Wine functions as a microcosm of shifting global economic tides in Red Obsession, a concise portrait of not only the historic Bordeaux region of France, but also of the way its business has been impacted—for good and ill—by China’s emergence as a superpower. David Roach and Warwick Ross open their documentary with pans and zooms through a barrel-filled château cellar; the seductiveness of the camera moves carries over to their examination of the long-standing traditions that govern Bordeaux’s world-renowned wine industry. Steeped in centuries of custom and dependent on the ever-fickle relationship between soil, weather, and human craftsmanship, the work is likened by Francis Ford Coppola to a “miracle,” and one that tells a story about the time, place, and circumstances that gave each vintage its birth.
Yet Red Obsession’s story, it soon turns out, isn’t simply about the illustrious alcohol created in the Bordeaux region. Rather, it’s also about how the region’s five eminent châteaus, now pricing their products so high that they’ve become lucrative investments for the wealthy, have been forced to turn to the Chinese market to sustain their businesses. As Roach and Ross lay out with a clarity devoid of intrusive authorial judgment, that change of direction has been very profitable for the wine makers, since China—rich with cash and preoccupied with brand names as a means of affirming power and social prominence—has been an enormous importer of the finest that Bordeaux has to offer.
If China’s rise to wine-consuming powerhouse is a boon for the Bordeaux region, Red Obsession also shrewdly presents it as something of a double-edged sword. Unlike those centuries-old bonds shared between the renowned vineyards and their long-established customers, the new Bordeaux-China relationship is built on pure capitalism and thus susceptible to becoming just a fad. Furthermore, given the growth of China’s middle class, it’s now complicated by demand outpacing supply. Grotesque portraits of a few insanely rich Chinese collectors—including one who made his fortune via sex toys—underline the fact that some of the East views wine less as a delicacy than as merely another status symbol.
By detailing the stark contrast between Bordeaux’s peerless 2010 output and its staggeringly disappointing 2011 harvest, Roach and Ross effectively depict the wine industry as being predicated on the uncertainty of both nature and international financial conditions. More impressive still, the directors illustrate through conventional aesthetics how, when in the proper hands, the most time-honored methods can also be the most effective.