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Jonathan Nossiter for Mondovino showing in London Fest

Across three continents, "MONDOVINO" weaves together the family succession sagas of billionaire Napa Valley power brokers, the rivalry of two aristocratic Florentine dynasties and the efforts of three generations of a Burgundian family fighting to preserve their few acres of land. But are all these struggles secondary to the exploits of a gleefully mischievious pirate from Bordeaux who spreads the gospel of modernity from Italy to New York to Argentina?

Wine has been a symbol of Western civilization for thousands of years. Never has the fight for its soul been as desperate. Never has there been so much money -and pride- at stake. But the battle lines are not what you'd expect: local versus multinational, simple peasants versus powerful captains of industry. In the world of wine, it is never the usual suspects.

MONDOVINO plays at Documentary Gala at the London Festival.

Interview with JONATHAN NOSSITER

Though you’re a filmmaker, you also have a career in wine. How did that begin?

For me, wine has always been linked to friendship, to pleasure. I became interested in it when I first worked as a waiter in Paris at the age of 15. Later I got a degree as a sommelier in New York, where I made wine lists for a number of restaurants. Because my father, Bernard Nossiter, was a foreign correspondent for the Washington Post and the New York Times, I grew up in France, Italy, Greece, India and in the States. Early on, I saw how he got the feel for a given country just by talking to all kinds of unlikely people. Having met winegrowers from around the world over the last 20 years, I’ve come to realize that somehow this singular world is weirdly representative of the world at large. The reason is simple. Wine is more like people, in its infinite complexity, than anything else on the planet. It’s one of the clearest expressions of both the Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman traditions. And rather than preserving these traditions as rigid artifacts, it keeps them fluid, vital and modern. Wine really is a kind of guardian of Western Civilization. To look at the world of wine today is necessarily a way to look at how we feel about our past and at what we’re preparing for the future. The news from the front, in my eyes, is both exhilarating and terrifying.

Who are winemakers?

A winegrower is at once a farmer, a businessman and an artist. His attachment to the earth is simple and humbling, dependent as he is on the cruel whims of nature. But at the same time that he works the land, the wine that he fashions is linked to the greatest cultural ambitions –and pretensions- of his time. And like an artist, he tries to give pleasure and provoke exchanges between people. However the great difference between the two is that the work the winegrower pours his soul into is necessarily ephemeral. It avoids the artist’s trap that Orson Welles warned against: "the only thing more vulgar than working for money is working for posterity."

Do you see wine reflecting cultural changes?

Absolutely. For example, it's not a coincidence that there was a wine boom in the States in the 1970’s. Californian wine at that time was sometimes excessive, too intense or even challenging to swallow. But it was intriguing, radical and invigorating. Winegrowers then shared the same desire for discovery and experimentation as Cassavetes, Scorcese or Coppola of the period. In the 80s, with the arrival of the Reagan era, wine immediately began to change. Overnight this previously raw and unpredictable liquid became polished and media-savvy: easy drinking wines in fancy packages. Wines that were designed for reasons of prestige and economic power. I don’t think it’s accidental that at the same time in Hollywood, films became more complacent...unapologetically commercial products. The small Californian wineries from the 70s that resembled the Burgundians in their artisanal ambitions began to sell out to big business. Coca Cola bought Sterling Vineyards in the 80s. A decade later, Coca Cola sold the winery to Diageo, an even more multinational company, exactly when it became absurd to talk about the idea of “a country of origin”, an identity, for a global company. I think that the next stage of evolution, what we’re living through today, is the voluntary co-opting of small scale artisanal production (“organic farming”, “terroir” etc.) into the cultural and economic needs of the new world order.


Is this what you had in mind from the start, an inventory of the global order?

No. The origins and what remains the heart of the film are much more personal. I set off with a friend of mine, the Uruguayan filmmaker Juan Pittaluga, to do a kind of casting of winegrowers from different regions. As Juan and I began to talk winemakers in Burgundy, we were both struck by the intensity of father-son relationships and how that intensity expressed itself, in love and tension, in the production of something tangible.
Naturally we began to think about our dads, both of whom died quite young but having left behind powerful expressions of their love and their engagement with the world around them. The notion of personal transmission from generation to generation, of what gets passed on and what dies away...or is lost...or is consciously rejected, became, for me, the grail of this adventure across three continents.
What was especially exciting was that in almost every encounter my own preconceptions were turned on their head. Someone who declares himself a conservative, a reactionary even, turns out to be more fundamentally radical and progressive than a family who votes “left” and espouses a bag full of notions associated with “resistance”.

Why did you choose Burgundy as your starting point?

I spoke about California, but what happened in Burgundy in the 70’s was just as interesting from a political and economic standpoint. Burgundian winegrowers at the time were very isolated from the economic and cultural pressures of the modern world. Their wine had been appreciated for thousands of years –at least since the Romans invaded Gaul- but they had long dropped out of fashion. Wanting to join the emerging global marketplace, they succumbed to all the trends of the time, including the indiscriminate use of chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. Miraculously, their attachment to the land and to their culture was so strong that they quickly discarded these toxic expressions of progress and concentrated instead on finding personal ways to express their patrimony in a modern idiom, to create a vital bridge between an ancient culture and the world they live in today.

