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Friday, Oct. 28, 2005


Lots of whining in the vineyards


Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Jonathan Nossiter
Running time: 136 minutes
Language: Various languages
Opens Oct. 29
[See Japan Times movie listings]

They say there's no business like show business but after watching "Mondovino" you might want to replace "show" with "wine."

News photo
Jonathan Nossiter (center) directs "Mondovino."

In this documentary, which reveals the intricate and often exclusive workings of the wine industry, as well as the encroaching globalization of the wine market, you'll see the people involved (vineyard owners, wine consultants) facing the camera with refined sense of theatrical flair. Oh, their choice of words, their timing, the way they can go from profound sadness to spluttering indignation at the pop of a cork!

It's not just that director Jonathan Nossiter is a first-class provocateur. It's as if the grapes have the power to turn ordinary people into the cast of "The Godfather." (Speaking of which, there's a scene in which a Californian wine-grower boasts that his table was modeled after one that appears in "The Godfather Part II.")

Though "Mondovino" bemoans the fact that mankind's palate is now dictated by marketers and a handful of powerful wine consultants, that the industry is being overrun by the multinational corporations, etc., it also provides plenty of evidence that individualism/eccentricity is alive and kicking. There's even a scene of a wine-grower stomping on grapes, and doing it buck-naked.

Director Nossiter (himself a sommelier) obviously had great fun traipsing around the Mediterranean, France and Napa Valley, visiting vineyard after vineyard and no doubt sampling the fare at each one. Perhaps this partly accounts for the shaky camerawork and chop-chop editing, less artistic than lightly intoxicated.

The framing is further distinguished by Nossiter's insistence on including any dog that happens to be wandering about the premises, slobbering over huge hunks of cheese or frolicking in the bushes. A vineyard owner will be raving about the evils of globalization and then the camera suddenly swerves down and there it is: yet another dog. Endearing or simply distracting? You expect a documentary of this type to be more focused, perhaps with more emotional commitment or something. But then "Mondovino" doesn't overdo it with political debates. It seems satisfied to make sage-like pronouncements and leave it at that.

While the pronouncements aren't particularly original, they're certainly worth pondering; the death of civilization in terms of true artisanship, true elegance and the concept of terroir -- which means soil in French, but also refers to a region-specific quality defined by that particular soil.

While terroir used to be the decisive factor in wine tasting, as the market is now overrun by marketers and grinning wine consultants like Michel Rolland, who fly around the world telling everyone to "micro-oxygenate" their wines, the taste is sadly being standardized. Oh, and there's also the sins of famed wine expert Robert Parker and the guzzling up of small European vineyards by the Robert Mondavi Family, a Californian vino empire.

Of the cast of "characters," Parker, whose word can now make or break a brand, is definitely one of the stars. Parker talks about how his tongue has been insured and that he's now thinking of doing the same to his nose. He refers to himself in the third person (as in "When Robert Parker says that . . .") and has world-weary mannerisms usually found in the novels of Proust. Parker used to be a small-town boy from Michigan; now he wields his staggering influence on even obscure vineyards in Italy where, apparently, they tremble at the mention of his name.

Interestingly, his tasteful office situated in his Michigan home recalls the one that belonged to Vito Corleone, but his beloved dog suffers from a flatulence problem. "It's OK, you can fart," croons the wine consultant indulgently, before adding: "Just don't do it in my office."

And then there are those that spit on his name and everything it represents. Vineyard owner Aime Guibert in France declares "Vin est mort (wine is dead)," pointing the finger at globalization. A seasoned aristocrat with the vocabulary of Hamlet, he waxes lyrical on the wine of old, the nectar of the gods, and then compares it with the current state of wine, which has become nothing more than a chemical branding process (patented by the Americans, bien sur) to fix the quirks left by the terroir. Of course, he doesn't fail to promote his own vineyard with business-exec smoothness.

Hubert de Montille is another American-hater and truly theatrical with the bald pate and egg-shaped physique of Alfred Hitchcock. He doesn't state his case with the urgency of Guibert but the underlying message is the same. However, when Gerard Depardieu (who happens to be a neighbor) opts to gobble up little vineyards and create a regional brand, he has no objections.

In the end, nothing is very black and white and the people here shift sides and arguments imperceptibly. Appropriately, Guibert that compares people to wine; their temperaments are subtle and always susceptible to change.

"Mondovino" sticks to just one conviction: the value of a bottle is in its taste.

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