Tue, Dec 07, 2004 - Page 16 News List

US documentary has French wine interests spinning

Jonathan Nossiter debunks the myth of crass US multinationals snapping up rustic French vineyards by showing that the multinationals homogenizing wine tastes are, in fact, French

AFP , Paris

PHOTO: AP

Some of the finest noses in the French wine world are snorting into their decanters over a new film which claims they are complicit in the American-led homogenization of world tastes and the steady destruction of France's centuries-old tradition of "terroir."

Mondovino, a low-budget documentary by American sommelier-turned-filmmaker Jonathan Nossiter, has been a surprise hit at the box office since it opened last month -- pulling in some 200,000 viewers -- but the reaction among many in the wine-making establishment has been as sour as a corked bottle of chateau plonk.

"The most hacked off are the people with a great deal of power in the wine world: magazines that are hand-in-glove with the big Bordeaux dealers; multinationals with advertising and marketing clout. These people are very unhappy," according to Nossiter, who spent three years touring the world to make his two-and-a-quarter-hour sitrep on the state of the industry.

"There are some very powerful people who have done all that they can to censure the film. We have had a lot of libel threats -- which we are ignoring," he said in an interview.

Setting out to "take the pulse" of the international wine business, Nossiter uses it as a metaphor for larger issues of globalization and the defense of local particularity against the standardization wrought by mass commerce.

Travelling with a small digital camera, he speaks to Argentinian peasants, magnates in California's Napa valley, Tuscan aristocrats, Burgundian small-holders and a host of experts, oenologists, dealers, auctioneers and critics.

The result -- which opens in Britain this week and the US early next year -- is a tolerant and often humorous film that is a thousand miles from the invective of a polemicist like Michael Moore.

However, at root the message is not so different: that power has become concentrated in the hands of a few multi-national producers, who with the help of ultra-influential critics such as the ubiquitous Robert Parker are flooding the market with Identikit variety-based vintages that are as bland as they are easy to sell.

In France -- where wine is close to a national religion -- the surprise has been that the bogeymen are not all Yankee carpetbaggers, but come in more familiar guises.

The closest the film gets to a true villain is the renowned French consultant Michel Rolland, who is seen being chauffeur-driven around the Bordeaux vineyards offering the same advice over and again to anxious clients: "la micro-oxygenation."

Elsewhere the head of wine at the London auction house Christies notes how the classic Chateau Kirwan found overnight success when it hired Rolland's services to develop the wine. "Its taste became global. It's no more Margaux than [top-selling US wine] Opus One ... but it's selling. So what the hell can you say," Michael Broadbent exclaims.

Rolland was not amused at his portrayal, complaining to Liberation newspaper that he was misrepresented as a "dictator of consulting" and accusing Nossiter of basing his film on a "simplistic intellectual-sociological-ecological ideology."

For others, Nossiter is guilty of over-romanticizing the notion of "terroir" -- the basis for France's appellation system of labeling -- according to which each wine-growing area has a specific character nurtured since Gallo-Roman times.

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