Mondovino, The Series: A Viewer’s Guide

Ξ December 9th, 2009 | → 2 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, International Terroirs, Interviews, Technology, Wine & Politics, Wine History, Winemakers, Wineries, Young Winemakers |

Jonathan Nossiter’s Mondovino, The Series, is a revelation from beginning to end. On four dvds, ten one-hour episodes, not only does it build upon themes pursued in the original 2004 theatrical release, but it substantially deepens them as well. For those who have only seen the original, they will be greatly rewarded by viewing the enormous amount of material that had to be set aside to fashion a marketable film. For those who come to Mondovino, The Series fresh, they are in for a hilarious, educational ride.
 
One of the most fascinating aspects of The Series is the sheer number of new insights uttered by all the original players. I well remember the harsh criticism heaped on Mr. Nossiter for his alleged politically motivated edit, especially of remarks by Robert Parker and Michel Rolland. Well, in The Series each gentleman greatly expand on their positions with respect to globalization, tradition and the use and abuse of history. Threadbare do the protestations of a slanted edit become when throughout The Series Parker and Rolland insist on digging deeper holes. But, one the other hand, they thereby become much more human, frail, seemingly caught in an echo chamber, a hall of mirrors of mutual admiration. For here recounted is no ordinary love story. Flaubert’s brilliant Bouvard et Pecuchét does come to mind. Yes, let us not forget Mondovino, The Series is high comedy.
 
And there are many new characters: Jan Shrem of Clos Pegase, Bill Harlan, Jose Espinoza, psychoanalyst Jean Laplanche of Chateau de Pommard, Catherine Montalbetti, editor of the Hachette Wine Guide, a very curious plastic surgeon from Paris, Dr. Eric Auclair, Steve Harvey of Folie à Deux, Pierre Siri, proprietor of the artisanal-class Iris du Gayou, Becky Wasserman, Charlie Rodriguez, José Mounier… the list of new and interesting voices is vast. Indeed, Mondovino, The Series swallows the theatrical release whole. (Though there are a small number scenes in the original that did not make it into The Series. But I’ll leave their identification to the film buff!) Incidentally, the world premier of this expanded film was in December, 2006, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. I have not been able to determine if that release differs significantly.
 
What I would like to do for the balance of this post is to provide a brief summary of each of the 10 chapters for the convenience of the viewer. (All images below are used with the generous permission of Jonathan Nossiter.)
 
1) Where’s Asterix? (or Little Town, Big Hell)
This first episode expands on broader themes most closely identified with the theatrical release, the global versus the local, narrowly drawn, the battle was between the town of Aniane in the Languedoc, pop. 2,300, and the Mondavis of California. The conflict revolved around two nominally independent issues: the preservation of a forest and the resistance to a global corporation. But there is much ambiguity introduced into this new cinematic presentation. Of course we are introduced to Aimé Guibert of Mas de Daumas Gassac, wine consultant Michel Rolland (I wonder if he still smokes?), Laurent Vaille of Domaine de La Grange des Pères, the Mondavis and their winery staff, Bernard Magrez, the former socialist mayor, André Ruiz and his elected replacement, the communist Manuel Diaz. We meet Mr. and Mrs. Gay, the founders of Citizens for the Protection of the Forest. Many new locals speak about the conflict, and we hear more from the clergy and from a very entertaining police officer most concerned with parking problems additional tourism might bring!
 
Interestingly, the more the ‘players’ in this episode speak, the more nuanced do their positions become. A viewer upon finishing this first chapter comes away with a far greater appreciation of the multiple meanings, as much personal and political, of the battle to save the forest. There is as much bad faith as honesty, as much cowardice as courage. No political position is as it seems. It is in this discordance that comedy reigns surpreme.
 
