Critique of Pure Riesling

Wine snobbery in an age of globalization.


Almost 30 years ago, nine French 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 chosen 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, became a surprise hit in France, and is now touring the United States. 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 among 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 California Merlot 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 winemaker Robert Mondavi, the Napa Valley giant, when they sought to move into Aniane, Languedoc. Like the other old world 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, clearly 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 appears in a sterile office and a chauffered car, making cracks about journalists into his cell phone, denouncing the anti-globalization "peasants" from behind a 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 Mondavi, the world's most powerful winemaker and a symbol of Napa's ascendance. Filmed in their Italianate mansion, flanked by tour groups, Mondavi and his sons shrug off Guibert's resistance. Next door to the Mondavi estate, another Polo-clad 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 tenet of wine's mystique, dictates that a great wine expresses its place of origin. But Napa's 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 shaped its own mythology, and Mondavi helped introduce an element of celebrity that trumped the tyranny of place.

It's doubtful we'd be living in a golden age of wine had men like Mondavi not disrupted the concept of locale 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. 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 another wine heavyweight, the American critic Robert Parker. Put simply, Parker's ratings determine global wine prices. He can make or break a vineyard, and the winemakers of Bordeaux 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.

To make things worse for traditionalists, Parker feeds the superstardom of men like Mondavi by conferring legitimacy on wines unblessed by old world pedigree. Even Mondavi needed years to build his reputation, but Parker can turn an unknown punk of a vintner into a superstar overnight.

The wine market is particularly susceptible to the wild fluctuations Parker introduces, because taste is a foggy amalgam of personal preference and a desire to project status. The typical wine critic imparts a string of conceits to a highly 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."

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. 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 can be tasted.

Mondovino begins 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 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. 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.?