Jonathan Nossiter's wine documentary is subversive, funny and humane.

The Grapes of Mirth 

Jonathan Nossiter's wine documentary is subversive, funny and humane.

An epileptic bulldog in the home of the world's most famous wine critic. A snarling Boston terrier on the streets of Tuscany. A loping Labrador gobbling grapes in Burgundy. In every location of Mondovino -- a rich, savory documentary addressing the globalization of the wine industry -- there is a dog with personality, whose presence is meant to inform our understanding of its owner. While interviewing winemakers, wine distributors, wine consultants, wine writers, wine sellers and wine marketers, director Jonathan Nossiter inevitably sets his camera on the dog, to hilarious and telling effect. In this way (and in others), he tunnels under the testimony of his participants -- much of it self-serving, some of it transparently false -- to expose what lies beneath.

Like any good documentary, Mondovino is about much more than its immediate subject. In this case, the subject is wine and what multinational corporations are doing to it, but in that story there are many others. There is the drama of generations, and the relationships among them; there is the conflict of the classes; there is, very deeply, the story of humans and their relationships with nature, pleasure, joy, themselves and their souls. Mondovino provides a clear view of the current state of wine, but the film's chief investment is in these other, fundamental stories.

A substantial segment of the film focuses on Aniane, a small village in France where Robert Mondavi once set his sights. When Aniane's socialist mayor was replaced with a communist (only in France), Mondavi was forced to look elsewhere. The defeat relieved Aimé Guibert, the independent winemaker whose hectares lie next to the forest in question. To Nossiter, Guibert frets, "Wine is dead." An old-school proponent of terroir (the French word for "territory," conveying the distinct flavor accrued by wines long cultivated in a single region), he explains that "wine has been a nearly religious relationship between man and the elements of nature." Translation: Mondavi is profane.

In contrast to the victory against globalization at Aniane, Mondovino offers the story of Ornellaia, a respected Tuscan wine once made by an independent Italian vintner -- and then acquired by Mondavi. In Tuscany, Mondavi devised a less transparent scheme. The company partnered with an aristocratic Italian family, which then acquired its unsuspecting neighbor, who believed he was selling to an Italian brand.

The Frescobaldis, like so many of the big-business winemakers in the film, effortlessly hang themselves on the rope that Nossiter provides. When discussing their family's relationship with fascism, the executives remark that their father was a fascist, "but only because it fit his needs." (Mussolini, they add, brought necessary order to Italy.)

In the end, one of the most salient themes in Mondovino is family. Hubert de Montille, an aging vintner in France, adheres to the old ways. "Etienne," he scolds his daughter, who works for a corporate competitor, "you have no sense of humor, and you never will." Then he says to the camera, in a beautiful and unintended answer to the Frescobaldis' defense of fascism: "I like order, but I like disorder, too."

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