Mondovino: globalization and terroir, Robert Parker versus your good taste

American wine cowboy conquest with tankFor those with a curiosity for how wine terroir is holding up against the onslaught of wine factory farming, the 10-hour miniseries version of MONDOVINO is finally available on DVD. For viewers curious about viniculture globalization under Californian colonial domination, the original feature length documentary delivers, with a long finish. Any time critics accuse a film of being one sided, you know it’s about class war.

I had my first lesson in vineyard terroir when my college-aged aunt visited my family in Alsace and spent a season picking grapes. She informed us to our horreur that everything gets stomped in that barrel, bugs and all. I didn’t drink wine then, so what did I care, but it was easy to decide that such was the artistry that probably made French wines great.

But as I said, Mondovino was about much more than wine, and now I’ll get to the point. We may lament the new commercialization of wine, but historically the occupation has always had its strictly-business types. Vintners were rarely agriculturalists who subsisted, they were wine lovers subsidized. We can wince at the Napa Valley nouveau gauche, but even Bordeaux’s great chateaus, and especially all the Premiers Crus, are owned and have been owned by businessmen money lenders, going back centuries.

The modernization and standardization which is destroying contemporary wines is simply the evolution of production control. At last, technology and the ascent of a gilded age have brought vintners to believe they’ve bested nature. It’s true if you don’t care about wine, if you’re content to bottle a soft drink as opposed to allowing wine the breathing space to develop personality. Basically this documentary demonstrates that these gentlemen hobbyists, now plaintively bourgeois about profit, welcome the new global fascism.

Old World Fascists
Of course it is no stretch to imagine that the Mondovino filmmakers are going to ask, how did your father or grandfather like Fascism under the Nazis? They point the question at an Italian family who date their wealth back 900 years as bankers.

Any European documentary delving into family histories will always ask particularly about the war years. In America it’s what did you do during the war Daddy? In Europe it’s about weathering the occupation. Most working class French want to tell you what they did in the Resistance. Rich people you don’t ask because of course they were collaborateurs.

Mondovino’s subjects are the perpetually wealthy, who don’t even register the affront. Of course their families thrived under Fascism, quelle betise to imagine it would be otherwise. How curious it is we are surprised they embrace it so again.

Such moments are the highlights of Mondovino, rich folk posing in elaborate foyers, plaintively matter of fact about Fascism.

One opulent reception room in Florence is packed with ancient paintings, among them a painting of the very room full of paintings, you imagine if you peered closely enough you would see the infinity of mirrors scheme, a Baroque era black velvet number. The Grande Dame mentions that Prince Charles inquired about that painting at breakfast.

Let me add, critics have held Jonathan Nossiter’s camera work to be unstable. Actually he was very easily distracted by momentously relevant tchotchkes and biographical details few commoners are granted audience to encounter.

Fascists in the New World
Mondovino allowed the Napa Valley entrepreneurs to hang themselves. Open mouth, insert vacuous blather, often racist. These nouveau riches landscaped new vineyard for themselves, praising the terrain like it was classic architecture, their aesthetic tributes could only reference the National Mall. That classic.

Over at Mondavi, talk fixated of expansion and conquest. The film’s main plot addressed the Mondavi’s ongoing acquisition of the world’s most treasured appelations. For the worse of course, because what do they know about wine but that it should all taste the same? Son Mondavi dreams of someday having a vineyard on the moon, for no other reason than he thought of it. Wouldn’t it be exciting, he asks, to be able to say: “hey, let’s open a bottle from the moon,” my paraphrase.

The issue of terroir, English readers, has entirely to do with terre which is French for “earth.” Terre with a capital T is “Earth.” Of course the earthbound distinction was lost on this Californian.

Yes, Mondavi is surely alone in pondering what earth, sun and elements would have feed his moon vines.

Most vile of all the New World vintners was a family outfit in Argentina. They sit on a spacious veranda and explain how every boy in the family is named for founding father, the original title holder. Their wealth goes back to the early Spanish settlers and they express the perennial colonizer’s lament, that Los Indios of the regions have no work ethic. Centuries ago the Spaniard had to devise cruel torments to drive their slave laborers to produce. It was an inefficient system to impose on the indigenous and transplanted tribes, unaccustomed to a hierarchical workforce supporting do-nothings at the top.

