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Film on winemaking is juicy but cloudy

The movies rarely offer a villain whose villainy is both vague and unmistakable. For instance, I'm not entirely sure why I so intensely dislike Michel Rolland, the orotund wine consultant in Jonathan Nossiter's semi-comic documentary ''Mondovino," but I'm certain that I do.

Rolland is often seen lounging in the back of a luxury car, wearing pricey-looking suits, smoking, pontificating, and refracting the entire wine business through the prism of himself. His expensive thoughts and haughty putdowns (''Languedoc is Hicksville!") are topped off by a big self-amused laugh that you come to recognize as sinister. In Westerns, Warren Oates used to laugh like that before he'd shoot somebody.

Several major wineries are Rolland's clients, and Nossiter presents him as the symbol of everything that's wrong with the industry. When he's not in the car or at his office, he's shown at his wine laboratory, which looks like an unused set from a Stanley Kubrick production. These kinds of clinical facilities are what keep owners of traditional vineyards in Bordeaux, Burgundy, and Tuscany up at night: They feel that procedures such as micro-oxygenation, which Rolland oversees, are sucking the soul out of wine.

''Mondovino" finds the wine business at a philosophical crossroads. Is it an industry or an art form? Should wine be made by poets or profiteers? Is artificially aging wine sacrilegious or shrewd? Looking for answers, Nossiter bounds around the planet and converses politely with people in their native language. He uncovers a microcosm roiling with tales of conspiracy, racism, collusion, deception, and envy. At its best, the movie is as juicy as the beverage. But the mildly curious (myself included) are bound to find that it turns just as dry in the latter going.

The film purports to be about the globalization of wine, but it turns into a sprawling examination of the ethos of commerce -- how modern capitalism has tainted the quasi-religious essence of an ancient trade, and how one man's expanded business plan is another man's imperialism.

For years, Nossiter has made no-budget independent films, including 2000's ''Signs and Wonders," that were both delightful and annoying. Here his filmmaking has a real sense of duty. It's a journalistic investigative piece that moves as fast as an action movie -- sometimes too fast. Nossiter doesn't narrate, and it took me a good hour to parse out the two-dozen or so people we meet and another half an hour to figure out precisely what they did. That leaves another 45 minutes to sit back and watch them fret or gloat (for the most part, people do one or the other).

Nossiter hits most of the pressure points affecting the business. We meet the Mondavi clan (a client of Rolland's) whose American mega-business has universalized -- some say ruined -- winemaking. The film also heads to just outside Baltimore, where the unfathomably important wine critic Robert Parker lives.

Parker is the most worried-about fellow in the entire picture. Apparently his influence and his palate have led a lot of wineries to compromise themselves to please him. Parker doesn't have to say he loves his status, because people like his buddy Michel Rolland are here to tell us he loves Parker's status, as well as having his friend's personal and professional attention.

The notion of globalism brings out the vexed liberal in Nossiter. Leftists, Africans, Latinas, and Mexicans live in the background of his movie, while the jet-setting moneybags are eager to incriminate themselves. Shari Staglin, the wealthy matriarch of the Staglin Family Vineyard in Napa, happily reports that her family rewards its pickers and laborers with goodies such as T-shirts, hats, and jackets. But do employees get to eat at the table the family had designed to look like the one in ''Godfather II"?

Wine in ''Mondovino" is the ultimate us-versus-them divide. Regardless of what Parker says, it doesn't seem all that democratized. Too many of the vineyard owners, magazine editors, aristocrats, and marketing guys seem like just the snobs you'd expect. But could it be this easy? Are they all so reflexively odious? Is there nothing to recommend about Rolland? I won't say Nossiter is framing these people, although the shot of Wine Spectator writer James Suckling standing near that Pinocchio sign is too much. Otherwise, they all frame themselves just fine.

But what is it that Nossiter wants us to know about this world and its inhabitants? We visit lots of places but what do we see? The indictments, recriminations, and musings just sit there, and the movie feels incomplete and uncentered. It's like a grand magazine profile that's all reportage and absolutely no prose.

Wesley Morris can be reached at

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