For centuries, Bordeaux's wine has been synonymous with wealth, power and influence, but its prosperity has always been linked to the capricious nature of markets and the shifting fortunes of global economies. Now change is coming to Bordeaux, as China's voracious appetite for this rare wine pushes prices to stratospheric levels. 

4
Cultural takeover with a sensual side.

This new Australian feature documentary arrives as a film 'about wine’ but it isn’t really. It’s about wine in the same way that, say, Charles Ferguson’s brilliant corporate-criminal demolition job Inside Job was about money.

reflects a real anxiety in the West

Written and directed by Warwick Ross and David Roach – they produced Young Eienstein in 1988 with writer/director Yahoo Serious – it’s an involving and rich business story about what the film frames as the mother lode of wines: that drop nurtured in the region of Bordeaux, France with its grand chateaux and silvery light.

Within the first minutes of Red Obsession we are inducted into the subtle complexities of this world of fine manners, prestige, tradition and great riches. We are introduced to a cast of vintners, who all seemed charmed, with a smiley disposition and the kind of French-accented English that curls and snuggles comfortably in the ear. Everyone seems oh so sweet. But we learn here the stakes are gigantic and the business is brutal. Critics and marketing help set prices. A change in the weather alters the science of the winemaking; all of this is the difference between a good season and a bad one.

This kind of material, put bluntly, reeks of National Geographic sobriety, which is perhaps why Ross and Roach have produced a vision that is so sensual; it’s bent on trying to create a feeling of exotic pleasure around the subject and setting. Its visual style has a way of making the mundane strange; vineyards, cellars, and the fruit of the vine itself, is shot, composed and lighted with a lavish attention for detail and texture. They’ve even enrolled Russell Crowe at his chiselly best to deliver a voice-over narration.

Filmed by two talented cinematographers, Lee Pulbrook and Steve Arnold, this is a gorgeous-looking piece; but more than that I think the point has less to do with the hackneyed aesthetic of 'capturing beauty’ than it is in creating a sense of other-worldliness in this sub-culture where a case of wine is bought and sold – unopened, mind you – for not thousands of dollars, but hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Still, like all the best business yarns, it’s not entirely concerned with counting other people’s money. It’s really a story of culture – a way of doing business, an attitude to product and producer, consumer and style, that transcends any snobbery about people with money and power.

Francis Ford Coppola – himself a notable vintner of the Napa region in California – explains that, for him, wine is not just a matter of taste, it’s euphoric, a thing that adds magic to a meal. Coppola, a famed raconteur, muses that what makes a bottle of 'collectible’ wine notable, its value, lay in its story; he once tasted a Bordeaux bottled only four years after the French Revolution and wonders on camera whether Jefferson had managed a tipple from the same batch. This is not a trivial point. Ross and Roach are out to make a case about the difference between an Old Tradition and the growth of a New Age in business. Which is to say that the film is a case study in the way the Westerners here are dealing with the rise and rise of Eastern influence in what they once considered their exclusive province.

China, says Red Obsession, is Bordeaux’s biggest client. The film tells us that per capita there are more billionaires in China than in the USA. Wine, argues the film, is a way of minting money. This interest drives the price up. A Western millionaire (sorry, billionaire) can afford luxe products but a top shelf red is tantalisingly out of reach. For Chinese wine collector Peter Tseng, who made his fortune making sex toys, wine makes him a serious player: he has a collection worth $US60m. It’s kind of ironic, because traditionally wine is not a first choice consumer product in China (and Ross and Roach say that the interest in wine – as something to drink that is – hasn’t exactly, um, trickled down to regular punters.) For over ten years now, Chinese investors have shown in an interest in investing in Bordeaux; according to one report, they control 40 wine making properties in the region.

To be honest, I know nothing of the wine trade, and I was interested to read that a number of well-informed wine-lovers have taken exception to Roach and Ross’s focus on Bordeaux (and the fact that most of specific details are out of date since the film was shot a couple of years and wine seasons ago.) But that’s missing the point. Indeed, in its own modest way, Red Obsession reflects a real anxiety in the West. One that has perhaps less to do with the threat to business than it is does in something rather ephemeral, but no less real; a sense of identity once thought of as deathless, but now vulnerable.

Where this theme of cultural ownership really takes hold is when the film explores the fact that Chinese vintner’s are spending multi-millions on making wine on the mainland, with imitation Chateaux and everything, as well as skills learnt in the best vineyards throughout Europe.

The French vintners respond soberly to the prospect that one day the biggest wine makers – and perhaps the most prestigious – will be Chinese. Frederic Engerer, head of the prestigious Latour, makes a pass at being magnanimous. But, revealingly, his words collapse around him: "It’s not as easy as one thinks to make wine," he says. He hopes the Chinese bring "passion and love" to the game. One suspects they will. But it will be their game and passion.

 

Red Obsession

Monday 13 January, 3:20AM on SBS (streaming after broadcast at SBS On Demand)

PG
Australia, 2013
Genre: Documentary
Language: English
Director: David Roach, Warwick Ross
What's it about?
For centuries, Bordeaux's wine has been synonymous with wealth, power and influence, but its prosperity has always been linked to the capricious nature of markets and the shifting fortunes of global economies. Now change is coming to Bordeaux, as China's voracious appetite for this rare wine pushes prices to stratospheric levels.