Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Mondovino—Mondoprofumo: Wine, Perfume, and the Globalization of Taste

Reflections on Mondovino (2004),
with applications to perfume

I first viewed Jonathan Nossiter's film Mondovino not too long after its release in 2004. My initial impressions were mixed. First, the shaky handheld camera work made the film in some ways difficult to watch and definitely required a sturdy vestibular system in order to be able to stomach. But I also felt that the director was somehow overzealous in his critique. He seemed to be religiously committed to some sort of Platonic Form of the Good Wine, which struck me as fanciful, at best, fanatical, at worst.

Mondovino is, above all, a morality play, with villains and saints and a middle category of collaborators who succumb to the temptation of the devil to sell their souls to greater or lesser extents, depending on the case. The villains are painted so derogatorily that I wondered at the end of my viewing of the film, first, whether Nossiter was still safe roaming the streets without a body guard and, second, whether he would ever be able to make another documentary film again.

Like director Michael Moore, Nossiter manages to display the villains of his morality play in an incredibly unflattering light which, one suspects, can only have made them regret their naïve decision to agree to conduct interviews in what must have seemed at the time to be very affable and innocuous—perhaps even promotional!—exchanges.

Garagiste Winemaker

The upstart winemakers, whether from California or France, are referred to as the “garagistes” (note the parallel to the small niche “garage” movement as exemplified by the house of Kerosene). The garagistes are depicted as somewhat unsavory characters, the repeated insinuation being that they have somehow compromised their standards in the quest for profit. Their “trick” involves producing relatively small numbers of bottles of each vintage and specifically seeing to it that they will be pleasing to influential critics, whose praise then causes the prices to soar to hundreds or even thousands of dollars per bottle, precisely because they are in limited supply.

As is true with some of Michael Moore's efforts, one may come away from Mondovino with the sense that the director really tricked the targets of his critique into participating in what became a final product highly critical of them. This sense may detract from the holier-than-thou righteousness which such films attempt to convey and make them less effective as critiques, it seems to me.

The Wine Director at Christie's in London
I certainly did enjoy aspects of Mondovino, including the quirky subtheme of winemakers' dogs and the creative use of both modern and classical music as the score for the film. I also loved going on a trip around the world with the director to Burgundy and Bordeaux in France, Napa Valley in California, Sardinia and Tuscany in Italy, and briefly to visit wineries in both Argentina and Brazil. There were also short excursions to London, to discuss the state of wine with the director at Christie's, and New York, where an American wine importer sympathetic with the central critique weighed in on what is variously referred to in the film as the “Napa-ization” or “Merlotization” or “Pomerol-ization” of wine.

An American Wine Importer Committed to Terroir
The problem, according to Nossiter and the film's heroes, is that wine is being standardized to reflect the taste of a few American critics who happen to favor very concentrated, ripe fruit wines ready to imbibe immediately as they are produced, rather than requiring a lengthy period of aging to achieve their maximum potential—as is the case for the traditional wines of Burgundy, among other regions. This new, modern, “global” or “international” style of wine is produced through the use of standardized techniques such as micro-oxygenation and fermentation in new oak barrels, which impart certain uniform qualities much more dominant than the underlying differences arising from the grapes' various origins or terroirs.

Tuscan Shopkeeper and Defender of Terroir-based Wines
The director's central concern is that through the promotion of this style of winemaking, hailed by American critics whose opinions directly determine pricing—because Americans spend more on wine and believe what the self-proclaimed "experts" say—wines are being homogenized to the point where the specific origins don't really matter anymore. The ways in which the wines are manipulated creates a certain type of product being exalted as great, with a concomitant devaluation of anything that does not fit the standard model.

Mondovino, on its most basic level, is an anti-globalization film, similar to others released about the same time, including an equally searing critique of the globalized coffee industry, Black Gold, directed by Marc Francis and Nick Francis in 2006. In Black Gold, the primary villain is Starbucks; in Mondovino, the primary villain is the Robert Mondavi company, based in Napa Valley, California. Given the focus of this film, Mondovino is a clever double entendre.

When pointedly directed toward particular targets exposed as evildoers, these sorts of “activist” films tend to have short relevance lifetimes. In the case of Black Gold, Starbucks nearly immediately got to work implementing a variety of initiatives—including helping indigenous farmers, among other public displays of social consciousness—to the point where much of the critique of the film appears no longer to be valid. Of course, if such films can change the world, then the activist filmmakers who produce them are vindicated in the end.

Another example of this kind of filmmaking might be the 2004 film by Morgan Spurlock, Super Size Me, which its director now claims led to McDonalds' elimination of the supersize upgrade add-on meal deals. Super Size Me may also have had something to do with the expansion of fast food restaurant menus to include such low-calorie options as salads and the like, although it is true that there have been many anti-obesity activists in recent years, so it's not entirely clear who should be credited with such developments—if anyone.

