David and Goliath

Patrick Nossiter doesn't make it easy on a guy. Mondovino, his documentary on the wine business (now out on video), seems to come down strongly on the side of the little guy, the lover of good, honest wine that reflects its place of origin. That's in opposition to the Corporate Wine Empires like Mondavi and the dreaded International Style being preached by consulting winemaker Michel Rolland and über-critic Robert Parker. Nossiter gives us rough-hewn, olde-timey charmers, true believers, and real disciples of the grape and sets them up against smooth men in suits, glib company heads, and self-admiring tastemakers. And I want to take his part; I like the little guys, too.

But sometimes, the little guys seem a bit off-kilter. Take New York-based importer Neal Rosenthal. On the one hand, Rosenthal is a sharp guy. Sitting in a Brooklyn diner and raging against people masking a wine's character by larding on the new oak, he says, "In France, they joke about 'Let's put on the maquillage, the makeup.' But it's much more dangerous than that, it's much more evil."

"Like plastic surgery?" asks Nossiter.

"It's worse than plastic surgery," replies Rosenthal, "because with plastic surgery, you can still get the interior person, but once this stuff is put on, wine has lost its soul." Very neatly put. Elsewhere, he says, "The Parker-Rolland marriage and the Napa-ization of wine in general is creating this type of wine.... The terroir is there; they're destroying it. I think, definitely, they are suppressing the terroir, much like our freedom is being suppressed now, in this country."

Hello? Coming in from left field, the suppression of freedom in America... Nossiter asks him what he's getting at.

"This sort of popular notion, 'Let's be patriotic; therefore, let's give up our freedoms.'" As he says this, his eyes begin to dart around the diner, as if he's looking for Big Brother. The bizarre jump from winemaking to politics makes it just a little harder to take him seriously. How real is this problem?

It starts me reflecting back on an earlier moment, when, as Rosenthal is driving around Brooklyn and marveling at its unchanged character (Hasidic Jews still walking around), he says, "This is terroir." That's not helpful, especially if you're trying to defend terroir against people who dismiss it as poetry. Terroir is supposed to be a sensible reflection of a wine's place of origin -- the thing that makes a Burgundy from one vineyard distinguishable from a Burgundy from a vineyard just down the road. Rosenthal's comment puts him in with the guy at Opus One in Napa, who tells a crowd of visitors that he wants the wine to make them think of this beautiful place. That's not terroir; that's association -- and it's all in your head.

Rosenthal would not be happy to see himself lumped in with anyone over at Opus One. When Jean-Luc Thunevin at Chateau Valandraud is asked why he uses 100 percent new oak barrels -- maquillage! -- he replies, "Opus One and all the great American wines are 100 percent new oak." Exactly what Rosenthal can't stand. Thunevin is the very personification of Rosenthal's problem -- he hired Michel Rolland as a consultant and then got a high score from Robert Parker, which made Valandraud as a winery.

Even Bordeaux is succumbing. (That's me talking -- I really do want to stand with the little guy.) Patrick Leon, winemaker at Chateau Mouton-Rothschild, tells us that all his barrels are new oak.

"Is that traditional or new?" Nossiter asks.

"It's almost traditional," says Rosenthal. God bless Nossiter for not following with, "Is that like 'almost pregnant'?"

The explanation for this comes from Xavier de Eizaguirre, Mouton's co-CEO of marketing. "Bordeaux has had to adapt to global tastes -- wines that are more intense, oaky, flattering. The New World introduced wines that are easy to drink right away. They don't need the long maturation process of a Bordeaux. In the last 20 years, it's true, Bordeaux has evolved that way, too."

Statements like that are what lead Langeudoc winemaker Aime Guibert to say that Bordeaux "bought the idea that Parker matters." They're what lead Burgundy producer Hubert de Montille to say that Mouton Rothschild is "no longer credible. They've gone over to the other side. Mouton is a brand; they've marketed everything but the kitchen sink." Montille, on the other hand, says that he prefers to "cultivate place of origin" -- terroir. "The place of origin beats out any brand."

Sounds good, but then Montille goes down the same road as Rosenthal. "Parker is one of the greatest advocates of American interests," he begins, clearly warming to the subject. "Because, in the US, in California, they know all about marketing. 'Let's hide our lack of terroir with the taste of new oak. We'll explain that wine should taste like the vanilla of new oak, and we'll convince the French, who really do have terroir, that that's what sells.' It started in the '70s; it was already Parker, because he rated the wines, and he rated them as a good American patriot. Because by rating wines based on the taste of oak, he followed his own personal taste, but he also serves the interests of California winemakers, who haven't yet had enough time to uncover their terroir. Get it?"

"On purpose, do you think?" asks Nossiter.

"Of course. I couldn't be clearer."

Nossiter seems to buy the line, because then he goes to the wine-consulting firm of Enologix and gets Leo McCloskey to say that of course there's a conspiracy between the American wine press and American producers. As he says it, Nossiter flips through a Wine Spectator stuffed with ads from wineries. The message is clear, except it's not. Because Parker -- the object of Montille's rant -- doesn't take ads for The Wine Advocate.

Further evidence that Montille is off the mark: "I'm a Francophile," says Parker in Elin McCoy's recent biography of him. "Nobody has promoted French wine the way I have in America." McCoy, hardly a sycophant, grants the point. "For him," she writes, "these classic wines were still the points of reference, the wines that he drank, not just tasted. His three cellars held some 12,000 bottles of wine, and 90 percent of it was French, mostly from Bordeaux, Alsace, and the Rhone." By 1989 -- remember, "It started in the '70s" -- Parker had given 19 100-point scores -- all of them to French wines.

Montille complains that America is trying to impose its tastes upon France. What he doesn't mention is that before America dictated taste to the French, particularly in Bordeaux, it was the English who did it. For that information, Nossiter goes to Michael Broadbent of Christie's Auction House in London. "It used to be a British market," Broadbent says. "We were wealthy in the 18th Century, and in the 19th Century we were extremely wealthy." It's not the American winemakers imposing their tastes -- it's the American consumers. Consumers are reading Parker and trusting his scores. Consumers are demanding those oaky, flattering, early-drinking wines. (Oak is sweet and yummy, and how many people have wine cellars? We're not all English lords.) Consumers drive the market.

There, I think, is Mondovino's biggest flaw -- it doesn't talk to consumers. It hardly even talks about them. We do get a comment from Michael Broadbent on the use of consulting winemakers and the International Style: "To what extent does individuality fly out the window? I think I'd rather have an individual wine which is maybe not up to scratch rather than a wine which is made in a globally acceptable style and rather innocuous." Yes, well, Mr. Broadbent, that's just fine. I see your point. But you're a Master of Wine, an industry legend. You're hardly a typical consumer, and you know it.

In the film, Broadbent says that Rolland is making Pomerol-style wines all over the world -- that's the "globally acceptable style." Then, honest soul that he is, he grants the key point, however lamentable he may find it: "And they're selling."

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