Globalization
Key to Mondavi’s quest for wine world domination, is a market that has standardized the consumer’s taste. No longer are customers hopping in their car for a Sunday drive, to stop by a neighboring chateau to sample a vintage take a case home. Today the global consumption of wine has meant having to market it without being able to taste it. For that consumers have come to follow the ratings of critics. It was inevitable of course, but Mondovino reveals how hilariously flawed and phony the system is.

Mondovino focuses on two celebrity tasters who make or break wines. Robert Parker and James Suckling. Let’s dispatch the latter quickly.

James Suckling
James Suckling made a niche for himself nurturing Italian wines and coined the term “Super Tuscan.” I didn’t know that, but Mondovino records Suckling attributing the phenomena to the ether before being made to admit that the meme was his own.

More hilarious was a hypothetical question posed to the critic after confessing in an unguarded moment that he might have been too generous with the rating he gave a friend’s wine. The friend, a wealthy vintner, was letting Suckling a villa, which meant he was also his landlord. Naturally Mondovino asked if a discount on the rent would move Suckling to consider a more favorable rating. Suckling took the bait, laughingly nodding, of course, his friend under his breath suggested in such case he could have the villa for free.

It’s not corruption, merely a gentleman’s game. Can we even assert that the ordinary consumer suffers? Taste is subjective. Suckling’s ultimate rating is of negligible consequence to wine drinkers, except to commerce.

Robert Parker
I’m sorry to be getting around to Parker’s scheme so late in this article, because he plays such a profound part in the homogenizing of world wine production. The mechanism is beyond the pale, but it’s simple. Parker is influential and has a distinctive appetite, he has a best friend who consults with vintners about how to make their wine to Parker’s taste. The result has been devastating. Vines that have for ages had their own distinctive gouts have now been McParkered. The consultant charges a large fee to monitor an increasing stable of wines, for the camera his preoccupation was “micro-oxygenate,” and after it’s bottled parker comes around and bestows the high marks. The more they pay, the higher the score.

Mondovino underscores this plot by filming a Burger King billboard as Parker drives past it, while he sings the praises of uniform quality. The filmmakers notice an FBI cap on Parker’s desk and make sure to keep it in the frame. Parker is quite candid and friendly in Mondovino, probably because he had no inkling they did not share his eagerness to see viniculture’s eccentricities ironed to a uniform flat.

When the film was released and Robert Parker emerged as enterprising accomplice to Mondavi’s villain, Parker was enraged. He wrote rant after rant against the film and its makers. I’m not sure he’s over it yet. I wanted to be sure to document what I thought was Mondovino’s most brilliant assault on the witless benefit the Parker-Mondavi venture think they’re bequeathing with their anschluss of world wine. It’s about the subjectivity of taste. Robert Parker’s.

A recurring motif of Mondovino’s interviews was a fascination with dogs. It’s cute, and often we give ourselves leave to believe we have learned something about the owner by just looking at their dog.

In one memorable scene, we’ve met a quite unassuming South American vintner who has only one hectar, but is none the less generous with his wine, his time and friendship. He has a black dog, and when the filmmaker asks his name, the vintner laughs such that the revelation is self-effacing. “Luther King” is his name, because, he tells us in Spanish, he’s “negro.” Mondovino’s dark hats are so distasteful, it’s important that the heroic characters aren’t too pearly clean.

All the asides with the dogs were entertaining in their own right, but could have served entirely to set up Robert Parker’s scene. We’re invited to Parkers home and immediately discover he has something for bulldogs.

Do you like bulldogs? Taste is of course subjective. Robert Parker and his wife love their bulldogs, two, and their home is festooned with Bulldogephemera, statuettes, paintings, the camera frame’s worth. Imagine a wall covered with watercolors and oil portraits of bulldogs as you consider the subjectivity of taste.

Then just as Parker is prompted to discuss that his nose is ensured for a million dollars, we discover that one of the dogs has become incontinent, and there’s the near unbearable dog flatulence from which not even conversation can escape. Imagine Robert Parker’s nose not ensured against that. The interview concludes with Parker rambling about something as a bulldog sits sneering on the carpet forcing the filmmaker to keep a safe distance, and so he focuses in close capturing the ugly, perhaps infirm, definitely defensive, unlikable mug.

The next time you chose a wine because it has a high Parker score, ask yourself how it integrates an atmosphere of dog.

1 thought on “Mondovino: globalization and terroir, Robert Parker versus your good taste

  1. Avatarljjl

    How can this Robert Parker be stopped filling his pocket and destroying diversity in wine. His taste is not only subjective, it is bad!

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