Since it is not the primary purpose of activist directors to produce cinema for cinema's sake, when the corporate monsters criticized in such works become proactively involved in refuting the charges made against them, then the directors/critics may be fully satisfied with the result, though their film may no longer be worth watching anymore, having been effectively rendered irrelevant. Still, the films stand as successful examples of how activists can change the world, even if it means ultimately that the objects of their critique may do no more than to become keenly vigilant of their image.

As Plato observed more than 2000 years ago, the most straightforward way to gain the reputation of a good man is to act in the manner of good man. (Much easier and more convincing than merely pretending to be a good man!) The same story holds for lying: if only for recordkeeping purposes, you're much better off telling the truth, rather than having to remember which lies you told to whom.

The companies which recognize that they can benefit from a socially conscious profile may thus endeavor to create an analogously righteous image, most easily accomplished through actually engaging in some socially conscious initiatives. So is Starbucks' assistance to indigenous farmers motivated from selfless altruism? Of course not. Starbucks is a company, and companies are profit-making machines. In the end, films such as Black Gold may not alter the “greed is good” outlook of the CEOs of large companies in the least. Such companies may nonetheless be galvanized—in the name of self-defense—to allocate more of their budget to fostering a socially conscious corporate image.

One contradiction inherent to anti-globalization films is that their success is entirely dependent upon the global promotion and distribution of the works. In other words, it is only because of the success of globalization that directors such as Michael Moore, Morgan Spurlock, and Jonathan Nossiter are able to garner an audience at all. Subsequent to the release of Mondovino, Nossiter was championed by some people in France, while reviled by the wine establishment in the United States, and even more so in the aftermath of the publication of his book, Le Goût et le Pouvoir (2007), translated by himself (a polyglot) and published in English in 2009 under the title Liquid Memory.

Wine Critic Robert Parker at his home

The primary wine critic against whom Nossiter takes aim in Mondovino, Robert Parker—whose ratings are enormously influential, effectively dictating American fine wine buyers' taste—denounced the director as “stupid” and “a bigot” subsequent to the publication of his book. Clearly emotions run high, and there is an enormous amount of money at stake in the wine industry, so it's not surprising that those critiqued by Nossiter should use such combative language in attempting to defend themselves.

Although I am sympathetic to the concerns of critics of globalization, in Mondovino, Nossiter's critique seemed to me to be alarmist. It is true that I am not as interested in wine as I am in perfume, and so it may be that I can take a more dispassionate view of what has happened in recent years to the wine industry than of what has happened to the world of perfume.

It is very interesting to use Mondovino, I have discovered, as a refractive lens through which to consider many philosophical questions which arise in thinking about perfume. I decided to view the film once again some time after investigating a case of wine fraud which seemed superficially similar to perfume reformulation. In Wine Fraud and Perfume Reformulation: A distinction without a difference? I concluded that, in fact, the two are fundamentally distinct. The primary distinction arises because of the groundedness—essentially, the importance of terroir—in the production of wine, which makes each millésime (vintage) unique and impossible to reproduce but, for the same reason, equally impossible to reformulate.

Traditional Sardinian Winemaker

Terroir is the central theme of Nossiter's critique of the globalized wine industry, so on its first level, the film may not seem to be relevant to the world of perfume. However, on deeper levels, I believe that it is. Without further ado, here is the story of Mondovino.

The Tale

Once upon a time, the father of a family in California gazed out upon his lush, verdant land in the Napa Valley and realized that great wines could be made using grapes harvested there. True, France had always been the capital of the wine industry, but why should Californians not be able to make wonderful wines as well? It was a simple idea, and Robert Mondavi began his winery with a vision of what California wine might be able one day to become.

Robert Mondavi and Son
Initially, California wines were somewhat crude and even laughable to those with refined palates developed through quaffing the best that France had succeeded in producing over many centuries, with generations of people involved in both the art and science of winemaking. It seemed that no one could compete with the riches of the regions of Burgundy and Bordeaux, and California winemakers were rather like country bumpkins by comparison. (Think: "Beverly Hillbillies"...)

What happened next is rather startling. A single critic, claiming complete independence from the wine industry, emerged in American circles with very strong opinions, and a decided irreverence toward old school French winemaking. This critic, Robert Parker, had the audacity to prefer new to old wines, and Americans listened with rapt attention to what he had to say. Efforts by winemakers to garner Parker's praise led to the widespread use—both domestically and abroad—of very ripe fruit to produce very concentrated, Merlot-esque red wines, which were fermented in new oak barrels in order to impart a decidedly charred flavor, verging sometimes on vanilla. Wines with these qualities were sure to receive high “Parker ratings,” and their prices directly reflected the power of this man's pronouncements.

This new aesthetic (essentially, Parker's personal taste) was promoted aggressively through the widespread adoption of a 100 point evaluation scale, which Americans found useful (and probably familiar from school). In the new rating schema, the best wines would receive 100 points, and those points would be bestowed by the journalist-critics, who tended to share Parker's taste. This coincidence of taste appears to have arisen in part because expertise was thought to be measured by new critics' agreement with Parker's own judgments.

