Mondovino’s Jonathan Nossiter, part 1: On Film, Rio, and Biodynamics

Ξ September 14th, 2009 | → 2 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, International Terroirs, Interviews, Wine History, Wine News, Winemakers |

Many months ago I contacted the esteemed gentleman Neal Rosenthal, asking after the email address of Jonathan Nossiter, the director of Mondovino. Mr. Rosenthal, you may recall, enjoyed very important on-screen moments in that film. To my surprise he responded in the fullness of time. I cannot say why. Perhaps each bottle of wine he imports contains a GPS locator under its label or embedded in its cork and he, therefore, knew where I lived! In any event, I owe him great thanks for opening the door for all that follows. As well do I owe great thanks to an assistant to Mr. Nossiter who informed me that he was shooting a film in Rio, his home. Time passed, and here we are.
 
Mr. Nossiter is best known as a film director. Among his credits are Resident Alien, Sunday, Signs and Wonders, Mondovino, of course, and the forthcoming Rio Sex Comedy. He is also a producer, editor, cinematographer, and writer. And this last talent found literary expression proper in the 2007 release of Le Gôut et le Pouvoir.
 
The book received great critical acclaim. Well, not quite.
 
We all remember well Robert Parker’s remark upon the book’s release.
 
“[A]nyone with half a chimp’s brain can see through Nossiter’s transparency easier than a J.J.Prum riesling…it is Nossiter and his ilk(call them the scary wine gestapo)chanting the same stupid hymn that demand wines be produced in only one narrow style….”
 
With all the wit and wisdom heard at our recent healthcare Town Hall meetings, Parker’s discursive instability should, at the very least, give us pause concerning the fate of the work of winemakers, never mind writers, should they ever venture an opinion not in line with his.
 
But just as the screamers at the Town Halls have not read the proposed legislation, so does Parker’s rhetoric give those with “half a chimp’s brain” comfort not to read the book. But it should not be this way.
 
The truth of the matter is that the book, soon to be released as Liquid Memory, has not the remotest relation to Mr. Parker’s utterance. Read it. To be released October 13th, Liquid Memory brings a different tone to the discussion of terroir, taste and power. For discussion there will be.
 
Of course, the basic requirement remains that the book actually be read in order to be a faithful participant in the talk to follow. I have. And I am here to tell you it is a beautiful, cultured book, a book of passionate, subtle ideas. It is a book about the cultivation of difference and the joys of its discovery; it is about the preservation of the ‘other’ and their increasingly marginal histories.
 
As Mr. Nossiter writes,
 
“A true expression of terroir . . . is a very precise means to share the beauty of a specific identity, a specific culture, with the rest of the world. It is using the local not to exclude, but to include any one of us in the mystery and distinctive beauty of an ‘other.’”
 
Perhaps most importantly, it is about the ethics of taste, and therefore, necessarily an intimate look into the nomadism of Mr. Nossiter himself. Again,
 
“What is taste? It could be described as the expression of a preference between, say, A and B. But what distinguishes taste from mere opinion is that such a preference emerges from a sensory, emotional reaction with the subsequent ability to intellectually decipher that reaction for the self (and, if really necessary, for others). But ultimately, the defining characteristic of taste is the coherent relation of that preference to one’s own conduct, to an ethical relation to oneself and to the world.”
 
Though sympathetic to the cause, Liquid Memory is not an anti-globalist manifesto; neither is it a demand, through the dog-piling of torrid tasting notes, that the reader submit to a singularly original palate. God, no.
 
Liquid Memory is the playful, reflective, sometimes darkly comic search for an ethics of meaningful engagement with the world of wine and more. And the reverse? An individual locked in a repetitive, defensive opacity, policing strange and exotic intruders, believing themselves to be the measure of all things, such an individual will never learn a new thing, either about wine or the world. That, in my view, is the moral of this book.
 
But a full book review must wait for a later date, though much of its content will be touched upon in the conversation moving forward. What I offer here, and over the next two Tuesdays, is my recorded conversation with Jonathan Nossiter.
 
I phoned him at his home in Rio late last week.
 
Admin Hi. This is Ken Payton calling from California.
 
Jonathan Nossiter Hi. How are you doing?
 
I’m doing very well. A little nervous.
 
JN Why is that?
 
It’s an extraordinary opportunity to speak with you.
 
JN Trust me. My wife would beg to differ! (laughs) And my three kids would say you’re about to waste you time. But feel free to ask whatever silly questions you’d like and I’ll give you even sillier answers.
 
May I record the conversation?
 
JN Yeah, yeah, of course. I am always grateful when someone does. I am very skeptical of peoples’ ability to take notes without listening to tape.
 
What I do is transcribe interviews word for word, with very little editing, little paraphrase.
 
JN Yes. So shoot…
 
I am curious about your current film project. Can you say anything about it before we discuss the book?
 
