Film Review: Red Obsession

This exceptional, visually and informationally rich Australian doc about how the frenzy of many wealthy Chinese for the great grands crus red Bordeaux wines is shaking up the global wine market reveals much beyond its ostensible theme.

Red Obsession may be a documentary with wine at its center, but wine is not really what the film is about (call it a Hitchcock-like “MacGuffin”). There are no tips about wine varieties, cultivating, tasting, evaluating, health benefits, disadvantages, etc. Shrewdly, writers-directors Warwick Ross and David Roach, delivering considerable entertainment value, have more on their minds, as they bring cameras and deep knowledge of both the film and wine crafts to far-flung locations (the Bordeaux wine country; thriving Chinese mega-cities like Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai; often remote Chinese mainland vineyards) to examine China’s frenzy for high-end Bordeaux and its reverberation across countries and markets.

Talking (rather than drinking) heads abound, thanks to the amazing access the filmmakers had to this unfolding real-life drama. Both Ross and Roach have deep roots
in film and, in the case of Ross, a vigneron who owns an award-winning Australian winery, roots in the wine business. (That he was born in Hong Kong could not have hurt.) The number of expert and eloquently insightful “witnesses” they have harvested for Red Obsession is impressive. They come mostly from Europe and China and include such important wine people as Chateaux Lafite Rothschild’s Charles Chevalier, Chateau Palmer’s Thomas Duroux and Chateau Margaux’s Paul Pontallier, among many other “Bordelais” heavyweights.

Also hopping on board are world-renowned wine writers and critics like Michel Bettane, the U.K.’s Janice Robinson (an MW or Master of Wine), Steven Spurrier (famous for his wine boutiques) and even filmmaker and Inglenook owner Francis Ford Coppola. Importantly, Andrew Caillard, a key player in the international wine trade and friend of the filmmakers, helped get the project started and created much of the access the filmmakers needed. Caillard also contributes his insight.

From the China front come Asia’s first Master of Wine (Jeannie Cho Lee); Christie’s Head of Wine in China (Simon Tam); critics and billionaire wine collectors like Peter Tseng, a sex-toy magnate who happily traded that obsession for wine in his advanced years.

European royalty and other wine connoisseurs and collectors from both continents show up, as do hype purveyors and marketing experts from both continents who share insights on matters of branding, trends, the importance of status and the sexual component of luxury goods. The color red is hot and sexy, so for Chinese marketers and their Bordeaux partners, gorgeous women and Bordeaux are a match made in seller heaven, as both are promoted at prestigious beauty pageants.

The doc reveals how the storied 1982 Bordeaux vintage has proven especially intoxicating (and exploited) to the sell side. Eight is a lucky number for the Chinese and its character (or ideogram) landed prominently on labels and buyers followed in droves.

And, price surges aside, there is the darker side to so much frenzy by way of counterfeiting, and the fact that many top Chinese collectors never touch the stuff they sink millions into but collect solely as investors seeking financial gain and status. One result: Americans can no longer afford to buy the best Bordeaux.

As for wine production, China is no sleeping dragon: The Chinese aren’t just buying high and putting pressure on traditional buyers, but are building their own vineyards and Bordeaux-like chateaux in China. They are also buying established Bordeaux vineyards (one such estate is producing wines strictly for export to China). Red Obsession also provides elements of not quite Hitchcockian suspense: Will the 2010 Bordeaux (like the rare 2009 vintage) be yet a second “vintage of the century” and keep aloft the Chinese craze for Bordeaux or is there a giant bubble about to burst?

Production values reach Bordeaux heights: The cinematography is superb, especially those lush overheads of the stunning French vineyards; the recurring pans of the city of Bordeaux’s old, sturdy brown stone buildings of bourgeois stability that serve as a visual metaphor for an endangered tradition; and the gleaming cityscapes of Hong Kong and Shanghai that are the shiny new frisky kids on the block. The doc is also well-served by the discretely measured and varied original musical score, including those sizzling fashion runway-like blasts that convey the passion to have the best. And Russell Crowe’s occasional narration often connects some dots.

Production values and extensive access aside, the doc on first glance might suggest an elaborate, protracted “60 Minutes” episode addressing an interesting news trend with evolving parts. But beneath this glossy, newsy surface lies a conceptual brilliance that permeates the entire film: the power of different forces that impact so many lives, whether it’s the human nature that drives pleasure or the need for status and wealth. And there’s the force of global market dynamics and that other unpredictable factor, that of nature itself that can turn good grapes to bad and ruin an entire vintage.

One whine regarding this wine-centric doc: Why weren’t talking heads more adequately identified