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Review: Mondovino

I watched Mondovino last night, a documentary about the globalization of wine that contrasts small producers with large ones. I found it interesting, although perhaps a touch outdated in at least one respect: the movie gives a lot of coverage to mega-producer Mondavi, but Mondavi was acquired by Constellation in 2004. Since Mondovino was also released in 2004, I can only think that either the acquisition occurred after the film's release, or that the director already had all the footage and was in post-production by the time of the acquisition.

The documentary compares old ways vs. new ones, but what astonished me was how openly everyone acknowledged the fact that many wines are now being produced essentially to appeal to one person: influential critic Robert Parker. He acknowledges it, his friend and collaborator Michel Rolland acknowledges it, the wine producers acknowledge it ... it's just how it is. That doesn't appear to be in dispute.

Although the director's point of view is present, the bad guys truly hang themselves with their own words. Parker comes across as a complete boor: the very definition of an ugly American ... he's an abrasive, pompous New England intellectual.

I definitely dislike the idea of standardization in wine. I like both Old World styles and New World styles. The earthiness of a wine that reflects its terroir can be good, and fruit forward can be good. To me, each is different, and has its own merits.

I am very sympathetic to the new wine drinker. Everyone who drinks wine is new to it at some point or another, and shopping in a wine store can be intimidating early on if you don't have a guide. Wine magazines frequently recommend that new drinkers find a store with a wine expert that they trust, but I've always thought this was dreadful advice ... not in principle -- the idea is great. However, the reality is problematic because how do you know? Even if the wine staff seems knowledgeable, how do you know that their palates will match your own preferences (and sometimes you don't know yourself what those are)? You don't. Not until you've spent some money to find out, and I think many new drinkers are hesitant to spend money on things they may not like. How can you blame them? Side note: I think the recommendation to attend as many wine tastings as you can is much better advice in terms of cost-benefit analysis, with the stipulation that you should never feel obligated to buy something that you don't like.

So, in this early phase of learning, many people turn to "shelf talkers" -- the little bits of paper that shout "89 from Wine Spectator!" "93 from Robert Parker!" They see that big number, and figure it must be good, despite the fact that an elevated price often accompanies that coveted score. While I don't think there's anything inherently wrong with using these as guides early on, I also think they're a bit like floaties for a child learning to swim: they'll get you in a fairly safe part of the pool and keep you afloat, but you don't want to depend on them forever. What bothers me is that a lot of people stay stuck at this stage of development, and they essentially become puppets of the major wine media because of that. They never explore the deeper end of the pool.

I don't presume to know all there is to know about wine. Nobody in the world does: there's always more to learn, a new vintage to try ... the product is constantly changing. Despite the fact that I've been drinking wine for years and have been blessed with an oenophile father, I'm simply a hobbyist. I haven't taken it to the next step, like my co-worker's husband who has completed the first of a series of tests to become a Master of Wine (he's a professional sommelier), or like quandry, who has stepped right into wine as a career. I readily admit that I still know nothing in many respects (I'm game to find out, though!). However, I do know how to research. I do know how to ask questions, and I do know the typical progression of people's palates when it comes to early-to-intermediate consumption. (It's rather similar to drinking scotch.)

To get back to the movie ... Mondovino is too long. I realize that it was originally a multi-part series cobbled together into a movie, but I think it still needed a more stringent editor. I also doubt that someone who isn't already familiar with the wine scene and some of its major players would enjoy it. Nevertheless, it contained a lot of interesting information and perspectives from a variety of sources. I learned a good bit, and it corroborated some things that I'd already thought of on my own.

One thing that it verified about all these young wines that we're drinking now is how much of it is about profit. Why wait for a wine to age ten years when you can turn it around in two or three? It's surely more profitable for big producers to move that volume. I've been very frustrated by much of the chardonnay coming out of California in the past five years. In my New World chardonnay, I do like a little "oak tea" as one person in the documentary comments. I think it has its place. I don't want all my wine to taste like that. However, pro-oak or anti-oak, at least oaked wines have been allowed to age a little bit.I cannot abide all this highly acidic grapefruit juice that's been coming out of California lately. "Oh, that acidity is food-friendly!" the marketers exclaim. Perhaps, but your producers are also able to push it to market a lot faster, too, and there's no question in my mind that money is the real driving factor.

While I don't think you can make a case that greed is completely compromising the wine industry, it's certainly a factor in the homogenization of wine styles, and that's really what Mondovino is about.

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( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
tagplazen
Aug. 27th, 2006 05:15 am (UTC)
Holy crap, you just made me want to drink a whole lot of wine.

Which on the surface may not be that impressive, but the fact I would want to drink wine is surely a change.

I kept thinking about your post all day.

I read a while ago that wines from Portugal are great to try out because they're one of the few countries that hasn't plowed under their indeginous grapes to import strains from France. Have you heard about this?
pointedview
Aug. 30th, 2006 02:17 am (UTC)
It would be tremendous fun to do a wine tasting with y'all. I mean, worst case scenario, even if you hate the wine, you get a little buzz. How bad can it be?

I had heard that Portugal retains a significant number of their indigenous varietals. I've only had Port, Madeira, and Vinho Verde, as far as I know (I love good Vinho Verde), but I think there are many more than that. I'm open to trying all of them, though!
quandry
Aug. 27th, 2006 06:31 pm (UTC)
The modern innovation cuts both ways, definitely. Sure, wine used to vary more by region, but there was also a lot more plonk out there. Things like temperature control during fermentation and modern hygeine practices have meant truly amazing steps in quality. Of course, some of this has happened at the expense of variation.

Still, the nice thing about globalization is that it creates markets that are absolutely huge. Though wine used to vary more region by region, most people were stuck in their own region, and therefore had pretty limited choices. These days you don't have to travel to taste something new (and I love travel, but there's also that showing up to work thing, most of us still have to spend most of our time in our home city). Anyway, I think that there will always be a market for the unusual, though it will be a sub-section of the whole wine market. Still, the global wine market is growing, so is the market for the unusual stuff is growing too.

Oh, and I totally agree with you that acidity is oversold. Sheesh, spritzing vinegar on food does not make it gourmet, and wine shouldn't be interchangeable with lemon juice!
pointedview
Aug. 30th, 2006 02:20 am (UTC)
Look, I'm not asking for a lot: I only want to live somewhere that has all the advantages of France with none of the drawbacks, and simultaneously, somehow, has all the advantages of the US with none of the drawbacks. :) A gal can dream, right? :D

In all seriousness, AYYYY-men on the bit about "wine shouldn't be interchangeable with lemon juice!"
quandry
Aug. 30th, 2006 07:36 am (UTC)
Can I be your neighbor? I can also promise that I'm going at eating leftovers you don't know what to do with.
hokiegirl1
Aug. 28th, 2006 02:42 am (UTC)
Interesting - I had heard about this documentary, so it's good to read your opinion on it. I know that many people are saying that with the love of wine becoming popular that it is creating a lot of cheap wine where they are creating shortcuts with over harvesting, not letting the wines age well and then providing good marketing so that it is in wine magazines everywhere making people want to drink them. I have always to take Andrea Immer's course on wines, but sadly they are all in NYC. I need to look into signing up on her website though.
pointedview
Aug. 30th, 2006 02:18 am (UTC)
Oooh, if you get to take Andrea's course, you've got to promise to write all about it!
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )

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