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Mondovino

"Where there is the vine, there is civilization," opines one of the subjects of Mondovino (2004), Jonathan Nossiter's rambling, slyly combative documentary about global wine culture. One of the points it most effectively makes is that civilization, taken to extremes, has its down side. The battle lines in Mondovino are drawn between the forces of globalization and their opponents, and Nossiter spends a good portion of the film's hefty running time chatting with the former. The primary nemeses here are the members of the Mondavi family, who put Napa on the global wine map and made an enormous fortune doing so. Their primary henchmen are Michel Rolland, the top wine consultant in France, and Robert Parker, the American writer whose incredible influence on the popularity and price of vintages makes him an object of appeasement from winemakers worldwide. The combined influence of these forces has been, according to their detractors, the establishment of a uniform standard for good wine and the ironing out of idiosyncrasies from more locally oriented producers. The term "terroir," which refers to the ability of wine to retain the qualities of the earth in which its grapes are grown, its "somewhereness," gets bandied about quite a bit. In this, the process seems similar to that which occurs anytime a once-exclusive productóa college education, say, or air travelóis marketed to a broader population. The lowest common denominator of taste steers the market towards a blander, more uniform, less challenging palette. Nossiter's strategy is rather like that of an aristocratic Michael Moore. He asks the awkward questions, drawing incriminating statements from his often obtuse subjects, including several disturbing comments on Europe's fascist past and awkward tributes to their manual workers. His bobbing and weaving camera frequently focuses on something in the frame other than his interviewees, providing an ironic visual counterpart to their self-serving monologues. And he's always sure to expose the PR machinery at work, identifying press attaches with on-screen labels and surreptitiously filming the process of setting up interviews and the image-making process in general. But Mondovino isn't a relentlessly downbeat screed on the state of wine; there are interviews with traditional growers defending their way of life, and the film closes with a look at small-scale viniculture springing up in Brazil and Argentina that may hold the future of this most passion-provoking beverage. Nossiter's previous fictional features, Sunday and Signs and Wonders, are notable for their intimate scale, so it's fascinating that for this nonfiction effort, he spent four years traversing the globe and shot over 500 hours of film. (One gets the sense that being able to write off travel and wine expenses for that span would be reward enough for making a film like this.) The DVD of Mondovino presents a flawless transfer of its 1.85:1 image and a full-bodied 2.0 channel soundtrack. This 135-minute film is edited down from a ten-hour television series, and the disc includes nearly an hour of footage from that even more epic treatment, which is scheduled for an eventual DVD release of its own. The director's commentary begins "I'm Jonathan Nossiter, the filmmaker. And if you're lucky, you won't hear anything more out of me." Luckily, this isn't so, as he provides a wealth of additional anecdotes and self-deprecating comments on his own camera-wielding faults. Keep-case.
—Marc Mohan



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