They quickly understood that they were trying to protect a simple, universal idea, expressed most clearly for me by a Sardinian winegrower, Battista Colombu who said: "The most critical act in a deceitful world that tries to destroy our individual dignity at every turn, is to protect that dignity at any cost.”

You have opened the doors of a very private club. How were you welcomed into the world of wine?

Very well, even by those who didn't share my ideas. There’s a natural conviviality in the world of wine. Even those people who produce wine for the least idealistic reasons find it difficult to resist the kind of natural seduction that comes out of the bottle. There really is a magic that occurs in the natural transformation of grapes into wine. And even though it’s true that the world of wine has been veiled for too long by a kind of “omerta”, or vow of silence, anyone who drinks or makes wine is instinctively gregarious.

Did you set out on your adventures as a wine lover, an insider?

More as a "discoverer," I’d say. I've always tried to avoid the snobbery of wine connoisseurship...all that ridiculous jargon about the “aromas of pear blossom or...the scent of my grandmother’s lace underwear...” Unfortunately wine has become associated with all of the most exclusive aspects of a certain lifestyle. Especially in places that are not traditional winegrowing cultures, like the US, England and the Far East, wine has become a kind of symbol of elitism and pretension. I’ve always tried to fight against that.

Whenever I make a wine list for a restaurant and train the staff, I insist that they describe the wine in their own terms, from their own gut reactions. You shouldn’t fake your way through a bottle of wine any more than an actor should fake his emotions. Even the most inexperienced drinker or spectator can immediately spot a phony approach. For the film, I wanted to get as close as I could to a general spectators’ point of view, to people who couldn’t give a damn about wine but who are sensitive to simple, everyday pleasures that are somehow essential to our basic enjoyment of life. I think the traditions of these pleasures are in fact essential to our survival as a culture.


Are there two opposing worlds, between the wine growers who maintain traditional, cultural and rural values, and those who support the globalization of wine, what some call “the international taste”?

No, I don't see it like that. I've tried to avoid a simplification of the struggle between the good and the bad and make a film that both takes a stand but is fiercely tolerant of opposing views. It’s a notion I know my father stood for. For me, “Resistance” is an ethical, not an ideological position. In the world of wine, like in France under Vichy, those who resist come from all social and economical classes and all ideologies. While few people’s lives are in danger today, I think there’s a more subtle form of repression in the world that makes the notion of resistance and collaboration much more ambiguous. Whether you’re a reporter or a civil servant, a doctor or a shopkeeper, there are choices in everyday life that determine how you conform or question the uses of power around you. These same struggles are present for winemakers, from the far reaches of Argentina to the palazzos of Florence.


You introduce us to Michel Rolland, a famous oenologist who works with major wine houses in twelve countries. Who is this man really?

Rolland is like the Spielberg of the wine world, as Jean-Luc Thunevin – Rolland’s colleague and Robert Parker’s protege- suggests in the film. Rolland is a pure expression of his era, as even his adversary, Aimé Guibert admits. He instinctively understands the trends and aspirations of his time and knows how to capture them in a product that anticipates what consumers will accept. He’s the best known winemaker in the world beyond any doubt. While I was deep in the heart of Argentina finishing up the film, I expected someone to possibly bring up his name, but I never imagined I’d hear someone say, “Michel Rolland completely transformed Argentinian wine and now, thanks to him, it’s completely different from what it’s been since the Jesuits first introduced wine here in the 17th century.” He’s like a highly successful business or political consultant, perfectly adapted to the global marketplace.


How have the Californian wines from Napa managed to establish themselves so strongly?

In the 15th and 16th centuries, great Florentine families like the Medicis and the Strozzis supported poets and painters as a way of affirming their own social and political positions. Today, art has been abandoned as a symbol of prestige in favor of wine. It’s more prestigious in an international society to have your name on a wine label than to have your portrait made by a painter or photographer, or even a filmmaker.

Since the end of the 80s, Californian wine has imposed itself on the global marketplace not only in terms of sales but also in terms of influence on wine production elsewhere in the world, including in countries like France and Italy.


Your film is almost like a 19th-century novel, with an epic cast of characters from high Bordeaux society to humble pioneers in the Brazilian backwoods.

During the shoot, I realized it was like being in some kind of Dickens or Balzac novel. I tried to adapt how I directed to reflect this. There was such an enormous range of people from all cultures and social, economic and ideological backgrounds, with all the pretensions (and humble aspirations) that the post-industrial world can offer. Because of the vividness of these people, I often felt like I was working with a international cast of great actors.

Is all this specific to the world of wine?

