29 Jan 2011

Mondovino, Jonathan Nossiter and criticism

It is often quite hard to see through the smoke-screens that can arise around products or topics that receive wide critical or public acclaim. Although not a national blockbuster, the film Mondovino, which was released in France a few years back to surprising success for a film purporting to be a documentary, is a good example of this. What this film achieved in a positive sense was to put some aspects of wine and wine topics on the public place, way beyond the limited field of wine geeks and professionals who read specialist publications and so on. But, to me, the main problem with the film Mondovino is that it is reductive in its assertions, transforming the world of wine into something rather black and white through a cosy set of induced conclusions in which the bad guys are clearly designated, and the good guys put to the fore as heroes in a world-wide struggle to defend you and me. This is similar to the way in which Michael Moore operates, taking some outrageous behaviour or examples and then twisting the evidence to construe with his foregone conclusions. Of course it is easy to be in agreement with such conclusions when it comes to the use of guns in the USA in a film like Bowling for Columbine, or the erratic behaviour of George W. Bush. But, in the case of wine, things are neither that simple, nor, thankfully, as dramatic. Having returned twice to see the fim after harbouring a slightly uneasy feeling during my first viewing of it, I felt, at the time of its release (and even more so now), that Nossiter was not entirely honest in his approach to the issues he raises in Mondovino.

A recent encounter with Nossiter on the scene of a TV talk show in Paris tends to confirm me in my opinion, as he appeared defensive and even aggressive in response to my fairly mild criticism of Mondovino, resorting to conspiracy-type theories that tend to be the mark of the paranaoid. I will return to these later.

I have heard that the full-length version of Mondovino, which is available in CD form and which lasts for 10 hours, is far less simplistic than the shortened version initially released. I have not yet had the patience to look at this long version, although I know that I should in order to be fair: I will do in time. It is unhappily in the nature of things that complex issues get reduced to simplified catch phrases in order to lure a wider public. The cinema version of Mondovino uses this procedure quite efficiently by beginning, if I remember rightly, with the owner of the French winery called Mas de Daumas Gassac (Aimé Guibert) declaring to the camera that "wine is dead !" The point of view resumed in this absurd remark, aimed to shock the spectator and further developed as a thesis in the film, is, broadly, that large companies, rich people, and a small number of critics have colluded to homogenise the taste of wine on offer and crush the small producers and debase the "true" taste of wine. This, in my humble opinion, is simply not true, despite all the criticism that can be levelled (and I have often been outspoken in this direction myself) againt the US wine critic Robert Parker and what surrounds his ways of operating and tasting.

I have worked in the wine business in various fields and capacities for close on 30 years and am certain that wine today is not only, on average, far better than it was 30 years ago, but also more diverse in its flavours and character. Behind this lies the science of modern enology and the progress in knowledge that it has fuelled, and a constant process of revision in the way wine-producers think about the whole cycle of wine production, with a growing emphasis on the quality of the raw material, grapes, and land management techniques used to produce them. In an increasingly sophisticated world market, there are ever-increasing niches for unusual and individual wines, alongside large-scale production (of improved quality as well) designed to fit the constraints of mass-market distribution.

But Nossiter, who returned to the topic in a book published after his film was released, seems obsessed with the idea that wine critics, in particular, are "bought" by the big bad capitalists of the wine world. Now there are black sheep in every walk of life, and I have heard tales of a famous, now deceased, English wine critic (who was also a member of the Communist party!) who used to leave Bordeaux châteaux with his car well laden. But the pitiless control exercised on wine critics by their readers and peers nowadays simply makes this thesis unrealistic in the vast majority of cases. Magazines cannot survive without advertising, but it is hardly in the interest, in the long term, for a specialist magazine to loose its credibility with what is a core group of informed readers by bending to commercial pressures on its editorial staff. Bad magazines or other media come and go and some have certainly been guilty of complicities. But those who last and have credibility do so because their readers (and not only their readers) find them to be credible, even when they may not agree with everything they say. Nossiter, or anyone else, is welcome to check out my bank account if they seriously feel that I am in any way party to illicit influence on the opinions that I express about wines! 

There is another point that should be raised here about Nossiter's approach and the examples he uses to defend his theory. He is clearly an elistist, since, in his film as in his book, most or all of the examples that he uses to illustrate what he considers to be the "right" path to be followed in terms of wine are bottles whose prices start at around 25 euros and sometimes much more. In particular he mentions a number of top-notch Burgundy producers, with whom he seems to be very friendly. Nossiter may feel that he is defending the consumer from the big bad capitalists, but that consumer will need to have a silver lining to his pocket to resist the lures of big business. When the socialist party was in power in France, an expression for some of the behaviour seen at the time was "la gauche caviar", which could be translated as "the left-wing caviar brigade".

I find it ironical that someone who made what was, after all, an agit-prop movie, strongly critical of some aspects of the wine scene, should himself find it so hard to listen to criticism of his own approach and conclusions. Without going into details of his less-than-honest ways of showing people by various filming and editing techniques in Mondovino, I can only resume these by saying that this film is NOT a true documentary, and that it shows a vision of wine that is personal to Nossiter, but which does not reflect a far more complex reality. And this remark does not detract from his talents as a film-maker. I wish him every success with his new film about Brasil, where he lives. I will go and see it.