Red Obsession Movie Review

Director: Warwick Ross
Writers: David Roach, Warwick Ross
Australian release date: Thursday 5th September

Reviewer: rolanstein
Verdict: A fascinating and beautifully made documentary on the Bordeaux wine industry and the Faustian dilemma brought about by the sudden and voracious demand of China’s nouveau riche for premium product.

This absorbing doco begins predictably enough, with local vignerons and globally influential wine critics of the likes of Robert Parker Junior and “Oz” Clarke extolling the wondrous qualities of peak year Bordeaux wines. There are sweeping aerial shots of the vineyards, reds swirled around in wine glasses gloriously aglow in ruby tones, cellars lined with rows of priceless elixirs dating back decades, perhaps even centuries, an oak barrel being fired by a master craftsman, lingering shots of architecturally enchanting châteaux. Narrator Russell Crowe unintrusively and sonorously ties it all together. The expectation is set up of a delectable cinematic treatment of the romance, mystique and tradition of this most famous of wine regions. But then, quite abruptly, the curtain of myth is drawn back and a very different – and quite perturbing – side of the Bordeaux wine industry is revealed.

The title of the film, Red Obsession, is a nice play on words, referring to the legendary red wines of Bordeaux that hold wine lovers in thrall the world over, and to the fixation of the Chinese nouveau riche on acquiring the best of the best that Bordeaux has to offer. The latter is the primary focus here. And the operative word is, indeed, ‘acquiring’.

A Chinese businessman who made his fortune from sex toys boasts that he has bottles of Château Lafite-Rothschild (most prized in China, and horrendously expensive) on display in every room of his house. Another has the largest collection in the world of this famous drop, and claims to have drunk no other wine. Begs the question as to how he can assess it as extraordinary when he has no means of comparison, but this is beside the point. For the burgeoning wealthy set in China, premium Bordeaux wines are signifiers of status and sophistication, the most exclusive and expensive of designer commodities, and not to be wasted on the palate.

Of course, there has been a growing investment market in wine for years, but with Chinese money and demand having driven Bordeaux wine prices into the stratosphere in recent years, top drops are now an elite tradeable commodity. Ludicrously, the elite of the elite has long been too valuable to drink, and never more so since the Chinese assault on the premium Bordeaux market.

The inclination is to reel back in contempt at the crassness, the cultural philistinism, of the sex toy billionaire and his peers. What do the Chinese know of fine French wines (harumph harumph)? Is it not wrong that mere money can claim the best of the best for the vulgar rich of the East, depriving true connoisseurs of the West? Hmmm, perhaps, but isn’t this just a tug of war between the mega-rich of East and West? Why should the rest of us care? Yet we do – or I did, at least, my hackles rising as I contemplated the hijacking of Western cultural tradition. Then I was struck by the uncomfortable realisation that there is xenophobia lurking in the background here, a sense of cultural superiority, a nationality-based snobbery…isn’t there?

Well, I’m not sure. The topic is complex and requires far too expansive an investigation to cover here. And it must be acknowledged that the filmmakers have been careful to provide some balance to mitigate against knee-jerk Western outrage. One female Anglo/Chinese interviewee in particular, with a foot in both cultures, makes some insightful and illuminating observations on the Chinese perspective. However, culturally jealous and possessive westerners will feel indignation rising like reflux acid as the film spotlights the vast imbalance between premium product supply and Chinese demand.

There are graphs showing hyperbolic inflation of premium wine prices, and stats indicating that within a few years global production of wine will be insufficient to supply the demand of the rising Chinese middle classes alone. We’re not talking premium Bordeaux drops here – that market is all but cornered by the Chinese now. Or would be, were it not for the French refusing to sell some of their most prized stock – and the market itself coming to the rescue.

Think Dutch tulips. Or the stock market. And give thanks that bubbles burst.

While the immediate pressure on Bordeaux might have lifted, however, the celebrated wine producers of that great region are left with a Faustian dilemma: how to respond in the future, whenever climatic conditions combine in perfect harmony to yield another choice vintage and the market heats up again, as it surely will? Do they trade centuries of tradition and acquired knowledge for gold, selling out their cellars and ultimately vineyards to the Chinese? Or will they heed the words of one of the vignerons interviewed, who asserts that “the wine must be protected” as a first priority?

These questions are at the heart of this gripping film, and will be debated with increasing urgency in coming years. But there are many other vitally interesting issues raised here, also, some potentially confronting for the viewer. Indeed, the challenge is to quell and postpone the flurry of thoughts evoked in the course of the film in order to stay with it. That takes a bit of self-discipline, but it’s worth the effort.

If wine is your thing, this is essential viewing. If not, it’s still fascinating stuff, centred on the wine industry but taking in the wider and quite contentious territory of cultural difference and perception against a backdrop of cherished tradition in flux and under threat.

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2 thoughts on “Red Obsession Movie Review”

  1. Great review, rolanstein. You were clearly more enthralled by the economics of it all than I was.

    I liked the way the film continually brought us back to the terroir, the weather, and the timeless traditions of the harvest and the winemaking: it was a nice counterpoint to the frantic machinations of the market. That the Chinese are buying didn’t bother me – although the bizarre acquisitiveness (unmatched by passion for the wine itself) was perplexing. That’s capitalism for you.

    But as a wine drinker (sipping a fruity but crisp and dry Margaret River sav blanc as I write), I wanted to know more about the wine and whether it was worth all the shenanigans. The way the film played out, it could almost have been about any in-vogue commodity. There were some nice contrasts early – the British wine writer asserting that the winemakers were seeking only power and money, versus the winemakers and wine company directors who clearly loved their product and had a genuine sense of their place in a long and beautiful tradition. And then there was the lovely moment when the Chinese wine won the international (blind tasted) competition. I wanted more of that. I wanted to know if French wine drinkers are pissed off that they are being priced out of the market. (Are they? What does a bottle of Lafite cost at their local bottle shop? Or do they bite their thumbs at the Grand Cru stuff and buy perfectly decent wine from other vineyards that happened to miss out on the cut centuries ago?)

    And all the while I was thanking my lucky stars that I live in Australia where we can get superb wines at reasonable prices.

    I did find it fascinating – up to a point, and then I got a bit bored. Economists might find it more interesting than would wine aficionados.


  2. Ta Karen, and interesting comments.

    Well, I’m a wine-lover too, and certainly no economist, but you’re quite right – I did find the Chinese/market stuff fascinating. It’s been a while since a film triggered such fevered thinking as I watched.

    Then again, I know the territory, because I’m a gambler/trader from way back – a failed one, both on the track and on the stockmarket (always systems, never just whacking bucks on impetuously…but for varying reasons not just to do with my skills or lack of them, the results ended up the same). No longer active, but I don’t think the interest ever just evaporates.

    I would like to see a doco covering the areas you mention, too, but that’s another film, and I don’t think it’s fair to mark this one down because it’s not that film.

    I seriously doubt that there are ever any bottles of Lafite at French local bottle shops! I reckon you’d have to be part of an exclusive club to get a sniff at it. I hate that elitist shit, I must say. If the price of food or wine is way beyond the ordinary person, I righteously recoil.

    That said, and to shoot myself down, it’s fair that a high price be placed on anything of outstanding excellence, produced with exceptional skill (and in the case of wine, with climate the wild card). I admit I would love to just have a lil taste of Lafite or any of those esteemed Bordeaux drops from an extraordinary vintage to know what we mere mortals are missing out on. Probably just as well that opportunity is never likely to present itself. And as you say, we have some terrif affordable wines right here. Might follow your good example a few short moments from now – time to shaddup and put a wine glass in it!


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