When within the first few moments of Mondovino we hear someone declare "Wine is dead" with the same sort of ecumenical gravity that a theologian might apply to the cry "God is dead," it's clear that this is a movie that takes its spirits very seriously.
And no one takes wine more seriously than the man behind the camera, Mondovino director and sometime sommelier Jonathan Nossiter. This most passionate and informed of filmmakers takes his subject so seriously, in fact, that his movie becomes a bit of a drag for the rest of us poor, uncultured slobs.
For Nossiter and the oenophilic talking heads we meet in Mondovino - an assortment of wine connoisseurs, consultants, cultivators and consumers - the fruit of the so-called noble vine is a substance that, even at its worst, is something infinitely more than just another means of quenching a thirst or getting a buzz on. At its best, wine can be something sublime, a religious experience.
Wine is also big business, and therein lies the rub in Mondovino, a documentary that turns out to have ambitions of being something larger and more important than just a crash course on wine appreciation. A cigar may sometimes be just a cigar, but a glass of wine is never just a glass of wine in Mondovino; Nossiter's real agenda here is to instruct us as to the destructive, soul-killing effects of spiraling globalization, a critical battle for hearts and minds that the director sees raging in every goblet of vino served from Napa to Nepal.
On one side, we have the more-or-less modest, mom 'n' pop type wineries fiercely advocating individuality, tradition and what the French lovingly refer to as terroir (roughly translated as a dedication to the soil). Simply put, this means that a French Burgundy from a specific winery is supposed to taste like a French Burgundy from that particular patch of land, quirks and all, and not like some smoothly generic California Merlot.
On the other side of this war of philosophies and economic realities (which, face it, is where the real war happens) are the big conglomerates pushing ahead with what is proving to be a highly profitable one-size-fits-all universal standardization of taste and style. That these globally homogenized wines are arguably bland and all taste the same is bad enough, but what really irks Nossiter and his fellow true believers is that their undeniable success forces more and more of the little guys to follow suit, straining out all the proud but unprofitable eccentricities from their once-unique vintages, and moving us all one step closer to a future McWine-McWorld devoid of choices.
Armed with only these a priori truths and an annoyingly shaky digital video camera, Nossiter travels to seven countries on three different cont-inents, interviewing assorted devotees of the Holy Grape from Sardinia to Sonoma, Argentina to India, Bordeaux to Brooklyn. We meet wise and charming old Euro-peasants who wax eloquent on wine as key to the spiritual relationship between humankind and nature, as something that transcends time and makes us dream. One colorful old coot even goes so far as to declare his "ethical commitment" to his vineyard and its centuries-old traditions, asserting that "where there is wine, there is civilization."
In Nossiter's view the opposite holds true as well, the implications being that the corporate giants of the wine world - successful and therefore supposedly soulless - are the barbarians at the gates. Nossiter spends time with these heathens too, selectively focusing on key players from rich and enormously powerful entities like Napa's Mondavi dynasty and the Boisset Group in France, as well as globe-trotting consultants like Michel Rolland and unduly influential tastemakers like critic Robert Parker (whose nose is insured for a $1 million).
And just in case there's any doubt where Noss-iter's sympathies lie, Mondovino makes sure to supply plenty of cutaways to framed photos of an imperious Ronald Reagan beaming away on the big boys' desks. These shots are sometimes followed by images of poor but patient Mexicans laboring in the vineyards while their impeccably groomed employers sit in sumptuous surroundings stuffing their faces off of fine china.
Mondovino isn't particularly subtle about most of this, and large chunks of the movie are overly dry and segue awkwardly from one scene to another. (For a movie all about this most divine of liquids, Mondovino does anything but flow.) As for the film's aesthetics, the less said the better, but it would be irresponsible not to at least warn you that the digital camerawork is amateurish at best, and often downright headache-inducing.
Mondovino's real problem, though, is that it hammers away at the same handful of arguments, sometimes neglecting to supply basic facts in order to make (and stretch) a point, and returning to the same talking heads repeating variations of the same information over and over again. When all is said and done, this little film has inflated itself to a completely obscene and unnecessary running time of 131 minutes. (Be thankful for small favors; earlier versions of the movie clocked in at 158 minutes.)
There are nuggets of interesting and useful information here, particularly if you're a wine buff who just can't hear enough about micro-oxygenation, and the essence of what Mondovino is about is something that most of us can relate to, particularly those of us who love movies - the eternal battle between art and commerce. But the film is so long-winded, rambling and repetitious that we eventually lose interest.
With the unexpected commercial success of Sideways and the ever-growing confluence of wine-guzzling and movie-going as popular pastimes, a juicy documentary on wine would have seemed to be a sure-fire audience pleaser - but frankly, Mondovino just doesn't intoxicate us.
The best thing about the film might just be the unintentional chuckles supplied by a peculiar terminology that describes wines variously as "streamlined, opulent, chiseled, limp, open" and "rigid." One is even dubbed a "whore wine," for its tendency to come on to you and then simply drop you flat. Sort of like some movies.