I loved the idea of sharing with a viewer the thrill of seeing these private lives that often felt like they had the intensity of fiction. Maybe because the wine world is so inconsequential in real terms in the world, I had unusual access to its leaders and power brokers. I think it allowed me to reveal the human face of globalisation, to film with unusual intimacy the emotions and psychology of those who wield power and influence.



It seems to be a world where the sky’s the limit. The Mondavi brothers picture themselves creating a dynasty that could have wine growing on Mars!

It’s strange. Like in a novel, their own ambitions have turned against them. It’s as if the wine world has blended Balzac’s world of “Lost Illusions,” with the TV series “Dallas” with the Mexican soap opera, “Pueblo Chico, Infierno Grande” (Small Village, Big Hell). Very recently, the board of directors of the publicly traded Mondavi corporation replaced the family in the running of their own company. What the Mondavi brothers set in motion a decade ago by aggressively going public and competing in the global marketplace has come back to bite them. The empire that their father so painstaking built up from nothing is no longer in their hands.


According to Alix de Montille, “you make wine as a reflection of who you are.”

Absolutely true. I almost put in the end credits: “whatever you think of any given character is exactly what you’ll think about the wine they make.”


Do we make films as a reflection of who we are?

Probably. Inevitably. Maybe fatally. I went at this subject matter in the same way I tried to make my other films, without making any distinction between “fiction” and “documentary.” In the fiction films I’ve done, I’ve always tried to provoke the actors into a vital exchange with the environment in which we shot, from David Suchet with the homeless shelter in Queens to Stellan Skarsgard with a herd of goats in the Greek mountains. With Mondovino I tried to prod these non actors into the fullest, most vivid expression possible of who they actually are. It was like working with actors towards the same goal, but by opposite means.

I shot over the course of nearly two years, with a rare sense of delight. I hope that my previous experience shooting feature films in 35mm gave me the necessary discipline and craft sense to fully exploit the freedom and spontaneity of the new lightweight digital technology. Thanks to the pioneering work of Tommaso Vergallo at Digimages, the 35 mm end result feels closer to me to the texture of 35 mm films of the 70's -the period I love the most in colour filmmaking - than anything I've done before.
It was also a conscious decision on my part to shoot with two friends, the Uruguayan director Juan Pittaluga and the Caribbean-Brazilian photographer, Stephanie Pommez. I think the energy of three curious friends showing up with a discreet camera as opposed to a self conscious film crew with defined objectives and working parameters allowed for an unusually human exchange between camera and subject. I feel like the camera itself became an extension of who I am and of what and how I perceived the worlds that I encountered. I’ve always operated the camera a lot in the films I’ve made, but never with so much sense of intimacy and joy of discovery. Even if the camera seems like it had a little too much to drink at times. I’m all for clear-headed engagement, but I’d hate to imagine a world without a little drunkenness.

JONATHAN NOSSITER FILM CREDITS

Jonathan Nossiter has directed four feature films. His most recent, "Mondovino" premieres in Cannes in the Official Selection in May 2004. It’s both a feature film and a 10 part television series about the rich, the poor and the powerful in the world of wine, from Paraguay to Brooklyn to Florence.

"Signs & Wonders" (2000), a psychological thriller shot in Athens, Greece was produced by MK2 and Nick Wechsler, with Charlotte Rampling and Stellan Skarsgard. It premiered in competition at the 2000 Berlin Film Festival.

"Sunday" (1997), a black comedy he also directed and co-wrote about a one day love affair based on a case of assumed identity, starred David Suchet & Lisa Harrow. It won the Sundance Film Festival's Grand Jury Prize for Best Film and Best Screenplay and the Deauville Film Festival's Grand Prize for Best Film and their International Critics' Prize and was shown in “Un Certain Regard” at Cannes.

He also directed "Resident Alien" (1991), a feature length comedy mixing documentary and fiction about the end of Manhattan’s bohemia, with Quentin Crisp, John Hurt and Holly Woodlawn. It was theatrically released in the U.S. in 1992 and was shown in numerous countries (including the BBC in England, Berlin Film Festival, Toronto Film Festival).

His documentaries include "Losing The Thread" (2001) for RAI in Italy and the Sundance Channel in the US, an hour long film on art fraud, tourism and the male ego in Tuscany (premiere Rotterdam Festival) and "Searching for Arthur", a look at Arthur Penn in New York, for Telepiu's Italian series "Directors on Directors" (premiere at Locarno Festival) and “Making Mischief”, a half hour, personal documentary diary of the preparations for “Signs & Wonders”.

His training includes: the study of painting at the Beaux Arts in Paris and the San Francisco Art Institute and Ancient Greek at Dartmouth College, assistant directing in English theatre (The Newcastle Playhouse, King's Head) and assistant to the director Adrian Lyne on "Fatal Attraction". A trained sommelier, he has made wine lists and trained staffs for a variety of New York restaurants, including “Balthazar”, “Rice”, “Il Buco” and “Pravda.” He has also written about wine for New York Magazine, “Wine & Food” and “The Forward”.

The son of a journalist, he was born in the US and grew up in France, England, Italy, Greece and India.


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