(Argentina/France/Italy/USA - 2004)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: -
Genre: Documentary
Director: Jonathan Nossiter
Screenplay: Jonathan Nossiter
Cinematography: Jonathan Nossiter
Composer: -
Runtime: 135 minutes

Etienne de Montille: “The enemy is the same as always, ignorance. It used to be illiteracy. Today it’s standardization. Horrible oversimplifications. So that’s the first one, ignorance. The second enemy is money, as always. The wealth of the wine world is its diversity. The day there’ll only be a few kinds of wine this job will no longer interest me. Maybe I’ll make films.”

Jonathan Nossiter: “But film and wine are the same!”

In the late 1990’s I started renting pretty much all the foreign films I could find. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of the most beloved classics weren’t available in my area. Terry Zwigoff wasn’t kidding about the video stores having 9 ½ Weeks rather than 8 ½, but I saw a respectable amount of films from the mid 1980’s on because there was a store that was at least stocking one copy of some of the (then) current releases. They included The Stilts, Where the Green Ants Dream, Erendira, The Sacrifice, Vagabond, Kaos, Betty Blue, Jean de Florette, Manon des Sources, Summer, Half of Heaven, The Dolphin, Sorceress, Yeelen, Wings of Desire, Camille Claudel, Pelle the Conqueror, The Little Thief, Black Rain, My Twentieth Century, Heaven and Earth, Van Gogh, Santa Sangre, Europe Europa, Anna 6-18, Madame Bovary, Raise the Red Lantern, Farewell My Concubine, The Story of Qui Ju, Scent of Green Papaya, Red Firecracker Green Firecracker, The Wooden Man’s Bride, The Mystery of Rampo, Bandit Queen, & Queen Margot. Probably only a few of these might be among your first picks from Netflix, but they meant a lot to me because all these contemporary films took me to a world that bared little resemblance to my own.

When people’s idea of music was a model singing someone else’s meaningless words over a technician’s loop I could take solace in films like All the Mornings of the World and A Heart in Winter that appreciated composition and musicianship. When someone in the neighborhood was finding some ludicrous reason to chop a tree down every week it was refreshing to see movies like Children of Nature and Castaway where people had a desire to coexist with nature. When everyone was chomping down greaseburgers there was Babette’s Feast to show the gift of a real meal. When the closest people I came in contact with got to a book was the latest adaptation of John Grisham or Danielle Steele it was comforting to see a film like La Lectrice that showed some of the pleasures of imaginative interaction they were missing.

You might be wondering why the foreign films ended in 1994. The local owner sold to a chain, whose idea of the world was Hollywood or Hollywood. One week they decided VHS were useless, so they started the process of selling off the history of cinema, or at least the version they’d acquired of the last 20+ years of it, by putting the entire unwanted foreign films collection on sale. I mean, they didn’t even bother to keep Seven Samurai, a movie pretty much everyone with any real interest in film comes to at some point. But alas history is almost as unwanted as anything decidedly foreign is. They’ll wait until there’s another remake, and consider that the definitive version. In the meantime they needed the room for the 103rd copy of Glitter or Crossroads, they’re interchangeable to me. Today, beyond the AFI’s 100 films that are sure to make no one want to watch classic films, the store’s catalog is basically movies from the 2000’s.

It was a big deal that they actually got the hot foreign title of the year, Y Tu Mama Tambien. I was excited to see any foreign film without having to stay up all night or get up too early to see its one showing on a movie channel, even one from a guy who did one of the most embarrassing hatchet jobs of a literary classic ever. This was particularly stimulating because it had Maribel Verdu, that natural beauty I so adored from Golden Balls. But now her chest had been deformed into something that was more reminiscent of a fork in the road. Maybe there was some value in the asides about Mexico, but all I saw was the same old revolting American porn that litters Skinemax during the hours I’d be looking for something to watch so I could stay awake until one of the few potentially interesting movies they’d show all month would come on around five.

Wine importer Neal Rosenthal claims what’s being done to wine is even worse than plastic surgery since that only destroys the exterior. Nossiter focuses on three individuals who play a huge part in making wine bland, innocuous, and characterless, and, of course, virtually identical. Big business is named Mondavi, the marketing guru is named Michel Rolland, and the media is named Robert Parker (not surprisingly he’s virtually interchangeable with the group of “critics” from the separate magazine Wine Spectator), but what’s really important is he could be talking about pretty much any business in these globalized days. And that’s really what the film is about, globalization breeding interchangeability. It’s convenient that once American Mondavi bought Italian Ornellaia it suddenly became #1 in American Wine Spectator, but even if Rolland weren’t a Frenchman pursuing conspiracy theories would be missing the point. It doesn’t matter if the chicken preceded the egg or is married to the hen, only that the end result of their work if uniformity.

The Old World dominated wine because the effects the environment the grapes were grown in has on the taste of the finished product, called terroir, was important. If you’ve been selling wine for 300 years obviously you must have some favorable sunlight and soil, and in any case people have become accustomed to the taste of your specific wine. You can’t just buy some land, plant some grapes, and suddenly have great wine. And if you have multiple vineyards, all your wine won’t have the same taste. Obviously some guys with money would benefit from the elimination of terroir because they could theoretically succeed in wine right away. Even if right now they could only get a hold of a few acres here and there, they could always put the same name on it all and spend a ton of money brainwashing the public into believing it’s the wine they need to drink.