Wine Consultant Michel Rolland

Predictably enough, wine consultants soon emerged who were willing to help winemakers to achieve higher scores from Parker (in his famous book-length guide) and in Wine Spectator magazine, which would virtually guarantee immediate market success, because wine drinkers in the United States, above all, paid heed to the scores received from critics in deciding which bottles to buy.

Rolland with Clients in France
One wine consultant in particular, Michel Rolland, ambitiously conquered large parts of the winemaking world by persuading producers of fine wine that following his advice would make their wares even better. The practical result of so many winemakers' enlistment of Rolland to guide them was that their wines all began to conform to the same new, global and modern taste, determined by critics' judgments about which wines were great. The order of the day was quickly to produce wines ready for consumption soon, not decades later on down the line.

Map of Colonized Countries

The Mondavi family, in an endeavor to expand their winemaking horizons, sought initially to partner with existing winemakers in Burgundy, France, but they were spurned by the small community of Aniane in Languedoc, whose newly elected communist mayor (gasp!) refused to grant the firm permission to fell some of the hectares of nearby forest, where they would have planted new vines.

Italian Noblewoman and Collaborator with Robert Mondavi

Undaunted, the Mondavi family set off to Italy, where they found partners in Tuscany and were able rapidly and dramatically to improve the image of Italian winemaking in a number of joint ventures which yielded what came to be called “Super Tuscan” wines.

In reality, all of the wines being produced under consultation with Michel Rolland, and which manifested qualities pleasing to American critics such as Robert Parker, were a part of a grand pattern of standardization which came to be regarded as a sort of nouvelle vague. The traditional winemakers of Burgundy and Italy naturally bristled at this homogenization of wine and its producers' disdain for centuries of oenological knowledge and tradition. Most unnerving of all was a radical diminution of the importance of the notion of terroir, the place where and conditions under which a wine came into being: its peculiar soil, climate, and other factors unique to a particular plot of vines.

Terroir-based heterogeneity was effectively masked by the bold new winemakers through the use of very ripe fruit, the concentration of the juice, and the strong flavor of oak adding layers of taste extrinsic to the particular grapes being used. These techniques imparted flavors stronger than the individual flavors produced through the use of specific place-derived grapes and the subtle nuances created through the traditional exaltation of terroir as the most important aspect of a wine.

The traditionalists, including director Jonathan Nossiter, a sommelier as well as a filmmaker (and, I feel compelled to reiterate, a very amateur cameraman...), bemoan in this situation the death of the art of fine terroir-based winemaking. The modernists, including the new American critics, many of whom write for Wine Spectator magazine—and the consultants who work with winemakers to improve wines by bringing them into conformity with the values of “tastemakers” who effectively determine the price of wines by decreeing some to be superior to others—claim instead that the old school winemakers are living in the past. This is the modern world, and the way to survive is to adapt, to accept the innovations which make wines ready to drink and sell immediately.

American Wine Critic James Suckling with Salvatore Ferragamo in Tuscany

Preliminary Musings

This little story, presented in Mondovino, a film spanning just over two hours, explains the recent homogenization of wines, its Merlotization and oakification, decried by lovers of old Burgundies, which require decades to reach their prime.

That, in a nutshell, is the primary theme of Mondovino. The Mondavi family is depicted in a harsh light, as are Richard Parker (the Czar of Taste), the upstart garagiste winemakers (one of whom cleverly decries the "terroiristes"), the international collaborators with Mondavi and, above all, Michel Rolland, who comes off in the film looking like a shyster and charlatan. He travels from vineyard to vineyard for short consulting sessions, and it appears in the film that his advice to all of them is the same: micro-oxygenate, concentrate the juice, and develop wines in barrels made of 100% new oak. These are the keys to success, needed in order to impart the taste which most wine drinkers are now looking specifically for, in emulation of Parker and his entourage of less-famous albeit nonetheless influential critics.


Entrenched Terroiristes

To my surprise, upon seeking out a copy of Mondovino to watch once again, I discovered that Nossiter also produced a minseries by the same name, which includes ten one-hour episodes. It turns out that the miniseries basically expands on the film with eight hours of extra footage, telling essentially the same story, albeit one which is considerably less pointedly directed toward Robert Mondavi. The feature-length film comes off as a scathing critique of that company, while the miniseries seems a bit more circumspect, although it is still critical of all of the villains of the original film.

Who is right and who is wrong in this debate? To be honest, I have never been sure, and I am even less sure than I was before having now Googled some of the villains of Nossiter's film, who seem to categorically deny the central claims made (or insinuated) about them by the director. In the end, I must confess that I am less interested in deciding whether or not Michel Rolland is an arrant knave than I am in thinking about what this entire structure may imply about the world of perfume.

The parallels between the world of wine and the world of perfume are nearly endless, and I hope to discuss all of them here at the salon sooner or later. Some of the most obvious questions which arise in my mind are these: Why do we prefer some sorts of perfumes to others, and how does this change over time? Why do we like what we like?

Who are the tastemakers in the world of perfume?

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