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Wineís world
In Mondovino, filmmaker and former sommelier Jonathan Nossiter finds culture, corruption, danger, and hope in the bottom of a wineglass

JONATHAN NOSSITER is on a tear, railing against homogenization, globalization, civil liberties. Think heís talking politics? Think again: Nossiter is talking about wine. And thatís exactly the point. The state of the wine world, the filmmaker and former sommelier argues, is a clear reflection of the state of culture in a post-Reagan society ó a troubling mirror, worries Nossiter, who maintains that "weíre living in a very black time."

In his challenging new documentary, Mondovino, Nossiter takes viewers across three continents and deep into the heart of the warring wine world, a world fraught with conflict between billionaire businesses and peasant producers, commerce and culture, modernity and tradition. The result? Says Nossiter, "I think itís a complicated picture of the human side of globalization."

Q: Howíd you get interested in wine in the first place?

A: I started working in restaurants in Paris when I was 15, and that was a pretty healthy introduction to the power of getting drunk happily. I think thereís something about drinking wine that makes people want to talk. I think wine is the only thing that allows you to get high and get more lucid. I worked in restaurants from then on and got a degree as a sommelier. Gradually, as I started to make films, I kept the wine thing going just because it was a pleasure to be a part of that world. I mean, I couldnít stand the snobbery of it, but I loved what was real about it. Wine is, I think, the only thing on earth as infinitely complex and diverse and unpredictable as human beings.

What I gradually started to see in the í90s was that there was a radical shift going on, and I started to see that this thing, which was all about being different each time, was getting more and more the same. The stuff was all starting to taste the same, whether it was coming from California or Bordeaux or Chile. And that really freaked me out. I started to traipse around, just to see what it was like on the ground, if this was just some market aberration, or was there something important happening, a shift? I thought I was going to spend two months of my life doing this. I thought it was going to be a little project. As a filmmaker, I got drawn into the outrageous soap-opera aspect of the wine world. I definitely felt like I was doing Rich Man, Poor Man among the vines. And then I started to see that in fact there was a war going on in the wine world that seemed very similar to the war, the taste and culture and lifestyle war, that I think was happening in this country and happening across the world between the forces of homogenization ó trying to make us into robots and trying to rip us off into believing weíre getting choice when weíre not ó and the beautiful, individual acts of resistance to these forces. I mean, thank God resistance is strong, at least in the wine world, if not in the political world against Bush.

Q: Is this the film that you originally set out to make?

A: For me, the principal pleasure in making a film is to live a new life and discover new things. If I donít feel like Iím alive and being constantly challenged and discovering and being surprised, then I canít expect the audience to be also. We all know what cookie-cutter bullshit most Hollywood films are now, and unfortunately a lot of independent films [are too]. I am very conscious of wanting to do something which is fresh and feels fresh to me and surprises me. I thought I was going to spend two months doing some funky little thing, and itís ended up occupying four years of my life. I guess what I started to realize is that I felt like a private investigator. The film to me is like a cross between a comedy and a thriller.

Q: I read a quote where you said, "This is not a film about wine." So how would you describe it to people who havenít seen it?

A: You could call it Dallas Among the Vines. Itís set in the world of wine, but itís no more about wine than Dallas was about the oil industry. Itís a setting. The last thing I ever wanted to do was make a film about wine, because I couldnít imagine anything more pretentious and boring. I think that the world of wine has always been a really accurate mirror of the world at large, for a simple reason, which is that wine is agriculture, but itís also high culture. Itís just a bunch of grapes growing out of the ground, but itís also been linked, since the Bible, to our dreams, to our fantasies, to our pretensions, to our illusions. And that means that itís a kind of amazing indicator of where weíre at. I think itís a complicated picture of the human side of globalization that comes out. Itís not black and white. Itís not all the fault of American multinationals.

Q: Was it a scary thing for you to try to combine these two loves ó filmmaking and wine ó into one project?

A: Nah, because to make a film where I could get drunk by 10 a.m. and call the producer and say I was working ó thatís too big a lure. The only thing that was daunting was to try and avoid descending into the unbearable winespeak and all of the pseudo-connoisseurship and all of that stuff that I canít tolerate, that I think turns people off from wine. I thought it was very funny, the parodies in Sideways. Unfortunately a lot of the wine world is exactly like they described. These unbearable, pretentious wine snobs, who take all of the fun and all of the beauty out of this thing.

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Issue Date: April 15 - 21, 2005
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