JN Sure. It’s called Rio Sex Comedy. It stars Charlotte Rampling, Irène Jacob, Bill Pullman, Fisher Stevens…. It’s kind of an anarchic comedy about foreigners fucking up in Rio, fucking up and fucking in Rio. (laughs) It will be done early 2010, I think.
 
You’re still in the process of editing?
 
JN I’m still cutting, yeah. A window of opportunity opened up now because I having huge technical problems. I’m not able to edit for the next couple of hours. So, take advantage.
 
There’s a wonderful Wim Wenders film called Lightning Over Water.
 
JN Yeah, yeah. I’ve seen it.
 
He follows [co/director] Nicholas Ray through his last days as he slowly dies of cancer. At one point Wenders mentions that one of the scenes he’s shooting for Hammett will cost $200,000. [This film was released in 1980.] He asks Nicholas Ray what he would do with $200,000. Of course, he replies that he would make ‘lightning over water’. I don’t know the size of the budget of the film you’re currently working on but what would you do if given a very large budget?
 
JN I would spend most of the budget on Romanée Conti and save the little I need to actually make a film to make the film. (laughs) What else would someone in my position do?
 
I mean, if someone wants to offer me a huge film to make I’m not saying I’d never do it in my life, but I feel we made an epic. I shot for five months. It’s a cast of literally thousands. Half the city of Rio is involved in the film. I’m working with people that I consider some of the greatest actors in the world. It was a longer shoot than a lot films with twenty times the budget. I’ve been cutting for eight months; I’ll probably be cutting for another four months, which is a luxury that most big budget films don’t even know about because there is so much money at stake. They can’t take the time. Of course, they don’t need the time most of the time because they know exactly what they are doing. I don’t really know what I’m doing so I need the time.
 
As far as I am concerned I am able to do exactly the kind of films that I dreamed about doing, that I continue to dream about doing. I’m not sure what I would do with more money. You know, I’d love to live better than I live. (laughs) But I’m not sure for the film itself.
 
It’s an interesting project because the actors are the co-producers of the film. We all agreed it’s a kind of cooperative affair. We don’t have real producers on the film. We‘ve sort of co-produced it ourselves with financing from France and Brazil, a very small amount. Everyone got paid the same amount. The crew was 10 people. I’m here cutting by myself. There is someone in Paris I’m going to be working with who I’ve worked a little bit before, a very good editor, Sophie Brunet, the editor for [Bertrand] Tavernier. She edited Hôtel Terminus and other Ophüls films.
 
But otherwise, you know, (laughs) it’s not like there’s a 1000 people involved. For me that is part of the pleasure of making films. I suppose in the wine world it’s the equivalent of someone with a two or three hectare domain. You’re not going to get rich from it, but you have complete control over what you do. More than control you have complete liberty to do what you want to do. And that to me is the most exciting thing about filmmaking.
 
As you know it’s often one of the most exciting things about wine is when people are completely free. I was just in Switzerland, and was on the jury of the Locarno Film Festival. I tasted a couple of, I tasted a bunch of Swiss wines and was blown away by one domaine, Domaine de Beudon in the Valais. I had heard them about from an agronomist who works at Slow Food University, among other places, and teaches Biodynamics, Biodynamic farming all over Italy. He told me about this place that has been making biodynamic wine since ’93. And I ordered a case and had it sent to Locarno Film Festival. I opened it with the jurors, with my fellow jurors, pretty much every night for the whole length of the festival. I had never tasted Swiss wines with as much depth and purity. Dôle, Fendant [called Chasselas outside of Valais], Humagne [Rouge], 11.4 % alcohol. Incredibly fresh, bright, beautiful, beautiful wines made by just a couple!
 
I contacted them afterwards. They’re a couple who I guess are in their late fifties, early sixties. They’re working slopes. They have to go up on a téléphérique [aerial tram, gondola] to harvest half of it. They’ve got, I think, five hectares, maybe six. They struggle to survive financially, but they’ve also… they’re also creating something that is incredibly beautiful and moving. It was moving to drink those wines partly out of my own ignorance because I don’t know the Valais wines very well. I knew the wines of Bovard, Gilliard, and a few others but….
 
I am more convinced by the beauty of biodynamic wine-making each year. Which is obviously not to say there are not great wines made by other methods, including other biological methods, or organic methods. But it also seems true to me that the more that I taste biodynamic wines that are not made for reasons of fashion, that are made out of conviction, an ethical sense of a winemaker, a farmer’s place on the earth, and also a desire to translate a sense of place. And that was the astonishing thing about those biodynamic wines of Domaine de Beudon; I felt for the first time that I was in contact with the terroir of the Valais, that something distinctive was singing through.
 
I think the process of biodynamic farming allows for the soul of a place to express itself with greater transparency. That to me is thrilling. Because that’s like traveling. It’s certainly a hell of a lot more fun traveling like that than on an airplane. (laugh)
 
There are quite a few biodynamic producers here in California. But there are no rules about what essentially goes on in the winery itself. Biodynamics covers vineyard practices, and often one hears different things. I did a story recently on smoke taint removal from affected grapes. It is a very technology-driven undertaking. There is a curious tension between the technology available to a biodynamic producer in the winery, certainly here in the United States, and what one reads from Demeter about practices required for certification in the vineyard. Do you have anything to add?
 
