Wine School Enters Culture Wars

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Who has the right the make wineÂ?the landed gentry of Europe or the garish millionaires of California? Keith Wallace, founder of The Wine School of Philadelphia, offers critical insight into the new documentary "Mondovino".

Who has the right the make wine—the landed gentry of Europe or the garish millionaires of California? That is the question—quite likely unintentional—posed by Jonathan Nossiter in his new documentary “Mondovino.”

Keith Wallace, founder of The Wine School of Philadelphia, believes Mr. Nossiter is asking the wrong questions.

The real question should not be which set of elitists should make or drink wine, but can wine be democratized without being simplified?

Nossiter's message in the film is clear: big business is ruining wine. Large wine companies, such as (formerly huge) Robert Mondavi Winery (now sold to Constellation Brands, the world’s largest wine producer), don't care about the history or craft of wine-making, as long as their product turns a profit. Insofar as European winemakers go, Nossiter has a point. Large wine conglomerates gobbling up hectares and vineyards in Burgundy and Tuscany do threaten traditional wine-making methods and varietals that are important historically and agriculturally, but lack popular, mainstream appeal.

What Nossiter ignores is the how modern grape-growing and wine-making techniques have opened up new agricultural areas, such as Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Chile, and Argentina. These new entrants into the world wine markets often rely heavily on the highly scientific and mechanized processes that Nossiter decries to make them competitive.

These advances in technology have encouraged the development of environmentally sensitive and sustainable agricultural practices, made possible new vineyards which are not backed by huge sums of cash, and encouraged a revival of the hand-made, artisanal approach to wine that hearkens back to the glory days of old European producers. Growers in areas like Chile and Argentina—exemplars of the modern wine production facilities decried by Nossiter—have preserved endangered varietals no longer found in Europe, when Old World vineyards stopped producing certain grapes a century ago because they were insufficiently profitable or when delicate crops were destroyed by weather and disease.

The modern wine industry has also contributed to the preservation of farmland, created new jobs, and brought tourism to new areas. The thriving industries and economies that have sprung up in these new regions make your local wine store is a much more interesting—and affordable—place to shop than it would be if Europe or California alone dictated production standards or tastes. This doesn’t mean shiraz is good just because it comes from Australia, but the sophisticated wine production techniques of micro-producers have improved our ability to find wonderful, unique, hand-crafted wines at affordable prices.

Nossiter’s film raises legitimate and troubling questions about the implications of large wine conglomerates that should be of interest not only to the oenophile, but to anyone concerned with sustainable agriculture and economic justice in a world of increasingly globalized capital and standardized production. Can wine be democratized without being overly simplified? The answer is an emphatic yes.

With his unspoken assumptions about who should make and drink wine, Nossiter perpetuates the class warfare and elitism so often unfortunately associated with the wine world. This sense of class-entitlement becomes the unacknowledged core of the film. Sadly, he misses the chance to explore how new wine-makers are blending the best of Old World knowledge, varietals, and passion with the expertise and precision of New World technology. Mr. Wallace notes that these small producers, combined with good common-sense wine education, may be the wine-lover’s strongest weapon against the homogenization Nossiter deplores.

Mondovino provides lots of history, interesting tidbits, and even uncovers unpleasant fascist leanings in the great wine-making families Nossiter examines under his lens, but the potential benefits of the global competition are given short shrift. This is a wonderfully eccentric and detailed film that nonetheless should have spent a few more years in the bottle.

About the Wine School of Philadelphia

The Wine School of Philadelphia is a private consumer education

institution established in 2000 to teach amateurs and professional about wine and the wine industry. The School’s programs emphasize wine as an accessible, affordable, and enjoyable pursuit open to all.

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