Monday, May 16, 2005

Overlooked DVD of the month - MONDOVINO

MONDOVINO is a fascinating documentary about the wine industry. I know, I know. This might seem like rarefied territory, but I feel that the documentary has a far wider reach. Firstly, because the characters it focuses on are fantastic. Second, because the issues it touches on are broad-brush - the impact of globalisation on local industry. The issue here is the French wine industry, and the "terroiristes". These are families that have run vineyards over generations, producing wines of differing taste and quality using traditional methods. However, over the past few decades there has been a revolution in the wine industry, and American iconoclast, Robert Parker is happy to take full credit for it. The documentary shows him telling us how maddening he found the lack of transparency and snobbery of the old French wine industry. And surely anyone who has tried to navigate confusing French wine labelling, or drunk appalling wine from a supposedly top marque house, will agree with him. So, Parker, the ultimate wine democrat, decided to publish reviews of wine with a simple points system. Marked out of 100, anything over 90 was considered top hole. I've always been suspicious of points systems - it is too easy to see the mark and skip over the nuanced analysis. (There is reason why I do not publish marks out of five on my reviews.) However, in a country of relatively new wine drinkers with little confidence in their own palettes  Parker points took off beyond all imagination. Restaurents started putting them on menus and wine stores would boast of them on shelf markings. It became the case that a Parker 90 would guarantee good sales. Now here's the sad part. Old French vineyards began to "doctor" their wine to appeal to Parker and secure that all-important Parker-90. By hiring a wine consultant called Michel Rolland, and adopting his techniques, they were more likely to produce the type of heavy, rich red that Parker approves of. This has led to a homogenisation of wines produced.

Director, Jonathan Nossiter, is very good at gently mocking the grandees of this new wine industry. Robert Parker comes across as in love with his own image as an iconoclast, and is shown praising the powerful farts of his dog! Michel Rolland is portrayed as a schmoozy, charming guy, but definitely one who enjoys the power and money that go with his job. But most of all, Nossiter exposes the crass vulgarity of the Mondavi family of California - one of the most powerful families in wine. They proudly show off their vineyards and the family house they have built, and boast about a garden table that is *exactly* like the one in The Godfather. You can almost hear Nossiter whisper, "just think what a crime for such nouveau riche to buy up our beautiful old French family vineyards."

I feel that the documentary is uniquely successful because, despite this gentle mockery, it manages to give some balance. While showing the genuine grievances of the French terroiristes, it points to the great improvements that have been made in the quality of wine produced in the more obscure new world vineyards thanks to the techniques of Michel Rolland. While micro-ox. etc may be blunting some of the best wines, it seems to have raised the standard of the worst. Similarly, the documentary often makes the point that it is up to consumers not to be slaves to the Parker-points system. If rich people who are insecure about their own palette want to pay for ballsy but unsophisticated wine just because it has a 90-plus Parker rating, then why should we worry? We are still free to consume more demanding wines recommended by a host of other writers. But the real strength of the documentary, and the reason why it is a pleasure to watch all two and a quarter hours of it, is that it features so many charming and eccentric characters from the world of wine. From the French Communist mayor, elected to keep the Mondavi family out, to the old wizened wine-makers resigned to the fact that their way is the way of the past...

What more can I say? This documentary is genuinely entertaining, whether or not you are an oenophile, but also teaches us something about a specific industry that has wider ramifications. Fascinating stuff.

MONDOVINO played Cannes and London 2004. It is available on Region 2 DVD from today but opens in Austria on June 3rd 2005.

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