The documentary Red Obsession concerns one of the most talked-about topics in the wine business: the rise of China in the international market and its penchant for top-flight Bordeaux. Wines that cost thousands of dollars per bottle are bought at headline-producing rates.
The title of the documentary, with its play on red wine and Communist (“Red”) China, struck me as hinting at some kind of sensational take on the story. And while a quote from Napoleon about sleeping dragons awakening is trotted out, there is perspective from all parties involved in this story to attempt to elevate and illustrate the topic beyond an East vs. West dichotomy. But you can’t help but see China’s rise in the Bordeaux market elicit from some European merchants and winery representatives feelings ranging from befuddlement to disdain. (For a response to my concerns, read my interview with Warwick Ross, Red Obsession’s Producer/Co-Director/Co-Writer.)
The film starts with about a 20 minute overview of the majesty of Bordeaux, which will be a useful introduction for Bordeaux neophytes. It illustrates the prestige, history, and money that surrounds the top wines of Bordeaux. A little lengthy for me, as I was anxious to get to China. And it screened with a touch of a “Discover Bordeaux” tourist teaser rather than a documentary. But it does set the stage, and don’t you want to feel invested (emotionally), if not enticed, by the subject at hand?
The highlight of this first part of the film is unquestionably Christian Moueix of Chateau Petrus. He is a quote machine. It’s refreshing to hear the pleasure he takes in enjoying wine: “I’m not a great taster, I’m a great drinker.” He backs up this assertion by stating he just had lunch with 7 people and they drank 3 magnums of wine. (Note to Christian: I am free for lunch.)
Before we get to China, there is a brief stop in Hong Kong, where the WineFuture 2011 event was held. The star of the show is Robert Parker Jr.: king of all wine critics, founder of the Wine Advocate, and whose ratings of Bordeaux vintages and bottles often set market prices. This scene is astonishing as you get a glimpse of Parker’s celebrity in Asia. When the doors open to the event, people are sprinting in to get to a table. Hundreds of people inundate Parker. They take his picture and clamor for his autograph. Comparisons to a rock star would not be far-fetched.
Even more astonishing is the rise of prices for the top Bordeauxs (known as the “First Growths”): Chateau Lafite Rothschild, Chateau Latour, Chateau Margaux, Chateau Haut-Brion, and Chateau Mouton Rothschild. There has been a 1000% rise in the price of these wines in the last 10 years. The 2009 vintage was heralded as one of the best ever, and prices soared. The 2010 vintage, equal or greater in estimation than 2009, ushered in a 40% price increase over the already astronomical 2009s.
And the Chinese were extremely eager buyers of these vintages. Why? Red Obsession posits the rise of capitalist enterprise build private wealth at astonishing rates. Mantras like “A nail that sticks out has to be pounded down” are passé. Wine is a way to express wealth, power, and modernity. Showcase and share a bottle to prove you have all three. (Like art as a commodity.) In an interesting twist, “exoticism” is coming from the West in the form of wine.
Sex Toys and Shoot-Outs
Emblematic of these new, wealthy Chinese is Peter Tseng. His wine cellar is worth around 60 million dollars. His most expensive bottle is a 6-liter 1982 Lafite, which he bought for $50,000. How did he make his money? “I make sex toys,” Tseng explains. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen dildos coming off a factory line, with narrator Russell Crowe intoning, “Peter made his fortune as a manufacturer in the pleasure industry.” Tseng proudly states, “Wherever there is a human being, there is our product.”
One product that you’ll find in Tseng’s bedroom is a bottle of Chateau Lafite. This wine has a special place in China, above and beyond any of the other first growths. It’s not hard to to see why when, for the 2008 vintage, Lafite put the Chinese character for the number “8” above the label. In a society where numerology carries great significance, 8 is the luckiest of all numbers. Included to bolster the pop culture cred of Lafite is a great clip from the Hong Kong gangster movie, “Exiled.” The scene is in a restaurant. An old man says, “How about a glass of Mateus?” To which a young gangster replies, “Anything less than Lafite 82…is garbage.” (Then tables are overturned and a shoot-out ensues.)
There’s plenty of talk about French wine in China but what about Chinese wine? This is where things get really interesting. China is planting 20,000 new acres per year. And in such far-flung locations as the Gobi Desert and Turpan Desert. As far as current production, a Chinese wine even won big at the Decanter World Wine Awards.
The Final Drop
Red Obsession ends on a bit of a sour note for Bordeaux, as interest in the 2011 vintage in China has cooled considerably from the dizzying heights of 2009 and 2010. The film hits many sweet notes revealing new wealth in China and how it is displayed culturally. It’s also a a fine primer on the most famous wines of Bordeaux, with a beautifully filmed segment illustrating the history and prestige of the region. (Though it’s a bid redundant for me.) It’s fascinating, knowing the back story, to see how Bordeaux reacts to seismic shifts in how its wine is appreciated and by whom.
I’ll be interested to see how wine culture develops in China not just for the millionaire elite, but for a more modest class. Will they be drinking Chinese wines or imports? And will Chinese wines become more of a presence in the United States and have a place alongside more established regions? One issue Red Obsession did not cover: are any Chinese women drinking Bordeaux? Is collecting wine solely a guy thing? What is the relationship between wine, power, and gender?
Red Obsession has a lot to offer, even for those not obsessed with wine. Watch this documentary to observe the intersection of culture, class, and commerce. Here’s a clip to get you thirsty for some 82 Lafite:
Images courtesy Wolf Consultants. I was also able to view this film for free courtesy of Wolf Consultants.