Christine Harland is director of Camden Writers. www.camdenwriters.com
Directed by Jonathan Nossiter (documentary)
Produced by: Diaphana Films, Goatworks Films, Les Films de la Croisade, Ricardo Preve Films
It is easy to like the people we first meet in this film, people like Yvonne Hégoburu who transferred her love and affection to the grapes on her six hectares of land in the French Pyrénées after her husband died.
Lina Columbu literally lights up with affection for her husband, Battista, as he explains that it is difficult to keep the vines alive on their two hectares in Sardinia. There is no pretense as Hubert de Montille, who cultivates eight hectares in Burgundy, leads us through an antique-filled house that is the epitome of shabby chic. His son now runs the family vineyard and his daughter works for another winery.
These are strong characters and everything about them resonates with tradition. It is a shock, then, to suddenly find ourselves in a luxurious automobile with the jovial wine consultant Michel Rolland, complete with cigarillos and chauffeur. Rolland is asked about the fight to keep the Mondavi family out of Aniane in Languedoc and, never one to hold back, he replies that "Languedoc is Hicksville".
Our next stop is Napa, California, and the winery owned by Shari and Garen Staglin. He is the founder of a global tech company with revenues of $200 million and is about as far away from shabby chic as you can get. After lunch with the Staglins, we visit the Mondavis, complete with press attachés and PR people. Founded in 1966, Robert Mondavi's winery produces 120 million bottles a year and claims $500 million in annual revenue. Mondavi is a brand with a family directly behind it.
Into the vat, we throw American Robert Parker, perhaps the single most influential wine critic today; some wine distributors and bottlers; and the man who knows everyone, the ubiquitous Michel Rolland. Rolland and Parker seem to have created a culture of their own: in Rolland's words, "Today's wines are at another level. There are the famous critics who now rank the wines and that's where the wine consultant can make a difference." Voilà.
Robert Parker claims that he never compromises, that he always "writes what he believes," regardless of the effect it may have. Parker is captured on tape saying he is "proud to have brought an American point of view to this elitist beverage". It rings of a cultural as well as an economic battle.
Hubert de Montille, the small winegrower in Burgundy, claims that when you have power, as the USA does, there is a tendency to impose your tastes and your culture.
The documentary is about wine – and it isn't. With very few exceptions, the players are family businesses, some of which have existed for many generations. As the power of critics like Robert Parker grows, wine producers tend to adjust their product to conform to the norm. So profound is Parker's influence that the French Ministry of Fraud is concerned about illegal production methods that change, for example, the colour of the wines to fall more in line with what the public demands. The message according to Aimé Guibert of Languedoc is, "Get lost with your quality wines. We want a million bottles, all the same."
What hope has the small winery, where slow maturation is of the essence and decisions are based on individual taste. With wine, the drive to branding and globalisation command the market, threatens the smaller family business. The qualities that once rendered a unique product valuable suddenly appear as liabilities.
The traditionalists will tell you that wine-producing is a question of terroir, that every wine reflects the land that nurtures the grapes. You can transport the grape, age the wine in new oak barrels and apply all the modern technology, but the land is all important.
Michael Broadbent, the longstanding Director of Wines at Christies, sees this trend as a real problem.
"I'd rather have an individual wine," he says, "that's not quite up to scratch, than a wine made in a globally acceptable style which is fairly innocuous."
Nossiter's documentary is filmed with a hand-held camera that pans jerkily around, sometimes focusing on unlikely subjects, notably the heads and rear ends of dogs. The film is too long and sometimes repetitive in a way that dilutes the overall impact, but Mondovino is a powerful metaphor for the ways in which business in general has changed over the past 25 years and the impact those changes have had on tradition and character and individuality of product.