Director: Warwick Ross
Writers: David Roach, Warwick Ross
Australian release date: Thursday 5th September
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.
For other Boomtown Rap movie reviews, see Movie Review Archives