Wednesday, May 28, 2008


It took me three years, but I finally made it a priority to watch Mondovino during the holiday weekend (and rather purposely with the passing of Robert Mondavi). This documentary had many stars of the wine world - Mondavi, Parker, and Rolland. One couldn't find a better cast and with the honesty of a home movie, at times out of focus or wandering away from the person speaking, one couldn't ask for a better script. If you do not care for subtitles, then this movie isn't for you. For me, there's nothing better to do on a Sunday afternoon than to take in a foreign film and even better with subtitles (a lot of French, Italian and a bit of Spanish and Portuguese is spoken).

Nominated at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, this movie is definitely made with wine-geeks in mind. If you enjoy the politics and the technicalities of wine, this two hour journey of Old World wines meet the homogenization of New World via Mondavi, then this is the film for you. If you are expecting a sequel to Sideways with Hollywood glib, yet memorable one-liners of wine and middle-aged angst - - don't bother. And I can give you some spoilers since there isn't a plot and no surprise ending.

Filmmaker and director Jonathan Nossiter takes us on a journey around the world visiting familar faces of the wine industry and no-so familar faces - - old men in their vineyards speaking their opinions and their poetic wine quotes (who one later admits they come up with the quotes just for the wine journalists). There is also the delightful and ever presence of dogs at every vineyard and every winery throughout this ambitious film.

The familiar face of Michel Rolland is seen as he travels in his chauffered Mercedes visiting his client's wineries advising them to "micro-oxygenate" their wines. He is delightful and funny, with a touch of well-deserved arrogance. Interesting as this technique seems to be his answer for every client-winery. And of course, it made me wonder, did Monsieur Rolland advise Long Shadows in Walla Walla to micro-oxygenate his Long Shadow's project, Pedestal? Later one of the old men in the vineyards would declare that Monsieur Rolland, a Pomerol man, was producing "Pomerols" all around the world.

The film takes us back and forth from the Old World of Europe (and later to South America) to the New World of America. In New York City we "visit" with a wine importer, Neal Rosenthal. Rosenthal drives through Brooklyn while navigating with one hand on the steering wheel with the ease of a cab driver. He passes a cement jungle of old architecture in an dominant area of multi-cultures. As he passes black toddlers playing in the streets and Hassidic Jews on their way to shul, of this area he considers home he exclaims, "This is terroir!"

There are some uncomfortable parts of the film such as Sheri Staglin of Staglin Family Vineyards in California, speaks about their Hispanic employees and how "good they are to them" because the Staglins know their worker's first names and give them free t-shirts - - great - - let's hand Shari a Nobel Peace Prize.

Also in the United States, we get to see a one-dimensional Robert Parker (nicknamed the Ayatollah of Terroir) at home posed like a Norman Rockwell portrait on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post. He seems like any normal guy with a messy desk, statues of bulldogs everywhere and perhaps his casual style could make us believe he was a man with a Budweiser-Lite palate.

Meanwhile, back in France, we visit with Hubert de Montille who is located in Volnay. His winery of many generations can boast of some of the most prized Pinot Noirs in all of Burgundy. In fact, Monsieur Montille's forehead graces the film's cover poster. Oddly enough we see him being interviewed with a wadded up piece of tissue or cotton in his left nostril to contain either a bloody or a runny nose.

Back again (yes this film "jet-sets" back and forth) in the New World of America, we visit (kind of) with the wine man himself, Robert Mondavi. Mondavi’s assistant suggests to the director how to film Mr. Mondavi as he just came from the dermatologist after having a mole removed from his face. They didn’t want the band-aid to show, while the elder French winemaker, Montille also a prominent attorney in Dijon who inherited the Domaine de Montille back in 1951, vanity doesn't seem to be a problem for him as he interviews with the wad of tissue in his nose.

The interview with the Mondavi's is a haunting one. Michael Mondavi is the spokesperson for his family business while Robert sits in the background as still as a portrait. Perhaps not to show his band-aid? Michael shares the Mondavi vision of blending Old World with New World and of their acquisitions around the world. His eyes become rather eerie and glazed as he dreams about making wine on Mars.

I tried to keep an open mind while watching this film and chose to ignore that the director had an agenda. One might feel the movie reeked of a Michael Moore documentary exposing the Wal-mart mentality of wines. Instead, I chose to view the film as more of a study of characters. Alas, for me there were no heros or villians in this film. When it is all said and done, our cast of characters, no matter their actions whether it be globalization or carrying on a tradition, one cannot deny they still have one thing in common - - the love of the grape.

1 comment:

Andy Perdue said...

I haven't watched the movie for more than a year (nothing like being a new dad to consume your days and nights). My most vivid memory of Mondovino is how long and boring it was. It could have used a good film editor to knock it back at least 30 minutes.

It was quite interesting to travel around the world of wine - it just could have been shorter.

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