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RedObsession

In this modern world, anything and everything is a commodity merely waiting for its net value to rise. We’ve collected stamps and baseball cards for generations, put a premium price on nostalgic doodads and turned comfort foods into gourmet cuisine. We’ve even found a way to put a physical dollar value on video-game gold: that’s both terrifying and awe-inspiring, the surest monument to price-tag culture that ever existed. Wine, as a commodity, is nothing new: wine connoisseurs and expensive bottles of vino have existed for centuries. In all this time, the Bordeaux region of France has maintained a reputation as the go-to for discerning American and European collectors. When American interest in Bordeaux red began to wane in 2009, however, the French vineyards found themselves courting an entirely different clientele: the Chinese. The recent documentary Red Obsession details what happens when this new interest drives prices in Bordeaux wine to unprecedented levels, setting the stage for one helluva roller coaster ride. What goes up, however, must always come down…and no obsession lasts forever.

The film begins with a picturesque sweep through the grape fields of Bordeaux, a region of France where the inherent weather conditions create grapes like none other in the world. From here, we meet a small mob of vineyard owners, oenophiles and wine critics, while introduced to wines where “the key ingredient is love.” We also learn that “a good wine drills down into your psyche, into your perceptions,” so it should be pretty obvious that we’re into some pretty heavy-duty praise here. In fact, the first 15 minutes of the film come across as nothing more than a beautifully shot advertisement for Bordeaux wines. In time, however, the documentary settles into its main focus: the changing cultural popularity of Bordeaux reds.

When American purchases of Bordeaux red bottomed-out in 2009, wine makers looked towards the nouveau riche of China as a way to keep their industry afloat. Currently in the midst of a massive economic upswing, China was sitting on lots of new wealth and, in short order, became the biggest importers of Bordeaux wine. As the documentary points out, much of this had to do with the disparate views Chinese and French society had regarding Bordeaux wine: for the French, red wine was old hat and lost its novelty factor centuries before. The Chinese, on the other hand, were new to the grape wine game, having institutionalized spirit wines for generations. New is always exciting, of course, and the Chinese took to their new past-time with a rare zeal.

The problems begin, however, when Chinese demand for Bordeaux red pushes prices into ridiculously inflated territory. As the bubble gets bigger and bigger, saner heads begin to worry about the inevitable pop: all trends must end and the over-reliance on Chinese interest in Bordeaux red seems like a sure-fire recipe for disaster. It’s not spoiling much to say that the whole thing does, eventually, burst, although how much responsibility Chinese Bordeaux wine consumers hold in this is certainly up for debate. The documentary hints at a happier outcome, in a way, when it mentions the inherently cyclical nature of the wine industry: what goes up must come down and what is now down will eventually be back up…it’s just the nature of the grape.

I’m always interested in documentaries that purport to teach me about a subject I have no knowledge of, particularly if it’s something I’ve never really thought about. As someone who spent his drinking years as a beer and liquor guy, wine was never really on my radar (unless the beer and liquor was gone, of course). I’ve never had the money to collect it and only know a handful of people who drink it, so I’ve never really given wine much thought. Supply-and-demand economics, however, are always interesting to me, especially when they involve super powers like China. Even though I don’t have a horse in the race, as it were, it was quite interesting to note the effect that Chinese interest on Bordeaux wine had not only the fortunes of that particular region but the entire wine industry. The filmmakers help keep my attention thanks to some truly beautiful cinematography (to be honest, you’d have to be a complete dunce to make those gorgeous locales look like anything less than modern Gardens of Eden) and the film is well-paced, once one gets past the rather painful first fifteen minutes.

The biggest problem I had with the film is the decidedly anti-Chinese “hysteria” that seems to inform not only some of the “talking head” interviews but also some of the documentary’s subtext. There often seems to be an unspoken condemnation involved here, some collective thought that the Chinese are solely responsible for the Bordeaux wine growers current situation. To my mind, the Bordeaux growers seem to be a classic case of putting all of one’s eggs into the same basket, however, and the anti-Chinese sentiment seems more like a personal bias than any sort of well-reasoned argument. This isn’t helped by the fact that we’re introduced to characters like Peter Tseng, a ridiculously wealthy Chinese billionaire who comes across as a bit of a human Scrooge McDuck. There’s also quite an emphasis on the Chinese counterfeiting of Bordeaux wines, although I would be hard-pressed to recall if they mentioned any other bootlegging besides the Chinese: the absence of any other mentions strikes me as the slightest bit disingenuous but I honestly don’t know enough about the subject to make a call one way or the other. Suffice to say, I caught enough of an occasional anti-Chinese air to the proceedings to feel more than a little conflicted at times.

While Red Obsession is an interesting documentary, it’s far from a great or illuminating one. While the subject-matter and cinematography are always interesting, the film ends up being a little too limited in scope to be truly relevatory. For anyone who has an interest in either the wine industry or the symbiotic relationship between Western-Eastern economies, the film will provide a fairly brisk view. At the end of the day, I can’t help feeling that at least a little of the responsibility for the Bordeaux crash has to do with the fact that prices rose by 1000% in a ten-year time-span: a love of Bordeaux red might be in the blood but those growers might be hard-pressed to squeeze any more blood out of their collected turnips.

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