Almost thirty years ago, nine French wine critics gathered in Paris to preside over a face-off of French and American wines. Chardonnays battled with white Burgundies, Cabernets sought to displace Bordeaux. The French had always said fine wine was primarily a function of place—and that place was France. But following the blind tasting, the critics found they had chose a Californian Cabernet as the top red and placed three Napa Valley whites within the top four. As he downed a 1972 Napa Chardonnay, one critic reportedly gushed, "Ah, back to France."
These men ushered an identity crisis into the world of wine, an Americanization and eventual globalization that has yet to abate. That crisis and its fallout are explored at length in Mondovino, a documentary that debuted last year at Cannes and opened last week in New York City. Jonathan Nossiter's film, which spans Napa Valley, Bordeaux, Tuscany, and Monkton, Maryland, among other places, is a sympathetic portrayal of European winemakers struggling to hold their own amongst the avatars of globalization.
Nossiter offers Aime Guibert, a cantankerous and eminently likable French vintner, as a force against those conspiring to put a box of Pinot Grigio on every table in America.
"Let's be clear; wine is dead," Guibert declares amidst a damp row of vines. A hero of wine-antiglobalists, Guibert led the resistance against Mondavi, the Napa Valley giants, when they sought to move into Aniane, Languedoc. Like the other French and Italian winemakers Nossiter interviews, Guibert is a Millet masterpiece come to life, a wrinkled, aggressively authentic farmer railing against capitalism as he sweeps through his vineyard.
"It takes a poet to make a great wine," he says, apparently confident that he is that poet.
Against this bucolic decay, Nossiter posits the obscenely successful Michel Rolland, a wine consultant and a crass, comic-book villain. He is filmed either in his office or his chauffered car, making cracks about journalists into his cell phone, spitting streams of red wine between his yellow teeth, denouncing the anti-globalization "peasants" from behind a sterile glass desk, lording over a map that marks the places his business has penetrated. To Rolland, the wine racket is a high-stakes round of Risk. It's not poetry; it's conquest.
Rolland consults for men like Robert Mondavi, the world's most powerful winemaker and a symbol of Napa's ascendance. Filmed in their Italianate mansion, flanked by tour groups, Bob Mondavi and his sons shrug off Guibert's resistance. Next door to the Mondavi estate, another Polo-clad, phenomenally successful wine family shows Nossiter around its own adobe monstrosity.
"Every tree, every shrub, every bush we brought here," winemaker Garen Staglin says, "we created, out of nothing, the best of what Italy could bring." The dining room table is modeled after a Godfather II prop, Staglin's wife cheerily reports.
The space between Guibert and Mondavi is wine's battlefield. Terroir, a central tenet of wine's mystique, dictates that a great wine expresses its place of origin. Napa is too new for even the pretense of terroir. Its wines are the product of technology and experimentation, not centuries of careful cultivation. Its techniques aren't family secrets or lessons culled from the land, but scientific innovations pumped out of UC Davis in the 1960s. So Napa had to create its own mythology—one of person, not of place. Mondavi, the man, is what Bordeaux, the place, once was.
It's doubtful that we'd be living in a golden age of wine had men like Mondavi not disrupted the concept of place as taste. Nossiter is concerned with winemakers, not wine consumers, but a visit to any American liquor store will yield a global harvest of choice, from Tunisian to Chinese to Argentine libations. Despite the oft-heard lament that all wine is converging to suit American tastes, more vineyards are producing more wines than ever—75,000, according to Lawrence Osborne, author of The Accidental Connoisseur — to challenge the palates of an expanding wine-guzzling population.
That's an explosion helped along by the other most powerful man in wine, American critic Robert Parker. Put simply, Parker's ratings determine global wine prices. He and his taste can make or break a vineyard, and the winemakers of Bordeaux, to the great chagrin of traditionalists, have taken heed. In what is alternately called the region's renaissance and its death knell, Bordeaux has begun to create wines that are richly colored and flavorful—wines tailored to please Parker's palate. Parker feeds the superstardom of men like Mondavi by conferring legitimacy on wines unblessed by terroir.
Parker doesn't give a damn about terroir, but the world tracks his palate with slavish consistency. Even Mondavi needed years to build his reputation, but Parker can turn an unknown punk of a vintner into a superstar overnight. Wine is particularly susceptible to wild fluctuations because individual taste is a foggy, indeterminate amalgam of personal preference and a desire to project status and sophistication. The typical wine critic imparts a string of conceits to a suggestible audience. Perhaps it's a whiff of rural France you taste in that Burgundy, or perhaps it's, as Parker has put it, "caramel coated Autumn leaves." In Osborne's The Accidental Connoisseur, a maverick winemaker explains to the author, "The wealthy like being told what to like. They need their Parkers."
As the warring elites of winemaking attempt to define good taste, they unfailingly portray themselves as underdogs. Parker says he's just a "farmboy from Monkton " trying to tear down a "caste system" of sclerotic French elites. The Mayor of Aniane, who helped resist Mondavi's takeover, declares, "we are the tiny village that resisted a huge power." "I never thought we'd be able to compete with the great Bordeaux," Robert Mondavi mutters with a kind of shell-shocked humility. Nossiter's film starts out as a story about the little guy fighting the viticultural goliath, but everyone seems to think he's the little guy.
Herein lies the delightful complexity of Mondovino and Nossiter's jaunt through the world's vineyards. California's movie-set chateaus scream falsity. But was terroir any more genuine? Could anyone ever really taste the fields of France in their Burgundy or the vines of Tuscany in their chianti? Mondavi has built up a saleable identity in the brand that bears his name; Guibert's peasant pretensions are constructed around the myth that tradition and place can be tasted.
Mondovino starts as a mournful elegy for fine wine, but it's too smart, or perhaps too honest, a film to end that way. Instead, wine emerges as an experience open to invention and reinvention, a nebulous pleasure that can be captured only fleetingly in the strained metaphor of a critic or the romance of an Italian estate before it is reconceived as something wholly different. Connoisseur Lawrence Osborne claims wine is "99 percent psychological, a creation of where you are and with whom." That's a profoundly empowering concept for a beverage once thought to be the province of elites, whether they be crass American businessmen or cranky European farmers.