JN As much as I am an advocate of, or feel like I’m an advocate, or rather a fan and admirer of those people who farm biodynamically and who are interested in a more holistic vision of the earth that they work, there are also a hell of a lot of charlatans involved, and also a hell of a lot of people who are doing it who aren’t charlatans but are doing it because it’s become a fashion. There are other people who probably don’t fully understand why they are doing it.
 
There’s little to add. There are no absolute pronouncements that can or should be made. I also think that it’s dangerous because winemakers are artists in one sense. And an artist’s practice is really up to the artist. I think it’s dangerous to pass sort of a blanket judgements about. And I want to very clear that I am not saying that biodynamic farming is the only correct practice. It’s a correct practice. It’s a laudable practice.
 
So what people do afterwards? I feel very much in sympathy with Jean-Marc Roulot who is very articulate and very clear about his vision of terroir and also his vision of what organic farming means. He’s been farming organically for at least a decade, probably longer. He’s fascinated by biodynamics; he’s extremely good friends with Dominique Lafon, his neighbor in Meursault, who is one of the great biodynamic advocates, as you know. But he himself hasn’t taken the plunge yet because he doesn’t want to do it until he’s sure that it’s something that he fully understands for himself, and that engagement with biodynamic farming is something that will have a personal dimension, a personal necessity for him. That to me is a sign, yet another indication of why I think Jean-Marc Roulot is a real artist. Not just a great actor. He’s got a lead part in the film, by the way, in Rio, Rio Sex Comedy. He plays Irène Jacob’s husband. He’s as good an actor as he is a winemaker.
 
But I completely respect it. I think there is an element of… it’s an act of faith to engage in biodynamic farming. And the worst thing is to deal with an act of faith when you’re not sure of your own faith. I think these things are obviously very nuanced.
 
You read my book. I think Christophe Roumier is one of the greatest winemakers in the world. He’s also one of the people I admire the most as a human being. Christophe doesn’t farm biodynamically. He doesn’t even farm on strict organic terms. He occasionally uses products, which he says himself. He has a vision… I think he has a profound respect for the land as part of planet Earth, and I think he has a profound respect for the land that he farms as an historical expression of a culture. He certainly makes some of the most delicious wines I’ve ever had in my life! (laughs) And I completely respect his skepticism. Interestingly Christophe also has told me that maybe one day he’ll get to bio. He can see himself perhaps one day arriving at farming biodynamically. But like Jean-Marc, he needs to find his own path to get there. And I think that is essential.
 
And I also completely respect people who don’t advertise the fact that they’re farming biodynamically, as if it were some sort of label of purity. The parallel in cinema is obvious. Just because someone is an independent filmmaker doesn’t mean that the films are actually independently minded. Ninety-five percent of independent filmmaking has historically been nothing more than a low-budget version of what Hollywood does.
 
Yes. I’ve had conversations with winemakers here in America, certainly in Oregon and Washington, who make it very clear that they’re a little annoyed that though they’ve been farming organically for many years, but they’ve never sought out certification because of the paperwork involved and everything else. They can’t take advantage of that [their organic practice] on the label.
 
JN Which is also what Jean-Marc says. He’s not interested. It’s a bit of the Groucho Marx thing: Don’t want to be a member of a club that would have you.
 
Partly it’s an administrative hassle to fill out paperwork, and partly because the whole point, it seems to me, about making wine, just like making films, is that you’re trying to express some form of individuality, individuality of place, individuality of yourself as a person. Therefore any adherence is always delicate to any sort of society. It’s delicate, it’s a delicate question. So I understand people’s skepticism.
 
That said, given the terrifying state of the planet, given the terrifying state of what people are doing on this planet, there is also something to be said, and part of my admiration for people who farm organically, who make wine from organically farmed grapes and biodynamically farmed, my great admiration for them is precisely because this seems to me a very powerful way to react to the terrifying state of the world, a powerfully positive way.
 
The planet is in dire danger. The idiots who have power in all countries seem to be hastening, wanting to hasten, the end of the planet. With exceptions, not many. And even when they don’t want to their hands are often tied behind their back by others. I wish that I knew one one-hundredth the number of filmmakers with the same engagement, the same desire to try and contribute to the well-being of the planet as I do winemakers.
 
Part 2.
 
Admin

 

2 Responses to ' Mondovino’s Jonathan Nossiter, part 1: On Film, Rio, and Biodynamics '

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  1. NicoRiesling said,

    on October 1st, 2009 at 6:07 am

    Ken, a great post, thank you. I like Mr Nossiter’s tolerance for people that want to do the right thing and take their time to get there. It is definitely my motto.

  2. Administrator said,

    on October 1st, 2009 at 7:34 am

    Great to hear from you, Nico. The wine bloggers conference is in Walla Walla next year. I hope to see you then.

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