The Grape Debate

Mondovino takes on the New World (Michael and Robert Mondavi, left) and the Old (Sardinian winemaker Battista Columbu). (Photographs courtesy of Thinkfilm.)

In the wine-obsessed wake of Sideways comes Mondovino, a documentary-style swipe at the big bad consultants, critics, and global conglomerates that filmmaker Jonathan Nossiter depicts as an imminent threat to the wonderful world of wine. We invited two local oenophiles—Kevin Zraly, vice-president of wine at Smith & Wollensky Restaurant Group, and Arnaud Erhart, a Strasbourg native and owner of Red Hook’s 360—to hash out the film’s implications over a bottle of Loire red Erhart brought with him.

Mondovino paints a bleak picture of critics like Robert Parker, and how winemakers hire high-flying millionaire consultants like Michel Rolland to make “Parkerized” wines to get good ratings. Just how powerful is Parker?
Arnaud Erhart: I think the movie accurately portrays how certain wineries—or certain big wine businesses, because they’re no longer wineries—feed off Parker.
Kevin Zraly: Parker’s is only one person’s opinion. If you want to go with it, you go with it.

And his evil French accomplice, Michel Rolland—does he make wine better, or do his technological manipulations destroy wine’s soul?
K.Z.: Michel Rolland is a surgeon, and like other surgeons that go around the world, they’re there to fix the problem.
A.E.: I’m convinced that Michel Rolland made a lot of these estates better than they were. If technology helps make something better, I’m for it. But if you take something that’s bad and you put on makeup, I have a problem with it.

Robert Mondavi seems to be a satisfied Michel Rolland client.
K.Z.: I think Mondavi wines have gotten better.
A.E.: Michel Rolland does have a style. I respect what he is; I don’t like what he does.

Parker, Mondavi, and Rolland aren’t Mondovino’s only villains. Let’s not forget the rampant overuse of oak. For or against?
A.E.: In America, oakiness and toastiness are presented as flavors representative of the terroir. These aren’t natural. They’re not how great juice tastes.
K.Z.: I look at oak as a chef would look at any other flavoring agent. Salt and pepper into the tomato sauce, onions and garlic. As long as the customer’s happy with the wine, then I’m happy with the wine. Do some people overdo the oak? Yeah.
A.E.: Just like some people oversalt.
K.Z.: Like the French.

Do ratings come into play when you make your wine list?
K.Z.: They’re not important to me. It makes wine sellers lazier. The customer comes in and asks, “What does the wine taste like?” and the answer is, “It’s a 95.”
A.E.: People ask me what’s your best bottle of wine, what’s your favorite bottle of wine. I like them all. If I didn’t, they wouldn’t be on my list.
K.Z.: Guys like you save the day, okay? But in essence you’re putting your stamp on that bottle of wine, so you’re no different from Robert Parker.
A.E.: Absolutely not.

Mondovino’s direst warning is how globalization yields homogenization. Should we be afraid?
A.E.: Honestly, I’m scared. You can go to your corner store and buy wine from thousands of miles away, and it’s great. But what happens if they’re all made the same way? The soil no longer has an influence, nature no longer has an influence, because you can control all of it.
K.Z.: A Rhône wine will never be a Bordeaux. A Bordeaux will never be a Burgundy. A Tuscan wine will never be a Piedmont wine. I drink 3,000 wines a year, and I’m not bored. What I’m trying to do is to get people to drink wine any way I can. And I don’t care if it’s white Zinfandel. I want them to have wine.

Mondovino’s running joke is how Rolland’s solution to every problem is to tell clients to micro-oxygenate. Just micro-oxygenate. What does it do?
A.E.: It brings you softer tannins. It can help develop flavors.

So it makes wine more drinkable.
K.Z.: It can. Yes, it can.
A.E.: It can kill it, too.

The Grape Debate