Wine film uncorked at Cannes

May 19, 2004|By Ron Dicker | Ron Dicker,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

CANNES, France -- He was born in Baltimore, became a lawyer, and now lives comfortably in the Maryland countryside with bulldogs and a bloodhound named J. Edgar Hoover.

But his reviews in the Wine Advocate can alter the price of wine around the world.

Is Robert Parker too influential? Jonathan Nossiter's new documentary, Mondovino, which premiered this week at the Cannes Film Festival, leans that way.

For the film, Nossiter journeys across three continents examining the struggles of the wine world's stars, supporting players and hangers-on. The 2-hour, 38-minute documentary was admitted into the festival competition at the last minute, allowing it to vie against 18 others for the Palme d'Or, Europe's biggest film prize. Among its competitors is another documentary, Michael Moore's politically charged Fahrenheit 9/11.

While the latter has generated the most buzz, Nossiter has uncorked a publicity push of his own. He sat on a panel of American directors with Moore that was hosted by Roger Ebert.

A trained sommelier, Nossiter also was host of a wine tasting. Now the filmmaker may not be the toast of Cannes, but his documentary has gained some attention here in the land of wine lovers. Part of the reason is that characters like Parker infuse his story.

Parker's reviews are so influential that many consumers read them as gospel, and wineries try to conform to his taste, Nossiter contends. "The irony is, I think he agrees with me," Nossiter said of Parker this week at the festival.

"I'm sure he agrees that the excessive concentration of power in any one pair of hands is not good for anything. I honestly believe he didn't want that kind of power. I don't think it's something he sought. I think it's something he accommodated himself to." (Parker is traveling, according to the Wine Advocate, and could not be reached for comment.)

In the documentary, Parker, 56, is shown in folksy footage at his house with his wife, Patricia, surrounded by wine bottles. He confirms that his nose and palate are insured for $1 million. "The power to write what you want--that's my strength," he says.

In 1978, Parker began publishing the Wine Advocate. When he defied a consensus of poor reviews for a few Bordeaux vintages, apparent good taste won him the devotion of serious wine enthusiasts. The wineries took notice. Many began a quest to earn his oenological thumbs-up. His point system has become the standard by which many labels measure themselves.

"I'm proud of the fact that winemaking has become pro-consumer," Parker says to the camera.

Mondovino trails a high-priced consultant named Michel Rolland, who makes most of his living helping winemakers produce Parker-friendly products. And he considers himself a conduit for others to get with the modern pace. In at least three instances, Rolland tells vintners at traditional European cellars to "micro-oxygenate," a process which injects oxygen into the tanks and makes wines drinkable faster. After the brief advice, he leaves. "The world of wine is in danger because of a homogenizing of taste," Nossiter told the panel.

But can a man with a laptop in Monkton really tell a centuries-old winery in Burgundy or Tuscany how to shape its grape? Mondovino implies that Parker has that capability -- but does not abuse it.

"He's completely honest," Nossiter said. "He comes out of the Watergate era and sees himself as a sort of Nader-ite crusader, which I respect."

Nossiter, the son of a former Washington Post reporter, directed the psychological thriller Signs & Wonders (2000) with Charlotte Rampling and the black comedy Sunday (1997), which won best film at Sundance. Mondovino is not his first documentary, but it is his first film in the main competition at Cannes.

The filmmaker developed a taste for wine growing up in France, Italy and Greece. He has advised several New York restaurants on their wine list, according to a biography handed out at the festival.

"I love wine because it's the only thing on Earth that's as complex as human beings," he said.

But wines do not wage war--the people behind them do. Their critics cast Parker and Rolland as the modernists who threaten to ply the planet with Everywine. The older cellars run by families over generations are cast by their detractors as the traditionalists who could become extinct but cling to the old ways.

"I think the war is very complex," Nossiter said. "What I'm trying to do in the film is to give time to all of the combatants. I think they all have very powerful points of view."

Parker did not get to where he is by soft-peddling his opinions.

"If there's a legacy for Robert Parker," he says in the documentary, "it's that he leveled the playing field. In this stratified caste system of wine, dominated by elitists and reactionaries, Robert Parker brought an American, a democratic, point of view. I think that has been a revolution."

Mondovino asserts that the wine industry is in jeopardy of being over run by the same globalization that has consumed other facets of business, such as the handful of conglomerates who run the major movie studios.

"I don't think there are any bad guys," Nossiter says. "The film, I think, is polemical but it's tolerant."

The conflict in the wine world was bound to intrigue Nossiter the way a complex wine does.

"I like things that are a little wild and ragged," Nossiter said. "I don't like things that are smooth and polished."

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