“Le vin est mort,” declares independent vintner Aimé Guibert early in the documentary Mondovino. Wine is dead.

It’s not quite Nietzche, but it has a similar dour finality that may at first strike the viewer as overblown. After watching Mondovino, however, audiences may well find themselves as passionate about the high-stakes game of winemaking as Guibert is.

In spite of Mondovino’s esoteric and reputedly snobbish subject matter, even an audience who can’t tell Chianti from Kool-Aid can follow this portrait of an ancient, often bizarre international subculture. Like its distant cousin in fiction, Oscar contender Sideways, the film holds up for its entire 135 minutes by tempering a little wine geekery with far more interesting (and frequently unflattering) character studies.

Mondovino begins with an account of “L’Affaire Mondavi,” hotshot Napa newcomer Robert Mondavi’s attempt to buy out older vineyards in the Burgundy region of France. From there the documentary spirals wildly to both the deeply individual and personal—one woman’s decision to quit her job; a father’s disapproval of his profit-minded son—and the staggeringly broad—the rights of laborers; the aftermath of fascism; and the costs of globalization.

Nossiter and fellow camera operators Juan Pittaluga and Stephanie Pommez keep the grandeur of Mondovino’s vision in check by giving the camera a refreshingly childlike life of its own. The camera shots wobble, dwell curiously on small children and dogs, and occasionally pan across landscapes at dizzying speed, seemingly giddy over the wondrous, peculiar world Nossiter has discovered.

Director Jonathan Nossiter aptly likens his film to the novels of Balzac and Dickens, with its large, colorful cast of characters manipulating society. Like Pip of Great Expectations, Mondovino’s subjects confront issues of class, tradition, and upheaval on the great stage of the “Human Comedy.”

Viewers of Mondovino, however, get the additional delicious, if mildly voyeuristic, pleasure of knowing that the film’s heroes, villains, and clowns are all real—so real, in fact, that one can find the fruits of their labor on the shelves of the nearest liquor store.

Personally, I found the film’s preoccupation with the New World-Old World cultural divide more like a Henry James novel with a beverage fetish. Despite winemaking’s age-old European heritage, much of its current jargon is so new, and so clearly American, that it still has no place in the languages of Europe’s great wine countries. The French word for “wine marketing,” for example, is just “wine marketing.”

Mondovino succeeds in part by appealing to the snob in each of us—the part of our consciousness that cringes at the sight of a newly-constructed Wal-Mart or the phrase “Have it your way.”

Mondovino’s subjects are driven alternately by money, fame, winelust, and terroir, the film’s untranslatable but ubiquitous term meaning something between “soil” and “heartland.” The film itself is driven by its energetic camerawork, tantalizing leads, and a madcap soundtrack ranging from vintage French cabaret to the Kinks. Adventurous moviegoers should be driven by curiosity and the desire to stray from the well-beaten Hollywood track, and they will not be disappointed.