When there’s money to be had, someone figures out a way to take it. But it’s very difficult to make everyone a success. I mean, if it were easy the people who were able to amass millions and billions would figure it out on their own. The quick and easy way is to have one formula that “works for everyone”. It doesn’t require any thought, from anyone, which is part of the reason it can work. Rolland knows what the critics like, and conveniently it’s something artificial that can be reproduced over and over. He seems to tell everyone to use microoxygenation and new oak. Microoxygenization is a phony aging process that smoothes out the texture of the molecules. Since the critics seem to mostly be tasting new wine rather than the properly aged finished product, a wine that has been processed to seem 2-5 years old will theoretically feel better in your mouth than the wine that tastes it’s age, 0. New oak overpowers the terroir with its vanilla taste, eliminating the possibility for great wine but allowing wine grown anywhere to taste the same, which is always going to be more important to a businessman.

The difficult part should be eliminating what’s different, but the media always seems willing to please, judging everything on what benefits the big company, availability (usually disguised as some form of sales). Even in a case like this when they actually aren’t a sister company, the biggest companies have the most money to spend on all-important advertising. The media decides certain things are unimportant and/or unacceptable from the get go, in this case anyone who doesn’t store their wine in oak doesn’t exist. Then they set a standard that accomplishes the goal, in this case everyone storing in 100% new oak, and find as many ways as they can to shower praise upon all the conformists. They may also constantly create opportunities to ridicule and berate everything that’s different, conveniently ignoring even obvious facts such as certain differences are inherent, until what’s different is no longer a threat. Then they can choose to lump the different with the things that were unimportant/unacceptable from the get go or use them to fill out the bottom of their rankings just to “prove” their inferiority to the big boys.

It probably isn't as sinister and calculated as I’m making it sound, usually people do what will supposedly make them the most money and what's expected of them. Sometimes there’s actually a critic, and they really believe in something small, but in the final product the great small thing always winds up taking a back seat to the mediocre mass marketed thing. Value and importance are judged by projected sales, which are mostly based on awareness and accessibility, but the media isn't determining accessibility so they take the cue (if not more) from the distributors and increase awareness of the accessible thus devaluing everything else, even if it doesn't happen to be the specific goal.

Like all mainstream “culture” these changes emphasize quick “satisfaction” at the expense of lingering effect. The end result is it’s just about dollars. It’s not the quality of your hectares because you’ve agreed to the processes that trades originality for standardization, only how many you can acquire to churn out your endless replications. That is unless you are willing to be the independent battling the multinational conglomerate.

People can trust winemaker Hubert de Montille over critic Robert Parker and consultant Michel Rolland because he’s not trying to seduce you. He doesn’t care if you hate his wine, just that you respect his right to make it for his taste. If every producer did that, there would be a wine for you, if it were his rivals so be it.

You couldn’t find a more perfect man to make this documentary than Jonathan Nossiter. He’s also a sommelier who has made his own wine lists and trained restaurant staffs. As the son of a Washington Post and New York Times foreign correspondent, he grew up all over the world. He fluently speaks five languages in the film, allowing him to converse with everyone he visits in their native tongue.

Nossiter obviously isn’t happy that right now there are hundreds of wines for Rolland and Parker, among them the exact same stuff given two or three different labels before being shipped out. Why would he be? He’s part of the everyone else who either accepts their taste with or without knowing it or is forced to actively seek out his own taste, which as film fans know is increasingly costly and time consuming since unless you live in a giant multicultural city the best stuff isn’t coming to a place near you. I’m sure Nossiter already knows what he likes quite well, but if he’s the only one that’s buying it the next bottle he has may be his last. There are far worse things than that though; there’s the fear that your favorite will be converted to vanilla and the horror of the moment and aftermath of that sellout. Maybe that sounds corny, but when you really like something it becomes a part of you. Since it exists apart from you, you’re are helpless to control it and unless you are in the business of deluding yourself into believing loss of uniqueness is always “an improvement” that part of you can only die.

Like Marcel Ophuls, Nossiter follows the dialogue wherever it may take him. He is a character in his film because he shot much of it himself, which sometimes yields unsettling Dogma '95 jitters, but he never tries to make himself important. Overall the editing of the film could still use some work, but he does edit himself out as much as possible. In the 10-hour television version his presence appears to be much greater because he includes the entire portion of the conversation rather than certain answers.

Nossiter lets everyone make the points for him. You never feel like he’s putting a yes man on the screen or hiding behind someone else’s words. He spends most of his time with the guys he’s against, never arguing with them, being obstinate, or making a scene. There are no sinister techniques here. Nossiter doesn’t exclude key figures because it’s convenient for his own agenda or he’s afraid their words would hurt his argument. He even lets the interviewees decide how and where they’ll be shot. Nossiter simply gets all the players from all aspects of the wine business on camera and lets them acquit or hang themselves through their descriptions of what they’re all about. He trusts his audience to see who benefits from their techniques. If their dogs tell you something about their owner’s personality so be it, but there’s no narration or gags. Maybe it’ll comfort you that when character and identity are a thing of the past someone a million miles away will have the same tastes as you... at least until you remember taste is individual.




* Copyright 2007 - Raging Bull Movie Reviews *