Friday, September 15, 2006


On the way out of the library with the girls last night, a documentary DVD caught my eye, so I grabbed it without paying much attention. Mondovino takes a look at how the global marketplace for wine is changing by following the stories of several small European winemakers and contrasting their approach with the slick hyper-marketing of big, prestigious wine brands.

The cinematography is awful, with mostly shaky hand-held shots and bizarre ultra-closeup zooming that you might see the first time a child discovers zoom on a digital camera. It was incredibly frustrating to watch at times because the scenes and personalities themselves were so compelling and so badly captured. Terrible editing, too -- if they had cut about 45 minutes of random dogs, irrelevant city montages, and pointless off-track dialogue, it would have improved the film immeasurably. I got a Blair-Witch-like headache from all the motion and focus problems...but I couldn't take my eyes off of it either.

Many of the places portrayed were truly gorgeous, especially Tuscany and the south of France. The shots from Napa Valley are beautiful too, but at that point the absurdity of the wine business itself starts to reveal itself. Wine is great and all, but really it's just fermented grape juice. The film pokes far enough to help you see that the industry is just playing a big game, motivated mostly by greed and ego.

The filmmaker has a great gift for drawing out the personalities of the characters he discovers, from the lowliest grape farmer in Argentina to the most powerful CEO in the wine world. Several of the dialogues are gripping in a way that fiction would have a hard time duplicating. Two deep themes run through most of the interviews, regardless of where the subjects are located on a spectrum from the keepers of backyard vineyards to the directors of the largest multinational corporations -- the importance of land and family. They're invoked repeatedly, often in an attempt to create stories and mystique around their brands, often too busy marketing to recognize the inherent value in both.

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