Monday, February 28, 2011

Knocking it Back

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in June 2005

In writing about Jonathan Nossiter’s documentary about the wine industry, Mondovino, I have to start by setting out my own wine credentials. I drink a lot of it, almost entirely white. Alcohol-wise, I don’t drink anything else any more. On Friday nights, my wife and I go out, usually to the neighborhood pub The Jersey Giant. She gets a beer and I get a half litre of the house white (that’s just for starters). I’ve been drinking it for years and it’s never occurred to me to ask what it is. On one recent occasion, I took a mouthful and I realized it actually tasted pretty bad. But after a while it seemed to get better.

Ethical Commitment

At other times we go to a restaurant, and we might order a bottle from the respectable upper middle of the price list. I can tell it tastes better than the stuff I drink on Friday, but if you ask me to elaborate on that I’ll be lost. The tasting ritual is for me a waste of time – I can’t imagine on what basis I’d ever reject the bottle. We drink way too fast, frequently draining the bottle too early in the meal process. I like wine. But you can see that I say this in a pretty functional way. It’s not a special thing for me. It’s just what I like to drink. A few years ago we spent the New Year weekend at a country inn where the host instructed us in great detail on the characteristics of each wine. I couldn’t detect any of it. Likewise, on the rare occasion I go to a formal wine tasting, I daydream through the talk and just try not to knock it back too quickly.

Some readers must be shaking their heads over this, and I know by that some measure I’m missing out. But my philosophy is that we’re all missing out on something, so I don’t worry about it. At least I’ve glimpsed enough of the wine mystique to be able to take it on faith. Otherwise, some of the assertions in the opening section of Mondovino might seem purely nonsensical. We are told that wine reflects the “religious relationship between man and nature,” that it takes a poet to make a great wine, that it’s a matter of “ethical commitment.” There is a whole world, a whole way of looking at the world, in which wine is a central structuring principle, and Mondovino is devoted to illuminating that world.

And it turns out that the prevailing themes are the same as they are in every other documentary now – the struggle to preserve integrity and cultural identity in an age of globalization. Nossiter’s film, running two and a quarter hours, takes us through small vineyards, some fighting for survival, and through the huge multinational companies that increasingly dominate the industry (preeminently the Mondavis of California). He spends much time with a wine consultant who travels the world instructing his clients in what will sell (which generally seems to consist of ordering them to “micro-oxygenate”), and with wine guru Robert Parker. On the face of it, it appears like a pretty complete survey.

Democratic Way Of Tasting

Parker is the focal point of the debate that shapes the film. It seems he’s responsible for much of wine’s growing popularity – he’s demystified it, made it accessible to a wider audience. He brags about how he “leveled the playing field” and then casts this in specifically nationalistic terms, referring to an “American, candid, democratic way of tasting” (he says his personality in this regard was formed during the Watergate era). But critics say that Parker overvalues a certain type of overly accessible full-bodied wine, and that his influence ultimately serves to bland out the whole spectrum. You don’t need to be an expert on wine to grasp the nuances of the issue – they’re the same as you see with food or popular culture. There’s more of it than ever, affordable and brightly packaged, and it’s the same everywhere you go. Is this progress? In a superficial sense people have broader horizons than they used to, but then they’re still (if not more so) prisoners of ideology.

Another variation on the theme comes from the wife of a wealthy California producer who gives a self-congratulatory account of how well they treat their Mexican workers – she says they call the workers by their first names and make sure to give them each a copy of the annual company T-shirt or hat. The calculation of what’s good for the individual is glib and generalized, wholly formed by an all-consuming trickle-down view of the world. Interviewing the European nobles who govern the wine aristocracy, Nossiter shows a persistent interest in asking about their links to fascism; he questions one on whether selling wine to the Nazis was a form of collaboration (the answer is it wasn’t – it was a necessity of survival). But none of this is particularly barbed – Nossiter basically seems enthralled by the entire milieu, for all its problems.

Shaggy Dog Story?

Ironically, the thing I found most prominently missing from all this was the presumed delight to be found in wine itself. Even though Nossiter is a trained sommelier as well as a director (his earlier movies were the promising Sunday and the overwrought Signs And Wonders), we don’t actually see a lot of it being drunk, and unlike some of the great food movies that have you drooling in your seat, Mondovino (shot in a loose, off the cuff kind of way) doesn’t strive for a visceral impact (having said that, once it was over, I walked to Cabbagetown and had a couple of glasses). This leaves the film feeling rather abstract and self-contained, potentially rather trivial. Some of Nossiter’s decisions only reinforce this impression. He’s preoccupied with dogs – virtually everyone he talks to seems to have one, and Nossiter consistently moves in for the close-up; during his interview with Parker, he interrupts at one point to observe that the dog has broken wind. He even ends the film on a shot of a dog interfering with another one. What does it mean – that the wine industry has gone to the dogs? That this was just a shaggy dog story?

Your guess is as good as mine, but it seems to me in part that Nossiter was wary of being too stodgy on a subject that might have seemed elitist, and almost spooked himself into taking on a surfeit of lightness. Several people in the movie say that the wine is basically all the same now (or else so lacking in distinction that it might as well be); that consideration has been replaced by hype; uniqueness rooted in a specific sense of origin has been replaced by branding. Watching Mondovino, one might best conclude that if we drink wine at all, it’s pointless to do it with much more thought than someone like me puts into it. Nossiter can’t possibly believe that, but his film remains somewhat fuzzy, as if the whole thing had been put together in the wake of a few glasses too many.

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