2) Magic Potion
Next we’re off to Burgundy. In Volnay we meet Hubert de Montille, his wife Christiane, and their three children, Isabelle, Etienne and the sublime Alix. Lighting up the screen is the magisterial Aubert de Villaine of the Domaine de la Romanée Conti (pictured). Also in part two we are first introduced to Jean-Charles Boisset, Director of the Boisset Group, and young Alix Montille’s employer at the time. Jean-Charles Boisset will make numerous appearances throughout The Series, each more ‘revealing’ than the last. Of great amusement is Floris Lemstra, General Manager of Marketing for Boisset. He awkwardly spies on Alix’s every exchanges with Mr. Nossiter while they are on the Boisset grounds.
 
Of the Montille children, truly remarkable new footage is included. Our understanding of Alix and Etienne is improved, both fascinating people. We follow a harvest with the workers grumbling over labor issues and the family’s response. Greek and Libyan students on break from the University of London stir up trouble but are seemingly placated by a fabulous lunch prepared by Christine. Great exchanges are enjoyed throughout!
 
Back to Napa where we are introduced to Chateau and Estate Wines (Diageo) employees Gregg Fowler, the head of Vineyard Operations, and Peter Hall, VP of Consumer Strategies (can you say Red Chardonnay?) We close with a visit to Sterling, a subsidiary of Seagrams, a subsidiary of Diageo. Much mayhem is set upon the world! Here the noose tightens another inch on the issue of globalization.
 
3) Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day
This third episode is the most revealing, weird and refreshing one-hour look the wine industry likely to be shot for a very long time. Deserving of wide circulation, it is a virtually perfect series of contrasting personalities. We meet the eccentric Jan Shrem of Clos Pegase, a comic figure of the first order, reflecting on art, the good life and the triumph of a kind of western aesthetic imperialism. Throw in eerie footage of Bill Harlan haunting his own winery, opening and closing each and every door, briefly opening then drawing drapes in an apparent effort to contain or exclude some prowling malevolence; mix in the strangely remote Staglins, Sheri, Garen and their daughter, Shannon; add farm worker observations about working conditions and the absence of overtime with an explore of antiseptic environment of Opus One, all capped by a sunset barbeque with former farm worker, now winemaker, Luis Ochoa, his wife and neighbors outside their trailer/winery…. This is the merest hint of the brilliant cross-cutting hilarity Mr. Nossiter assembles. (I hasten to add that of all the dogs and cats we meet, it is in Luis Ochoa’s back forty where we see the one and only jack rabbit in the entire ten-hour series.)
 
There was one moment I found very affecting. Owing to the fuller fleshing out of characters the longer series permits, we are given, per force, finer shadings of the Mondavi brood. For reasons not entirely clear to me, when Michael Mondavi says, “I got my father back”, he relates a painful truth that was quite beautiful, at least to this viewer. Margrit at Copia is equally touching. Indeed, the Mondavi story, built fragment by filmic fragment through the ten-part series, will finally add up to a tour de force in its own right by the series’ end.
 
There is much else that is commendable but I cannot resist mentioning Bill Harlan’s reply to Mr. Nossiter’s question, “Does Napa have an identity?” Mr. Harlan replies, “To me the Napa Valley is kind of as it’s always been. It’s been in transition of becoming what it will be in another 100 years.” No post-modernist academic (or Stephen Colbert, for that matter) could have uttered a more confounding sentence. A pitch-perfect summation of episode 3.
 
4) Pax Panoramix
We begin in Jurançon, Pyrenees at the Domaine de Souch where we meet Yvonne Hegoburu. An exalted woman, she offers powerful insights into what growing grapes means. As well as in Sardinia, Bosa specifically, where next we land. Battista and Lina Colombu, again, express puzzlement at the increasing homogenization of wine globally. This episode is particularly rich in contrasting opinion. Neal Rosenthal hits back hard. Michel Rolland blithely goes about his business. There is more push back in Burgundy with wisdom from Hubert Montille and Aubert de Villaine. Michael Broadbent joins in. Patrick Leon of Chateau Mouton-Rothschild does not seem to know an artisanal-class winery’s vines are interplanted with his, those of Domaine Iris du Gayou’s. Pierre Siri, winemaker for Iris, is a shrewd addition to the film. There is shown a fascinating meditation on the 1855 Bordeaux classification from multiple points of view. Perhaps most delightful is an interview with Jean-Michel Cazes, owner of the 5th growth Lynch Bages. He takes the filmmaker on a delightful tour of the bizarre architecture of prominent Bordeaux wineries. “There is really no local architecture!”
 
