DVD RE-RUN INTERVIEW: Talking About the Terroir: Jonathan Nossiter’s Wine Doc, “Mondovino”
by Liza Bear
[EDITORS NOTE: Liza Bear spoke with Jonathan Nossiter about “Mondovino” for indieWIRE in March of this year; the film will be released on DVD this week (July 12, 2005).]
Should winegrowers adjust their wines to suit the palates of wine critics, get high ratings and increase their profits? Is wine becoming a mass market beverage, or can it remain the unique expression of a particular vineyard? Can the eighth generation family business survive the forces of homogenization? These and many other hot topics are dissected in Jonathan Nossiter‘s latest film, “Mondovino.” He approaches the politics and economics of wine through a scorching, novelistic expose of some 300 characters, many key players in the world of wine, winegrowers, consultants, wine critics — famous and infamous. Using a hand held digital camera, Nossiter filmed in Brazil, Bordeaux, Sardinia, the Napa Valley and numerous other locations. Well known as the director of four feature films including the award-winning “Sunday,” “Signs and Wonders” and “Resident Alien,” Nossiter spoke with Liza Bear at Connecticut Muffin, a once favorite haunt for both in Little Italy.
indieWIRE: You look much more relaxed than last time I saw you.
Jonathan Nossiter: And happier. It’s nice to make a film that people want to see.
iW: Did you finance “Mondovino” yourself?
JN: No, of course not.
iW: But wasn’t it made for $400,000?
JN: Yes but I don’t have that. Do you have that?
iW: No! But I thought from your other films…
JN: Dream on. Dream on.
iW: Was making the film an incredible risk?
JN: I wasn’t aware of it, no.
iW: What about the risk of alienating people you were working with?
JN: Yes, but I’m essentially a filmmaker. So even though I’ve worked as a sommelier, I’m non-dependent… and that independence allowed me to do the film without worrying. In fact, I’ve already been blackballed by half the industry as a result of the film.
iW: Which half?
JN: The half that has power [laughter].
iW: Are you talking about Michel Rolland?
JN: Well, he’s especially angry at me. Which makes me sad because I like him. Rolland is the world’s most powerful, ubiquitous and highly paid wine consultant. He’s a tremendously charismatic figure. He’s used to being flattered and fawned over… But the media everywhere has become the complicit tool of whatever industry they’re ostensibly covering. My dad [Bernard Nossiter] who was a journalist felt that he had a sacred duty to question those in power and not to let his personal friendships cloud his judgement. Not to drag anyone into the gutter, to be always fair and respectful. I tried in this small little irrelevant industry, the wine world, to understand — who has power and what are they doing with it. And who’s out of power and how do they see it.
iW: So is this how you set up the paradigm for yourself?
JN: No, absolutely not. That’s what I discovered. The joy of making… The film’s bathed in the fermenting tank of the wine business.
iW: The bottom of the barrel.
JN: And also the top. All levels of the barrel. It tries to look at the guys who are shoving the cap back down to referment.
iW: Shoving the what?
JN: (Skins) rise to the top and form a hard cap while the wine is fermenting. And in order to get more color to the red wine, you have to jam this hard solid matter back into the wine.
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JN: I spent a year sniffing around, shooting randomly on and off while I was writing… I didn’t want to add to the pretension and the snobbery, the clubbiness that I loathe in the wine world.
iW: And the wine talk.
JN: And the wine talk which is un-fucking-bearable. Wine can either be a way for people to enjoy each other’s company with a little heightened intensity, or it can be used as a vehicle for power. For elitism, snobbery and prestige. No surprise, today, that the American empire is looking to impose its tastes.
iW: The sense of family is really strong in the film.
JN: It’s the essence of the film to me, the notion of what we pass on from generation to generation. Either literally within a family, or culturally across the idea of terroir.
iW: Explain ‘terroir’.
JN: It’s a beautiful metaphor for diversity. Literally it’s the geological and meteorological history of a place in relation to the history of the people who’ve cultivated the land. Every bottle of wine is a testament to the specificity of place and of individual identity.
iW: Then how can they be manufactured in a flavor farm in New Jersey and pumped in?
JN: Well, in the process of distribution there’s a thousand different ways to insure uniform homogenization. And there is a war going on right now for the soul of wine — for the future of wine.
iW: Between Hubert de Montille and the Mondavi’s.
JN: Yes, but it’s not just between the old world and the new. Globalization in the wine world is very complicated. To express terroir, you can be from the North Fork of Long Island and have only ten years experience of that soil; but it has as much right to dignity and respect as an ancient terroir. The point is to preserve the distinctiveness. Now everyone in the Western world wants to make wine a strictly commercial activity, hiding, in Orwellian fashion, behind the notion of choice, from $5 wines to $500 wines.
iW: But can technologies like microoxygenation really compete with established wines?
JN: Take the Navarro Gewurztraminer — probably 25 different producers in the Anderson Valley in Mendocino, CA are using this grape, the Gewurztraminer, to make wonderful wines of terroir distinctive to that region. So an Alsatian grape finds a new home.
iW: So is the battle really one of scale?
JN: No it’s not, because you can find small wine producers who make boutique wines from extraordinary amounts of money that cost a fortune and aren’t themselves expressions of globalized taste. That’s what tricky. Whereas in Alsace for instance there’s an industrial manufacturer who makes wines of terroir that are fabulous, Trimbar, which you can find in the US for $10-$12 a bottle, or used to before the exchange rate.
iW: How would someone know whether they’re buying a terroir wine or a globalized microoxygenated wine?
JN: It’s very simple: you walk into a wine shop where the person selling you the wine is also responsible for buying the wine. And then you get to know their tastes, and at least you keep things on a human scale.
iW: That’s a good tip… How does Robert Parker, in his Maryland farmhouse, cultivate this supposedly exquisite palate when his English bulldogs are farting in the room…
JN: Robert Parker does have an amazing palate.
iW: Doesn’t that affect his sense of smell?
JN: He kicks them out of the tasting room when they fart. He’s very proud of his farting dogs. Parker is the single most powerful critic of any field anywhere in the world, film, food, theater… He came along just when Americans were learning to appreciate wine, in great part, by the way, thanks to Robert Mondavi. Mondavi did tremendous good for wine consumption in the US. Since they just lost control of their company, you have to ask what he was able to pass on to his kids, and what happened when they decided to go public. Why did they go public? Ten years later that fact has come back to bite them and made them lose their company.
iW: I appreciate your evenhandedness but what I got from the film was much more sympathy for Hubert and Etienne de Montille. What’s going to happen to small Bordeaux winegowers like them?
JN: I’m an optimist.
iW: You shot about three-quarters of the film yourself. Did that give you a kind of aesthetic freedom?
JN: Absolutely. In the past I felt frustrated by large crews. I felt like a midwife surrounded by 65 surgeons. And I wanted to go in the jungle and just be a midwife. That’s essentially what I did here, and I’ve never had so much joy making a film, and felt so liberated — knowing that there’d be a technical roughness, but thinking the intimacy and spontaneity would more than compensate. That was the gamble. Better than doing it all myself, though, I had two friends, Juan Pittaluga, a Uruguayan filmmaker, and Stephanie Pommez, a Caribbean photographer, who helped shoot.