A documentary about the changes globalization has wrought on the wine industry, Mondovino takes a concept that on its surface would have limited appeal, and makes it feel like a matter of profound urgency.
"Wine has lost its soul," cries one Manhattan wine importer. And by the end of Mondovino, that loss registers as nothing short of tragic. And it's indicative of an even more far-reaching loss.
Mondovino director (and sommelier) Jonathan Nossiter zig-zags back and forth from California's Napa Valley, where the Mondavi family's mega-winery contains buildings and arbors laid out with the aesthetic regularity of a parking lot, to the mom-and-pop vineyards of Bordeaux and Sardinia, with its wild arbors and even wilder, ultra-persnickety growers.
The California winegrowers look like they could just as easily be selling computer parts or cell phones. Napa mogul Shari Staglin has little awareness of how well she articulates globalism's soullessness when she proudly displays her imported Tuscan-style trees and a dining table copied from Godfather II.
It's possible that the Staglins' faux-baronial life may have bees cribbed from something on Coppola or Bertolucci that they saw on the late, late show.
Nossiter leaves no ambiguity about where his allegiances lie. The California winegrowers are the picture of nouveau superficiality and commerce-as-church, while the crusty, elderly European winegrowers bristle with life.
French winegrowers Hubert de Montille and Aime Guibert have a deep sense of integrity about their work and the concept of "terroir" (soil) that gives wine its unique, geographically determined character.
Most European winegrowers express a rapture for their land and fierce protectiveness of their ideals in an increasingly ethics-free, money-driven world. This gives the film its wounded, mournful center. The level of insight these elderly peasant farmers unleash leaves the braggadocio of a Michael Moore in the dust.
Lamenting a modern lack of concern for the earth's bounty, an elderly Italian farmer laments, "Now people have become lazy, carried away by consumerism."
Instead of spontaneous insight, the billionaire Mondavi clan offers its PR flak, who refers to Robert Mondavi as "a philosopher," though the man himself comes across as a bone-dry businessman.
Nossiter's argument is complex, rigorous and often hard to follow. The film contends that the rising prominence of California wines was virtually assured by two important figures who are deeply invested in the new streamlined, homogenous wines popularized by those growers.
Michel Rolland is a globe-trotting wine consultant whose battle cry is "micro-oxygenate" and who is helping winegrowers across the world standardize and modernize their product. His cohort is American Robert Parker, the world's most revered and feared wine critic, who is, according to many of his European critics, unfairly partial to California winegrowers. An absurdly pompous figure, Parker sees himself as no less than an American freedom fighter, slaying the dragon of European wine aristocracy one sip at a time.
It would be a mistake to see Mondovino as esoteric, or the province of wine snobs. At the film's heart is an incisive, troubling and often moving tribute to people who care deeply about what they do. In a world defined by the quest for money, these anachronistic people are content to farm and reap happiness from their small plot of earth.