The most touchingly resonant images in Mondovino are established at the beginning of the film with shots of vineyards in Jurancon and Sardinia where growers eke out a precarious existence amongst their vines. As they talk we realise that theirs is the language of true passion, of personal commitment - having invested their lives in it these people are as part of the terroir themselves, rooted in the very landscape that surrounds them.
Delightful as these fleeting vignettes are, we are soon disabused of this Arcadian view. Wine, after all, is big business, and business demands global models and standards regarding the qualitative homogenisation of the product. At the one end of the market spectrum this manifests itself as the ongoing corporate battle for wealth, for influence, for prestige, for land. To acquire influence one must play the game: wine is thus made (tweaked, amplified) to conform to a perceived notion of excellence, tracking the palates of influential journalists. The product thus becomes a means to an end: firstly, a desire for critical approval, to be the smartest clone in the class; secondly, to perpetuate the notion that anything can be achieved by facsimile winemaking procedures. In short: meet the Stepford wines.
When we know that the country of origin is wholly irrelevant: that virtually identical wine can be produced in Pomerol, California, Italy, Spain or Chile by a flying winemaker, this is tantamount to a colonisation of taste, of a kind of vinicultural imperialism that gives us an endless succession of smooth, sweet, varnished wines - everything that the palate desires except individuality, except identity, except angularity. These may be big wines in scope but they are small in spirit - as Promethean as a cash register as Pauline Kael memorably said of one epic film. Whereas some architecture springs from the spirit of the place and is an extension of the landscape and other architecture is an imposed collection of foreign materials; whereas some vineyards reflect the biodiversity of the area and other vineyards are a monoculture of the vine, so wines can either embody their locale - from the flavour of the terroir to the aspirations of the grower - or they can be entirely incidental to place. If the latter is the case, don’t look for the address on the bottle; look for the name of the winemaker.
Branding, of course, exists throughout the wine trade. A coterie of writers and growers have created elitist brands that exclude by virtue of price; the class system qua Parker encomia, and Mondovino, at times, turns into a kind of pasquinade of the rich mugwumps who live on the hill in their respective bubbles of self-aggrandisement. Some of the Californian enterprises have more than a whiff of the William Randolph Hearst’s about them (Known as Nappy Valley Syndrome - The Gallo-lean philosophy of Cornucopernicus that posits that the world of wine revolves around money.) Meanwhile, Michel Rolland, who looks somewhat like a mini Pavarotti, makes operatic wines (in the And-That’s-What-I-Call-Micro-Oxygenation-Volume-57 vein) to satisfy the Parker-point craving ambitions of those who view wine primarily in terms of its value. This is not so much a comment on the world of wine as to say that the predaceous rich will inevitably get richer - because they want to. It is more complicated than American ra-ra capitalism versus curmudgeonly French resistance to change (the French were never that averse to ‘le quick buck’ themselves). Globalism is far more insidious than the vaulting ambitions of a few winemakers and scribes. It has a strong political dimension and, as one character in the movie articulates, is primarily about the undue influence of certain powerful interest groups. Globalism is most obviously apparent in agricultural policies that seem to be determined by the influential food lobbies and the buying strategies of supermarkets. Globalism inevitably stifles diversity and creativity. It is obsessed with money and the influence that money brings to bear. It is about corporate empires moving into a region or country, establishing a monopoly and exploiting the local resources.
Ranged against the forces of globalism are individuals who pursue their visions, their dreams and their passions without fear or favour. “I like order”, observes Volnay’s Hubert de Montille en badinant. “But I also like disorder”. “To thine own self be true” - as long as people follow this precept the future integrity of wine will be preserved despite the ‘hegemaniacal’ (sic) aspirations of the big companies. We wouldn’t entirely endorse Aime Guibert’s gloomy prognostication that “Le vin est mort”. Many humble growers make uncompromisingly good wine without regard to fashion or merit points; discerning merchants love to buy the wines and discerning drinkers love to drink the wines. The interest in terroir is not confined to a few French growers; it is a worldwide phenomenon, and signifies a new predilection for discovering the literal and figurative roots of wine. The world of wine is a living organism: as it shrinks due to globalism it grows at the same time through individuals, small groups and movements (such as Slow Food) dedicated to preserving the integrity and quality of the product. Le vin est toujours vivant!