as prolific wine critic Robert Parker; the old lion of British wine auctions, Michael Broadbent; and the French winemaking business consultant, Michel Rolland.
Unfortunately the film just doesn’t work. It lacks focus, wandering aimlessly through short clips of vineyards, of M. Rolland as he visits various wineries, and of interviews with Mr. Parker and Mr. Broadbent. Frankly, Mondovino is a mess.
Despite the disjointed mis-en-scène, the viewer will readily notice that writer-director Jonathan Nossiter has an axe to grind. He believes that globalization together with the combined influences of Mr. Parker and M. Rolland have homogenized wine aromas and flavors around the world, reducing diversity and encouraging production technologies that mask “terroir.” Rolland and Parker hold the opposite view which was expressed in a 2006 article in The New York Times (Asimov, 2006). They believe that the wine market has more variety today than it ever has in the past and wine quality has improved steadily. Others have noted that it is actually quite difficult to make a bad wine with the technology and expertise available today (Buechsenstein, 2009). In the film Rolland’s winemaking savvy is portrayed as quite shallow. He is presented as dealing with all winemaking ills with the same recommendation: “micro-oxygenation.” The film implies that, by hiring M. Rolland, a winery will begin to produce “his favored style of ripe, voluptuous fruit flavors and supple textures … making wines taste the same from Pomerol to Napa to Argentina” (Asimov, 2006).
To make the case that wine globalization is evil, Mondovino relies heavily on the opinions of British wine writer and auctioneer Michael Broadbent. Consider the situation of Château Kirwin. According to Mr. Broadbent, Ch. Kirwin once produced an average quality Margaux that expressed the terroir. The winery hired M. Rolland as a consultant. According to Mr. Broadbent, Ch. Kirwin’s wines now taste like a Pomerol. (M. Rolland was born in Pomerol.) Mr. Broadbent concludes, “I’d rather have an individual wine not up to scratch than a global wine that’s innocuous” (Asimov, 2006).
But what would an economist think? It’s clear that M. Rolland is simply helping wineries make wine that will sell with less aging and at a higher price.1 If helping a winery match its output to the public’s taste is bad for the wine industry, what in the world would be considered a healthy development? More wineries operating on the edge of bankruptcy? As for changing the wine’s flavor and the homogenization issue, M. Rolland says, “A winemaker never, never changes the character of a wine. The character comes from the grapes.” (Asimov, 2006).
The importance of the grapes has not changed over the years. However, as M. Rolland explains, today people want to drink wine a few years after it’s bottled. Born in Pomerol in 1947, he grew up in the vineyards of his family’s winery, Château Le Bon-Pasteur. His father managed the winery, but his grandfather selected the wines the family drank. Those wines were never younger than 12 years old (Asimov, 2006). Today Rolland helps make wines that are good and can be sold in one-fourth that time. Turn the inventory, get the cash, and financing a huge cellaring operation becomes irrelevant.
By contrast, Mr. Broadbent’s economic interests are never explored in the film at all. Mr. Broadbent is a wine critic, but he is also a wine auctioneer. In the auction market, older wines usually command a higher price – and a higher auction fee. The trend of making wines that can be drunk within a few years of bottling means less wine that must be held for a dozen or more years before it’s drinkable, and less wine going to auction.2
So what do we make of Mondovino? On the one hand we have a number of winemakers extolling the virtues of the small, family-run vineyard, traditional winemaking methods, ending with wines that may require a long aging period before they are approachable. On the other hand we have those who favor modern interventionist winemaking techniques, producing wines that are drinkable after a year or two of winery aging and perhaps another couple of years in the consumer’s cellar. For the winery, shorter aging means improved cash flow. The consumer is not required to have a large cellar with several hundred carefully cataloged cases. In the market, it is clear that the modernists are winning. And why not? As noted earlier, one successful American winemaking consultant believes the only way to make a bad wine today is to make a serious error during the process (Buechsenstein, 2009). This is best accomplished by refusing to use modern technology; that appears to be what Mondovino and Mr. Broadbent are advocating. Refusing to use modern viticulture and winemaking techniques is analogous to a parent refusing to take a dentally-challenged child to the orthodontist. The parent prefers the child have a bite that displays the family unique dental characteristics – uneven spacing here, a few crooked teeth there – rather than that perfect movie star smile.
California State University, East Bay
Blue Weasel Productions
1) The 21st century wine market is considerably more complicated. In reality, what M. Rolland must do is determine the goals of the winery owner and help them match their wine to the taste of a market segment large and wealthy enough to allow the winery to stay in business. For more details, see Lima and Schroder (2008).
2) For more information about Michael and Bartholomew Broadbent see Broadbent Selections (2009).
Asimov, E. (2006). Satan or Savior: Setting the Grape Standard. New York Times, October 11, 2006. Available at www.nytimes.com
Accessed June 4, 2009.
Broadbent Selections (2009). www.broadbent-wines.com
Accessed June 4, 2009.
Buechsenstein, John (2009). Personal communication at wine seminar, University of California, Davis, April 25–26, 2009.
Internet Movie Database (2004) http://www.imdb.com. Accessed June 4, 2009
Lima, T. and Schroder, N. (2008). The new structure of the California wine industry: further evidence and additional theory. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Western Economic Association International, Honolulu, Hawai’i, June 29–July 3, 2008. Available by request from the authors.