GrapeCraft point of view on “Mondovino”


The American distributors of Mondovino chose the heart of California wine country (the Santa Rosa Rialto Theatre) as an early venue for the film, but oddly, I was the only person in the theatre that Saturday night despite the internet fanfare. As a wine production consultant myself, I was disappointed by our local apathy. There was much in the film's inferred criticism of the state of the industry that rang true for me. I certainly have observed that corporate agendas can displace (sometimes forever) precious local traditions just because by virtue of their own uniqueness they didn't sync up with the current style in vogue.

If the film makes some viewers expand their aesthetic to include an exploration of these alternative styles, then it was worth making. I also concur that any powerful critic, be it Parker or The Spectator, can only add to the problem of de-terroir-ization when the public buys wine based on its extrinsics instead of its real quality. When that critic endorses a producer, appellation or other extrinsic, that endorsement becomes a commodity people have to pay for along with the wine. That's not the critic's fault; it's a craziness of the buying public. The core problem is consumer timidity to be their own connoisseurs. They end up buying the hype rather than the experience. These days the hypelands of California, France and Italy are largely in the insurancebiz rather than the wine biz. Critics are powerful because consumers distrust wineries to deliver good value, and as long as they think they need a wine police to defendthem against unscrupulous fat cat wineries, they will purchase insurance instead of wine, and the price/quality ratio will escalate, increasing the need for third party review.

These problems go away wherever local shops give good advice and consumers are able to evaluate their own real experiences with wines. Sensible consumers must develop personal relationships with local purveyors who cancustom pick wines for them one-on-one. This is a process a national reviewer cannot possibly provide (unless you believe everybody's tastes are alike, in which case why pursue diversity?) Reviewers can assist by encouraging consumers to make their own choices. This begins with trusting winemakers and taking an interest in their art, even when its development is a work in progress or has goals outside the mainstream. More discussions of style and technique can put the decisions back in the hands of winemakers and shift the confidence of marketing departments to champion their own in-house artists instead of mimicking their competitive cluster.A concentration of journalistic power can likewise aggravate the problem of globalized sameness when those critics are seenby winery marketing departments to prefer stronglya vinification style that trades away distinction for brawn.

The film sets up a dichotomy of terroir vs wine structure which has true elements for me. In the 70's a lot of California wineries were putting petite sirah in their pinot noir because the consumer didn't understand the variety. Similarly in the 80's, Domaine Dujac led a movement to get more extraction from burgundies which experienced a backlash when the producers found their terroir differences in the various vineyard properties they offered were disappearing.These problems didn't emerge as much in Bordeaux, partly because those houses only sell one product, unlike in Burgundy or Germany where a house offers wines from several terroirs. In addition they are working with high tannin varieties which in my opinion responded very poorly to the gross changes in vinification techniques which occurred after WWII. The introduction of U. Bordeaux-based scientific enology (stainless steel, inert gas, packaged yeast, etc.) led directly to the problem of the 1961's dry, graceless monsters which never did come around. So the problem in a place like St. Emillon in the last 50 years wasn't how to protect the terroir, but how to get it back.

Jumping to my own turf of wine technology I think the film was intellectually weakest in its portrayal of micro-oxygenation. After all, Patrick Ducournau developed the technique in defense Madiran tannat, which was being pulled out in the 80's in favor of merlot, so its roots are really anti-globalization. Rossiter misunderstands that micro-oxygenation isn't modern, it's post-modern, a step back to the older traditions which created flavor integration and complexity through natural fermentation, aeration, tonage and other levage techniques, much of which know-how has been lost. Now, I wasn't there, but it seems unlikely that Michel Rolland would have given so much time to Jonathan Nossiter without taking time to explain WHY he is using micro-oxygenation, but this is left unclear in the movie. You would think he would have allowed Rolland to tell his story as he did with the Mondavis. It's quite revealing that he did not do so. I bet his footage deflated his demonization of it, so he left it out. Properly applied, MOx is very effective to increase structure, refine tannin, integrate aromas, stabilize color, balance reductive strengthand increase longevity. I think it's an exciting and powerful tool, and far from making all wines taste the same, allows their unique characteristics to emerge. We advocate it for big wines like cabernet sauvignon and syrah as an alternative to long hang time. On the other hand, it usually isn't a useful technique in many of the bastions of terroir: Bourgogne, the Loire, or Germany because the wines are too fragile.

It seems silly to ally such a tool with the political trends he portrays. If his complaint is sameness, overuse of oak hits the mark better.

So I'm advocating that the market should decide based on what the wine delivers, not how it got that way. Critics are at their most helpful when they focus their discussion on results in the bottle. The new elevage techniques are part of a post-modern school that isn't yet very widely understood by winemakers and critics, let alone filmmakers.