What might have been a grueling, 25-hour flight from Sydney to London two years ago instead brought filmmaker and viticulturist Warwick Ross to a project that blended his passions for storytelling and wine as perfectly as the grapes for a nice Chardonnay-Viognier.
On board the Quantas flight he encountered renowned English-born wine authority Andrew Caillard, who tipped him to a looming paradigm shift in the French wine industry. Newly wealthy Chinese were making a run on the world’s best bottles of Bordeaux, Caillard told him, with an intensity that posed an existential threat to the legendary -- and limited -- output of the great chateaux of the Gironde River Valley.
With at least 600 Chinese billionnaires combing the planet for branded trappings of The Good Life, the Bordeaux sales boom of 2010 looked to be a double-edged sword: A welcome lift for a luxury item hit by the global recession, but one that endangered the availability and affordability of France’s most revered tipple.
In “Red Obsession,” a documentary debuting at the Tribeca Film Festival this week and due on the U.S. West Coast in September, Ross and fellow Australian writer-director David Roach take viewers on a globe-circling joyride through the hearts, minds and cellars of wine’s European curators and its newest enthusiasts from the Middle Kingdom.
Ross and Roach discussed with The Times a film, narrated by actor and wine-lover Russell Crowe, that attempts to explain what happens when nouveau riche consumers rush to hoard a finite luxury product.
Q: As Chinese interest in fine wine evolves from curiosity to obsession, what does that portend for the rest of the world’s wine lovers? Is there a genuine risk of running out of quality wine at some point?
Roach: The current prediction is that the entire output in the world may not be enough to satisfy the Chinese market in another 20 years. But China is realizing the opportunity in the demand for wine. They are planting faster than any other country in the world.
Ross: One expert we spoke with estimates that in 10 to 15 years, if you want to drink one of the world’s great wines you would have to travel to China to do it. Wealthy Chinese are wanting to add wine to their stable of brand products. Along with their Rolexes and BMWs they want a case of Chateau Lafite.
Q: Has wine collecting become a status symbol for wealthy Chinese? Or is there a genuine class of aficionados arising in China?
Ross: The two are not inconsistent. Fine wine is a brand that is desirable, but there is appreciation of it there too. The Chinese’ ability to describe wine, to perceive the nuances of wine are there. Chinese are very proud of what they have achieved in life and like to wear their success as a badge of honor. Forty years ago nobody in the country had a single dollar, so their wealth isn’t inherited, it’s earned, and they like to show they can have the best of everything.
Q: Will middle-class Chinese acquire a taste for wine as Europeans and Americans have? Or will it remain something for the elite?
Ross: They will certainly develop a taste for it, many have already. Most Chinese now prefer beer, but as they become interested in something, they pick it up quickly. Already at wine competitions in Shanghai and Beijing, it has shifted from all Western judges five years ago to more than half now being Chinese. They’ve become incredibly expert.
Roach: We heard stories when researching the film about Chinese drinking wines from the West and putting Coca-Cola in them. It was true in some sense, as they believed 20 years ago that the French were dumping poor quality vintages into the Asian markets and they tasted terrible. They were also used to much sweeter drinks then. That’s not the case now. Wine appreciation is still mostly among the elite of China but their knowledge base is expanding rapidly.
Q: The French chateau owners speak lovingly and passionately about the “magic” and “miracle” of winemaking. Is that esoteric quality something that can be provided by producers who regard wine as a product rather than an art?
Roach: There has always been that tension between those who buy fine wine purely because they love it and want to experience this rare, ethereal taste, and those who see it as an investment. Wines in Bordeaux are rising in value faster than gold or stocks, and that’s where the investment market comes in. Our film explores that tension between the wine drinker and the wine investor who is buying half a million dollars worth of the best wines, putting it in storage and never seeing it or tasting it. It’s an interesting philosophical question: What happens when the wine becomes too valuable to drink?
Ross: The difference between Chinese buyers and Western investors is that the Chinese buy these wines to drink. They may spend $3,000 or $4,000 but that bottle will be put on the table, the cork will be pulled and it will be enjoyed by guests at a dinner party.
Q: The focus of your film is the 2010 vintage, rated to be of once-a-century quality, which coincided with a soaring rise in the number of Chinese millionaires and billionaires. Can Chinese affluence alone sustain demand for top-line Bordeaux even in years when the grape harvest is less stellar?
Roach: Our sense when we started out on the film was that what was developing at that time was a perfect storm. The previous vintage, in 2009, was also considered a vintage of the century, and having two in a row was unheard of. It created incredible excitement, as amid the Eurozone debt crisis and the recession in the United States, there was this Chinese rampage. The question has become how the Bordelais were going to respond to this, whether they would push prices above the record levels of the year before, and when they did just that, whether that risk was really worth it.
Ross: The Chinese were told 2009 was a perfect vintage, and when these wines were getting 100-point ratings, they didn’t question the rise in price. But when the 2010 came out and they were told it was another perfect vintage, they were asked to pay 30% more, and some questioned why, if it was just as perfect as the previous year. The pricing backfired on the Bordelais. It was quite Shakespearean -- the greed and hubris and ultimately the humility of what happened in that 12 months.
Q: What are the implications for the wine industries of California, South America, Australia -- for wines below the Bordeaux echelon that are more accessible to the average wine drinker? Is the China syndrome only threatening availability at the very high-end?
Ross: No, the implications are worldwide. In France, the focus is already shifting from Bordeaux to Burgundy. That scares a lot of people in France because the quantities of burgundy are so small. There are also runs on Spanish wines, on the Borolos of Italy, and it’s already happening in Australia, which is the second-largest wine exporter to China after France. The Chinese have been coming down through Australia to buy some of the vintage here and to invest in Australian farm properties.
Q: Some Chinese entrepreneurs are now trying to replicate the great Bordeaux in their own vineyards. Are the soil and climate conditions conducive to China eventually becoming self-sufficient in wine production?
Ross: Demei Li, one of China’s best-known wine consultants, took us to a few places where he has vintages. They were of a quality that sent shock waves through the Bordeaux wine community. When one of his vintages won a Decanter Award, nobody could really believe the Chinese could knock off award-winning wines. Their arable land is limited, but China does have regions where wines can be produced that could rival the best wines in the world.