5) The Appian Way
The viewer might be wondering what is left to prove generally about the globalization of a limited wine style having heard multiple voices either pointing to or demonstrating the affirmative. And yet we are only four episodes into The Series. Previously critics have laid the blame for the argument forcefully made in the theatrical version of Mondovino at Mr. Nossiter’s feet. It was his selective editing that was to blame. That argument can no longer be sustained. And with episode 5 the beat goes on. But a more aggressively drawn contrast begins to emerge. Here is considered the influence of Robert Parker. From Rolland to garagiste Jean-Luc Thunevin of Chateau Valandraud in St. Émilion, from a visit to Leo McCloskey of Enologix, the largest wine consulting firm in the US, to Parker himself, it is in this episode where the rubber meets the road. I defy anyone to sit through Mr. Parker’s greatly expanded comments on his own influence, on pricing, terroir, his indifference to history and not come away astonished at his arrogance. Michel Rolland, as well. And a new, fresh voice is heard here, Catherine Montalbetti, the editor of the Hachette Wine Guide. She speaks well of the standardization of taste. And she goes on to say, “Because no way can you tell whether it comes from California, Chile, Bordeaux or Languedoc.”
 
6) Quo Vademus?
What does an older bottle of wine taste like? Neal Rosenthal laments the way prominent critics interfere with the cultivation of a tasting culture. In a cross-cut Parker explains “As I get older, I like them younger.” Jean-Luc Thunevin, much to the displeasure of his wife, says “Well, I say I don’t like old women.” Quo vademus? Where are we going? This episode explores the ‘plastic surgery’ of wine, especially the increasing use of new French oak. Parker dwells on his liking of vanilla and toastiness, and considering its prevalence and that he likes wines younger, it is very amusing we are taken to the Paris office of plastic surgeon, Dr. Eric Auclair. Back in Napa, Leo McCloskey, CEO of Enologix, notes the similarity of palates of Parker and the Wine Spectator. Indeed, so closely have become the palates of leading critics that Enologix specifically works with wineries to predict what the critics will say! Tom Matthews of the Wine Spectator is interviewed. More from Burgundy. Marketing has assumed a central role. Among the Montille’s family, Etienne explains that the enemy is ignorance and standardization, over-simplification and money, of course. Diversity, he insists, is the highest value. It was a pleasure to see Becky Wasserman and Russell Hone make an appearance. Yvonne Hegoburu, Aimé Guibert, Aubert de Villaine, and Michel Lafarge all join in discussing the matter of marketing.
Tourists are caught plundering the grapes of Romanée Conti! Aubert de Villaine’s reaction is priceless. We close with a brief moments with the eternal Charlotte Rampling.
 
7) All Roads Lead to Rome
Episode 7 is framed by the question of authorship versus midwifery in the creation of a wine. We begin in Paris at the Ministry of Finance. Alain Châtelet of the Govt. Bureau on Wine Fraud leads us through the delicate question of consumer protection with respect to fraudulent wines. Very difficult to prosecute owning to the reluctance of victims to step forward. Great ego investment in wine. And what can you say about a wine that is both pleasurable and a counterfeit? Indeed, this entire episode could be called “the psychoanalysis of wine” for we next meet Jean Laplanche of Chateau de Pommard. “I have a complex life, to tell the truth. Did you know that?”, he asks. Laplanche remains one of Jacques Lacan’s greatest students. Author of a dozen books on various aspects of the Freudian oeuvre, Laplanche introduces us to what might be called the ’strong’ argument: that only the author’s signature on the bottle is the guarantee of quality and authenticity of the contents. In stark contrast to his position are those of Montille and Villaine who hold that they are simply midwives. In broadly psychoanalytic terms you have a repositioning of the question of the Father and the Mother. (The consumer plays the role of child, constantly put on the spot to declare his unconditional love for one or the other.) Great anxiety! But what all gentlemen can agree upon is that for Robert Parker, as Laplanche puts it, “The complexity of Burgundy repulses him.” This is, I believe, a brilliant insight. There is a tremendous amount of important material here. Why do consumers feel the need for the strong hand of wine gurus? Why the anxiety over being cheated or of not knowing how to taste? How is it that powerful marketing forces have come between the consumer and their palates?
 
