MONDOVINO: Filmed across three continents, in five languages, this epic exploration into the modern world of wine weaves together multiple family sagas, uncovering a complex tapestry of rivalries, alliances and conspiracies—all stemming from the production, distribution and consumption of one of the oldest, most respected, and still-affordable luxuries remaining. From growers to conglomerates, peasants to billionaires, writer/director Jonathan Nossiter (Sunday, Signs & Wonders) gives voice to those who create, critique and do commerce in wine, serving up a varied and sometimes controversial glimpse into something everyone enjoys, but few know much about.
If I told you that I shot Dallas among the vines, that might be reason enough not to see my film. But it’s not just the outrageous, soap opera side of the world of wine that made me spend the last four years of my life making Mondovino, from the palaces of legendary Florentine princes, across the mausoleums of California moguls, to the adobe huts of Argentine peasants. No, I wanted to get drunk. A good drunk. The alert, heightened drunk that only comes from naturally fermented grape juice. I wanted to make a film where by 10am, I’d have the camera in one hand and a glass of wine in the other. And, be able to call the producer and tell him I was working.
But even if you’ve never drunk wine, or especially if you can’t stand the snobbery that’s clouded the enjoyment of wine for thousands of years (the ancient Romans could be just as big wine bores), I promise you that wine is essential for your survival. For the survival of civilisation as we’ve known it until Bush came along.
Where goes wine, goes the world. It’s the only thing on earth as complex–and as magically unpredictable–as human beings. This has been true since the Romans and the Greeks, true since the writing of the Bible. The planting of the grape vine has always been an act of civilisation, culture, and friendship (and the natural desire to get good and drunk). Wine is one of the most beautiful expressions of man’s love of nature and of his fellow man. But wine has also always been an act of empire. An expression of power and prestige. All French wine today is actually a product of ancient Roman globalisation, of the Roman Empire’s successful attempt to civilise the barbarian Gauls by importing and imposing the grape vine. Tell me what’s happening at any time in the world of wine and I’ll tell you what’s happening in the world, period. (And have some fun doing it.)
And what’s happening is there’s a wine war going on right now across the globe, a war for wine’s survival. It’s a cultural, political and economic war. A war between countries, but also between and even within families. There are winemakers from the old world and the new fighting to preserve their individual personality, dignity and history (whether ancestral or recently discovered). There are also equally committed and outlandish characters, at home and abroad, looking to impose a dominant, homogenising style, and wipe out our historical memory and cultural diversity. It’s not just Wal-Mart and W. who are trying to turn us into idiot, robot consumers.
But the delight of telling this tale (you could call it “the truth behind Sideways”) is that the usual suspects are rarely on the side you might imagine. Which is why this film, for me, is equal parts comedy and detective story.
I’ve made mostly fiction films: Sunday with David Suchet and Signs & Wonders with Charlotte Rampling and Stellan Skarsgård. But I’ve also had a side career working with wine in restaurants since the age of fifteen, making wine lists and training waiters…training them especially never to leave a cork for sniffing: a totally pointless act invented by wine phonies who got the wrong idea about fun with glue as kids.
So I guess what I was able to bring to this guerilla-style, James Bond epic set in seven countries and three continents (moonlighting as a documentary) was a sense of the pleasure of narrative storytelling, of bringing larger-than-life characters and letting them let it rip (including the all powerful “Wine King” and his farting bulldogs). At the same time, I had an unusual inside knowledge of a world of dreams and fantasies that increasingly uses marketing and lies of other kinds to trick people into buying counterfeit and toxic goods. (I’m talking about wine, not Hollywood.)
What I discovered on my adventures across the Brazilian outback, the Sardinian seashore, in the hidden cellars of Bordeaux chateaux and behind the glittering façades of California’s high and mighty (not to mention the back of a cab in Baltimore), was that there is a mafia-like code of silence in the world of wine and that this multi-billion dollar global industry is in fact an astonishingly true mirror of the planet we all live on (until W. makes it safe for us on Mars). Whether we’re filmmakers, journalists, lawyers, dentists or short-order cooks, we really are at the edge of a void of no return. And every day we’ll inch closer, unless we fight back (and get fruitfully drunk).
Mondovino is a modest attempt at trying to induce both.