'A wine column. Are you shitting me? Does anyone really care? Is this because Sideways was such a hit?"
-- from Eric S. Payne's letter to the Reader, printed in the October 6, 2005 issue.
Well, actually, no, Mr. Payne. I've been doing this since 1999, back before Sideways was even a novel. But thanks for asking.
As for your other questions: No, I'm not shitting you, and I have no idea whether or not anyone really cares. There is a certain happy freedom in this lack of knowledge, however. Every now and then, just because I have no idea if anyone's looking, I can go ahead and do something like an extended commentary on Mondovino, last year's documentary on the wine business. (A wine documentary. Are you shitting me? Does anyone really care? Is this because Sideways was such a hit?)
Opening scene: Harvesting coconuts in Brazil. Interesting. A reminder that wine is an agricultural product? Ah, but not just any agricultural product. The question is posed: "Can you make wine from coconuts?" "No, only juice." As Teiresias says about wine in The Bacchae: "For filled with that good gift, suffering mankind forgets its grief...there is no other medicine for misery."
As if to back that up, it's on to vigneron Yvonne Hegoburu in the French Pyrenees for a reminder that "love and pleasure have always made the world go 'round. At least they should." God love her, she doesn't mention money. After her husband died, she planted vines and gave her love to them. Nice personal touch. And another personal touch in Sardinia, where they're making this obscure varietal, Malvaisia Bosa. "And each winemaker makes a different style," says winemaker Battista Columbu. "It never used to be for sale. It was a communal wine. The people of Bosa offered Malvasia as a gift."
Local is good, variety is good. Well and good. But what happened? Why is it for sale now? "Before, these hills were covered with small plots. Everyone cultivated them. Now, people have become lazy, carried away by consumerism. In cultivating the Masvaisia de Bosa, there's a kind of ethical commitment." It ain't all love and pleasure.
Then we meet Columbu's opposite, the antithesis of the local and the traditional: Michel Rolland, the flying winemaker. Consultant for over 100 properties worldwide. Technological fiddler. "Micro-oxygenate!" he says, again and again. Together with the Mondavis of Napa and their growing wine empire, Rolland will be the film's smiling, gregarious villain.
The seesaw tilts back -- or seems to -- and we arrive at Aniane, in France's Languedoc region, home to the wondrous Daumas Gassac and its proprietor, Aimé Guibert. Guibert says that wine is dead. He laments that wine is no longer the "nearly religious relationship between man and nature. The wines that make you dream transcend time," he rhapsodizes. "They bring youth instead of wrinkles and death." Bordeaux used to make wine like that, he says, but now, "Bordeaux worships only money. It takes a poet to make great wine. That's been replaced by wine consultants." Consultants like Rolland, who assure people, says Guibert, that "great wine can be made anywhere," as long as you hire the right consultant.
Here, the plot thickens: Rolland works for Mondavi, and Mondavi once sought to buy land and plant vineyards in Aniane -- just across from Guibert. Guibert fought them; he thought they weren't going to respect the land. He says that Mondavi was going to bulldoze the hills and put up billboards. He talks about deforestation and the floods that would result. Rolland thinks Guibert was just jealous, and accuses him of stirring up the ignorant locals against the Mondavis.
"We're this tiny village that resisted a huge power" in the name of anti-globalization, says the mayor. But the ex-mayor liked the Mondavis and worked with them; he thought they would be a "fantastic boon for the region and the wines of Languedoc." As Rolland points out, "Mondavi is a PR powerhouse."
Guibert is a prince of the Languedoc; it might have been helpful to interview some producers of local vin ordinaire, the ones who are going under because the French don't buy everyday wine like they used to. I admire Guibert, and I'm all for wines made with a sense of place and respect for the land, but I see Rolland's point here. If Mondavi had turned the spotlight on the region, it might not have been a bad thing.
I think Guibert understands the usefulness of the spotlight. And I think he ought to have had a little more sympathy for the Mondavis' proposals. For one thing, he is not a local grower, the sort who has tended his vineyard for generations -- though you won't get that from Mondovino. You have to read Kermit Lynch's Adventures on the Wine Route for that. Lynch writes that Guibert retired to the Languedoc after he had "spent most of his working life running a large leatherworks company, supplying haute-couture shops around the world...He is brimming with capitalist energy and he brings that spirit to his business." No humble vigneron, he.
Guibert violated the local tradition of growing Carignan, Grenache, and Cinsault, and instead planted Cabernet Sauvignon. He charged far more than any of his neighbors. He lobbied for a grand cru designation for his wine -- the greatest marketing coup of them all. Writes Lynch, "What Guibert has set out to do is simply not done, creating something out of nothing, and creating something not at all typique de la région at that! And he has met with resentment, resistance, and jealousy from his neighbors. Remember, Guibert is an outsider to begin with." Sort of like the Mondavis.
In Mondovino, Guibert rages that the modern world has created the "new fascism of monopoly distribution," and complains that people "don't give a damn about supermarket kings." To him, it spells the death of small-production, quality wine, because the supermarkets want two million bottles, all the same. But his status among his fellow Languedoc producers -- how many of their wines have been compared to a great Rhone like Vieux Telegraphe by Robert Parker? -- makes him a curious David to set up against the Mondavi Goliath.
And then, when he comes to find that Bernard Magrez, CEO of the monster negotiant William Pitters, is coming to Aniane in a project fronted by French actor Gerard Depardieu, Guibert rolls over and plays puppydog. "Depardieu's presence is a gift," he says, and then adds -- can he hear himself? -- "he's a fan of my wine." Oh, so that makes it okay? Asked about Magrez, Guibert acknowledges that Depardieu is coming "with the magic of his name and a guy who knows how to sell wine." "Is Magrez the French Mondavi?" asks the man behind the camera. No, silly, Mondavi doesn't need a movie star -- his own name is enough. But let's let Guibert answer. "Magrez...is a clever man who built a great business out of nothing." And that's different from Mondavi how? It is true that Magrez and Depardieu are not buying in the same spot as the Mondavis, nor on the same scale, but suddenly, Guibert seems on shakier ground.
Why go after Guibert? Because I want him to be right. But right and wrong is a complicated business in the wine business.