We next meet Scott Harvey, winemaker for Folie à Deux. That winery was named after the founders’ madness of the same name: the condition of two closely related people sharing the same delusional idea, in this case, of starting a winery. But perhaps the most interesting moments of this episode belong to Jean-Charles Boisset, Director of the Boisett Group, #1 in Burgundy sales. I shall not soon forget his unique method pf punching down the cap! Or his plan to produce a limited edition of a super-blend of wines from diverse Boisset holdings, a wine with no origins, possessing neither Mother nor Father, neither terroir nor authorship. The episode closes on a very painful recollection by Bernard Magrez. It seems his father used to pin a very public sign on his back reading ‘I am a lazy boy’ when he was a child. As he says, “If you’ve lived through that it is much harder to love anyone”.
 
8 ) Crossing the Rubicon
9) Et tu Brute…
Intrigue and regret in Italy. Here is recounted, finished in episode 9, the story of the Antinoris and the Frescobaldis, both aristocratic families of great antiquity. It is a grand tale of betrayal and familial discord, of false starts and of finding the courage to go on. A deep history is on display. Ornellia’s loss is recounted. It is a particularly ugly aspect of contemporary wine culture that history counts for so little. From Rolland to Parker, Boisset to Mondavi, there is simply no room for historical reflection in the pursuit of global markets. Unless one may make a buck off of it. But as The Series reveals again and again, whether it be Lafarge recounting German occupation of his family’s winery, Aubert de Villaine describing Burgundy’s religious patrimony, or Aimé Guibert railing against the erasure of cultural memory, real families, real histories are grinding forward.
 
Among the most bizarre and destructive of personalities on display is that of James Suckling. His casual child’s play with the meaning of the lives of others is both laughable and chilling. I’ll say no more except that his comments are greatly expanded from those presented in the theatrical release of Mondovino. Episodes 8 and 9 are truly a tour de force.
 
10) Veni, vidi, vendidi (I came, I saw, I sold)
In the final episode we may take a bit of a breather. Introduced to Chile, Brazil and Argentina (and the film crew’s mysterious denial of entry into Paraguay) we meet many fresh faces, many new winemakers. But we are also introduced to the persistent racism and class struggle that have blemished so much of the southern continent’s history. Rolland’s shadow falls even here. There is a strange, indeed, terribly tragic way in which the world of wine is repeatedly limited, boxed in, by the presence of so few authorities and consultants. How strange to wander the back country of Argentina and still hear the names Parker, Rolland, the monotonous incantation of so few names. But now, at the episode’s conclusion, we, too, have names, new names: Charlie Rodriguez, Isanette Bianchetti and Mauro Tedesco, José Mounier…
 
I highly recommend Mondovino, The Series.
 
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2 Responses to ' Mondovino, The Series: A Viewer’s Guide '

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  1. Donna said,

    on December 9th, 2009 at 7:05 pm

    I Cannot absolutely wait to buy this. Awesome article. Top post!


  2. on January 24th, 2010 at 4:32 am

    Congratulations on this excellent in-depth review. I will now go out and buy, and then watch, this series. I should add that I had serious misgivings about the cinema version, finding it (after several watchings) dishonest through its artifices, and constantly trying too hard to prove a point. There was also a clear lack of a balanced critical approach. This review makes me think that there is more to it.

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