Mondovino reviewed

  • Wednesday 20 October 2004

Inside every fat person is a thin one trying to get out, they say. And inside Mondovino is a fascinating 90-minute film, suffocating.

Weighing in at two-and-a-quarter hours it’s too long. It is going to be made into a 10-part series, but as a feature it needs to lose at least 45 minutes.

The basic premise, when you fight through the flab, is sound. Director Jonathan Nossiter (whose credits include a number of documentaries and films with David Suchet and Charlotte Rampling, one of which won Best Film at the Sundance Film Festival) has made a morality play.

The argument is that the soul of wine, ‘the guardian of western civilisation’ (as he describes it in the film notes) is being torn out by globalisation.

Michel Rolland (laughing throughout - all the way to the bank, one imagines) is cast as a globe-trotting Machiavel, his Pomerol base a devil’s laboratory of white-coated technicians and processed bottles. He gleefully lists the 12 countries in which he makes wine, while his nemesis, Aime Guibert of Daumas Gassac in the town of Aniane in the Languedoc, can’t find words to describe him.

‘Bordeaux worships only money,’ Guibert says. ‘Michel Rolland?’ he is at a loss for words. ‘He is another… species.’

Guibert seems to have right on his side. He endlessly justifies his stand against the Mondavi Corporation, which two years ago wanted to develop forest land in Aniane.

Here it gets interesting. What exactly happened during ‘L’Affaire Mondavi’, which the Aniane townsfolk fear to talk about. Why, if Guibert was so implacably opposed to globalisation in the form of Mondavi, did he welcome Gerard Depardieu and his billionaire partner Bernard Magrez? Was it that Mondavi offered too little to buy Guibert out?

There are some gems: two father and son double acts stand out. First there’s the mutual respect and affection between Volnay producer Hubert de Montille and his son Etienne (‘You’ve got no sense of humour, Etienne – you never did have’), and then there’s Robert and Michael Mondavi. You have to know the strife-torn history of Napa’s first family to truly relish the expression on Robert’s face when Michael says, ‘You know what floating the company on Nasdaq did? It brought our father back to us.’

Then there’s Michael Broadbent, in one of the most illuminating moments, telling us how Chateau Kirwan in Margaux found success as soon as Rolland took over in 1993. Its taste became global, he says. It’s no more Margaux than Opus One, ‘but it’s selling, so what the hell can you say?’

Nossiter has charmed his way into the households of some of the most fascinating characters in the modern wine world, and he gets them to drop their guards. Robert Parker talks about himself – hubristically – in the third person. Vittorio Frescobaldi flits petulantly about his tapestried drawing rooms; Bernard Magrez describes his brutal childhood only to suggest he meted out more or less of the same to his son.

But the editing’s too clever. ‘Michel Rolland, he’s always laughing,’ Guibert says – as we cut to a shot of the great global chancer chuckling in the back of his Mercedes. Shari Staglin (of cult Napa producer Staglin Family Vineyards) seems to patronise her Mexican pickers, while Etienne de Montille sits picnicking with his vineyard workers.

It’s a little too convenient. Nossiter wants to make the case that big equals bad, small and local equals good. He lines up his targets, smilingly gives them lengths of rope and allows them to hang themselves.

This is a film packed with notable moments but you’re left with the feeling that you’ve been sitting at a very long, intemperate lunch with unresolved arguments flying back and forth.

And recent events have made the whole thing very poignant. Since the film was made, Robert Mondavi Corporation has announced it is selling up – with a possibility of being bought by the biggest wine company in the world, Constellation Brands. There’s a message there somewhere.

Mondovino opens in the UK on 10 December

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