Ten minutes into the newest film about the high-end Bordeaux wine scene—Red Obsession: Power, Passion and the Fine Wine Game—I was starting to lose heart (and almost lost my lunch). “Dammit,” I thought, “this is another example of the wine biz giving symbolic fellatio to France’s most overhyped wine region.”
While Lion Rock Films’ Red Obsession is beautifully stylized and pulled out the big guns in getting Russell "Just-give-me-the-Oscar-now-dammit" Crowe to narrate it, I don’t want wine fellatio, actual or symbolic, especially if it’s narrated by Russell Crowe.
But after the obligatory preamble about why Bordeaux is great (and its wines can certainly be great), the tone shifts—big-time—as Red Obsession chronicles the Chinese wine market coming to the global fore and doing its own fellatio impression on the Bordelais wine scene. Bordeaux returned the favor, going down on the big dollars that the Chinese heaped on the 2009 and 2010 vintages, sending prices up faster than Crowe’s blood pressure in Gladiator. Finally, after getting their conspicuous luxury goods–buying satisfaction, the Chinese turned their backs on the 2011 Bordeaux vintage, sending prices plummeting back to earth in what amounts to the wine version of kicking someone out of bed without even giving them spare change to cover the cab fare back home.
I caught up with the minds behind Red Obsession, directors Warwick Ross and David Roach (who were also behind Aussie cult classic Young Einstein), to talk about Bordeaux’s recent market face-plant.
Playboy.com: The visuals in Red Obsession are stunning. At first, it seems like a Bordeaux commercial, but then you switch gears and the tables turn on Bordeaux. What drove you to do this film? Did you know about the 2011 prices reverting before you started, or did that unfold while you were filming?
Ross: An acquaintance (subsequently good friend), Master of Wine Andrew Caillard, and I found ourselves on the same flight from Sydney to London in late 2010. Andrew knew I was a filmmaker and a vigneron, and I knew of his reputation in the Australian wine industry. The conversation took a turn when Andrew commented that since I had a love for wine and film, I should combine the two and make a film about his great love, Bordeaux. My reaction was lukewarm—most docos about wine I found overly technical, dry and designed strictly for wine nuts (with the exception of Mondovino). Andrew talked about en primeur, the event where the embryonic wines are paraded before the world’s most influential wine writers, critics and personalities—this is sell-mode, where the Chateaux are wooing critics for better scores to set higher prices—that sounded interesting. Moreover, the prices in the last few years had been skyrocketing, to the point where traditional markets like the U.S. and U.K. had dropped away, unable to pay these extraordinary prices. If the U.S. couldn’t afford them, I asked, who could? The answer was China.
I was hooked. To top it off, Andrew informed me, the rumors out of Bordeaux pointed to the 2010 being the “vintage of the century.” But hadn’t the 2009 also been touted as “vintage of the century”? Yes, replied Andrew; all part of the hype. I began seeing the narrative shaping up as the perfect storm: the world’s rarest and most desirable wines, strictly limited in production; the vintage of the century; and the cashed-up, voracious new client who wanted it all. One top Chateau owner subsequently confided that a Chinese client had called, wanting to buy the entire 2010 output for a figure that would have been around $150,000,000! We had no idea about the prices when we started. The dramatic arc we present in the film simply unfolded before our eyes: the highest price point ever reached and the subsequent dramatic crash. Was there an element of greed and hubris, or was it just making hay while the sun shone?
Roach: At that early stage we didn't know what the outcome of the 2011 en primeur would be, nor, for that matter, what a roller-coaster ride that year would become. The unfolding story was complex and fascinating, and we knew that if we were to tell this story we would need to spend time getting to know the major players, canvassing all points of view and exploring the context. We knew what kind of film we didn't want to make: a romantic, fluffy piece about "beautiful Bordeaux," like so many had done before. But neither did we want to do some sort of grainy, handheld television exposé. Warwick and I agreed that if we were going to make this film it would be a considered piece, shot for the big screen, for a broad audience, with high production values.
Playboy.com: Are you guys Bordeaux lovers, yourselves?
Ross: Yes, massive. And more so after spending more than a year immersing ourselves in the wine culture of Bordeaux. To have walked the vineyards of Saint-Émilion with Christian Moueix and to have seen the vestiges of Roman vine rows carved into the limestone on his property adds so much to the experience of drinking wines from that ancient terroir. Reading Thomas Jefferson’s letters, describing how much he and his friend, General Washington, loved the wines of Chateau d’Yquem, makes the experience of tasting that wine yourself extraordinary (albeit a different vintage!).
Playboy.com: Do you think the top Bordelais Chateaux got too greedy in their pricing of the 2009 and 2010 releases?
Ross: Greed certainly played a role in what happened over that extraordinary year. And, as I mentioned above, hubris played a role too. But had the crash not happened, would it have been just good business? There was an element of fate at play, almost Shakespearean (without the blindings and murders!). Christian Moueix also talked about many of the Bordelais having an attitude that “the sky’s the limit, nothing can go wrong.” Arrogance, greed and ultimately humility all played their parts.
Roach: This is not the first time this question has been asked through the decades. Boom and bust is the natural cycle of things, and the fine wine trade is no different. The distinguishing factor of this particular cycle is its strength and rapid growth and of course the price rises, all of which were a direct consequence of what was happening in China. One of the recurring themes in Red Obsession is the shift in economic power from the West to the East. This can tell us a lot about the fine wine game, but it also has much broader implications. The fall, when it came, was much harder than anyone expected.
Playboy.com: What's Russell Crowe's fave Bordeaux?Ross: He loves his Bordeaux; not sure if he plays favorites. If it’s a great producer in a great vintage, you can’t go wrong.
Roach: We were all working too hard to find out that piece of information. Russell was doing three other films at the time!
Playboy.com: Do you think Bordeaux will remain relevant as a standard-bearer of fine wine globally at the highest classification levels? Or have they jumped the shark in effectively pricing almost the entire Millennial generation out of their market (for now, anyway)?
Ross: Bordeaux will remain the reference for some time to come. They roll with the punches and adapt, as they have always done. Historically, Bordeaux has always been linked to the fortunes of global economies: as great nations rise and fall, so does the fate of Bordeaux (as we say in our intro). But it’s still there. The terroir will be there, the talent will be there and the extraordinary wines will still be there. I do think Bordeaux needs to be more mindful of its old customers. Chasing the glittering new opportunity needs to be balanced with maintaining the old relationships. And, of course, Bordeaux will always have the history, the narrative and the mystique, and for the aspirational emerging middle class in China, it will continue to symbolize prestige for many years to come.
Roach: I agree, Bordeaux will maintain its position as the reference point for fine wine. Its production levels are higher than Burgundy and most other major wine regions, which gives it critical mass. But in the future, it will be sharing the fine wine stage. As the Chinese become more knowledgeable about wines, the "New World" wines will start getting important traction in China, too. This is normal market evolution. We found that many actors in Red Obsession had become somewhat detached from reality because of the hype. That's why we made the film. We wanted to look beyond the hype.
About the Author: Want to learn more about maximizing your wine pleasure? Visit Joe Roberts’ award-winning website 1WineDude.com, where you can find him regularly roasting wine's sacred cow (and pairing it with robust, obscure red). Roberts is a certified wine geek and has been called "an original" by media maven Gary Vaynerchuk, "provocative" by the Seattle Times and "a Robin Hood in the exclusive world of vineyards and corkings" by The Urban Grocer. His wine knowledge has been tapped by the L.A. Times, New York Times, CNBC.com, Mutineer Magazine, PalatePress.com and Washington Post.