By Danny Peary
Red Obsession fits my category of “Movies That Should Play in Sag Harbor.” It opens at the Cinema Village in New York City this Friday. The directorial debut of veteran Australian producer/writers Warwick Ross and David Roach is a fascinating documentary about the spell wine has on connoisseurs around the world and how billionaires in China have replaced the U.S. and Great Britain as the market for obscenely-priced Bordeaux wines. Roach says he enjoys wine but is no expert, but Ross, his partner in the Australian production company, Lion Rock, is the hands-on owner of the award-winning vineyard, Portsea Estate Wines, on The Mornington Peninsula on the south coast of Victoria. In addition to making films apart, Ross, who came to Australia from Hong Kong as a teenager and graduated from Melbourne University, and Roach, a graduate of Australia’s National Art School, made three previous films together–1988 global hit Young Einstein, Reckless Kelly, and Mr. Accident. Those were narratives that the duo had written and produced in collaboration with breakout Aussie comic talent, Yahoo Serious. This documentary brought them back together, behind the camera. It was well-received at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which is when I sat down with Roach and Ross and did the following interview.
Danny Peary: Warwick, is it true that this film came about because you were fortunate enough to sit next to an Australian Wine Master on a flight?
Warwick Ross (left): That’s right. On a flight between Sydney and London, I bumped into a Andrew Caillard, who was an acquaintance.
DP: I read there are only about three hundred Masters of Wine in the world.
David Roach (right): We find it remarkable that there are more astronauts in the world than Masters of Wine.
DP: So, Warwick, were you immediately jotting down notes and thinking about making a film?
WR: No, but I was taking mental notes. It was a 25-hour flight and the more Andrew and I talked, it became clear to me that there was something really interesting happening in Bordeaux. He explained that it was undergoing massive change, unlike anything in its history. Prices had never been higher despite the United States and the UK having dropped out as clients because of the global financial situation. They had been the biggest traditional clients. I asked Andrew how could the prices could be so high if Americans were not buying these wines. And he said China. And at that point I was hooked. Film has been my career, and wine has been a passion for about fifteen years, so I had thought about making a film about wine, but most of the wine documentaries I’d seen were sterile and dry and I’d never figured out what angle I could take to make one more interesting. As soon as Andrew said China, I began to see that this could be more than just a film about wine–it could also be about the global power shift from the West to the East.
DP: Then you brought David in.
DR: We made three feature films together. Then Warwick went off to develop his beautiful winery, make his beautiful pinots, and I was still making features. But we remained friends. And so when Warwick came back from that trip he said, “I have this idea about wine.
DP: Did you say What?
DR: That’s sort of my role! I knew I didn’t want to make a hagiography about the beautiful châteaux of Bordeaux. Look, it’s seductive, it’s beautiful, but I didn’t particularly want to make a film about that. I wanted to make a film wine buffs would get a lot out of but would be for people like me, a person who loves wine but doesn’t know too much about it. So I was a bit hesitant. But once Warwick told me the story, I began to understand it as Andrew described it.
DP: Warwick, did you have any reservations yourself and need David to convince you to do it?
WR: We kind of convinced each other. We sat around having a coffee and concluded that there were enough levels and themes in this film for it to be pretty intriguing. And, even more as we were shooting the film and editing the film, we kept one thing in mind–the love affair between the refined and traditional West and the exotic and voracious but unpredictable East. That kept the tension in the film.
DR: Also, there was a perfect storm developing in the wine world.
WR: The perfect storm was 2009 Bordeaux being considered the vintage of the century, getting 100 out of 100 points. It’s slightly confusing in that the vintage comes out the year after, so it was 2010 when they released the 2009 vintage. In 2011, when we decided to make our film, they released the 2010 vintage.
DR: We talked about the rumors that the 2010 vintage was going to be another vintage of the century. That was almost unheard of. What happens when you have something that is considered perfect followed by another vintage that is considered perfect? Where do the prices go? Well, prices went through the roof. The question was: Who’s buying these wines? Warwick told me China. At that point our discussions turned to the deeper themes, such as the shift in economic power from the West to the East. We wanted our movie to ask questions. What happens when wine becomes too bloody expensive to drink? Who are these people who are spending all this money on this wine? What do we know about China?
DP: Did you go to Bordeaux soon after deciding to do the film?
DR: In February 2011, Warwick and I were having coffee with Andrew and we said, “Look, Andrew, this is a fantastic story and we’re excited to do it. It’ll probably take us six months to raise the funds and get the crew together and then we can get to work.” And Andrew said, “Oh no, you’ve got to be in Bordeaux in three weeks!” That was when the new vintage would be released.
WR: We had to be there by March because Un Premier comes around once a year. It is the big au couture season in Bordeaux, when the chateaux parade their wines and the most important wine writers and critics from all over the world come–including Robert Parker from the United States, who flies in and tastes all these wines. So we pulled the crew in from the UK and got to Bordeaux in time.
DP: So you’re walking around Bordeaux with a camera crew. Is anyone else doing the same thing?
WR: We were the only ones making a film at that stage. And actually, we had quite a bit of trouble in the beginning trying to shoot the people who really mattered, because, we were told, they had been burned so many times by other documentary filmmakers. But Andrew Caillard was trusted enough so that he got us the keys to Château Margaux, Château Lafite, Château Latour, all the top châteaux.
DR: The other thing that changed people’s attitudes a little bit, strangely enough, was that we had decided very early that we wanted to make this film for the big screen because we saw it as a big story. It was China, it was France; there were big landscapes, big ideas, and big dreams. So we decided to shoot on the Aerial X, a brand new digital camera. We had cranes and trucks and lots of equipment. We didn’t just have a handicam. When people saw that crew, they realized we were taking the story incredibly seriously, and taking our time to do a film of high quality.
DP: So you looked professional but friendly.
DR: We looked, and we were.
DP: And what did you see there?
WR: The châteaux were all in sell mode. They were desperately trying to pitch their new wines as the greatest wines they’ve made ever made. So there was a bit of skepticism about this second so-called vintage of the century. Was it real, or was it just hype?
DR: For a week or two there was a lot of hype and excitement in the selling at the châteaux.
DP: Warwick, I’m sure you tasted the wine. Could you tell the difference between the 2009 and the 2010?
WR: With my palate, after many years in the wine industry, I still found it really difficult to tell the difference between a Lafite ’09 and Lafite ’10. But the experts, the Masters of Wine, can tell the difference. There are slight alterations in temperature and climate from one year to the other, so there is a difference the ripening season. The experts can pick up on the nuances. For me, it’s still really tricky.
DP: Did you go to Bordeaux thinking you were going to talk to everybody about China, or did you wait on that issue?
WR: The China issue grew over that period of time. Andrew had mentioned it on the plane, which is what got me hooked, but the China themes really developed through that year. The more we spoke to people, the more information we unearthed about China and how it had now replaced, essentially, the two biggest markets French winemakers ever had, the US and the UK. We wondered if the French were putting all their eggs in just one basket? Was it a dangerous move to focus their attention on one market, as big as it is and as rich as it is and as voracious as it is? And can that market turn on them? Within twelve months it had turned on them. The history of Bordeaux has lots of rises and falls, but none as dramatic as what happened between April ’11 and May and June of 2012. That was the most extraordinary rise and fall in the last fifty years in Bordeaux.
DP: What would have happened if there would have been another perfect crop in 2011?
WR: I think the market would still have gone up. I don’t think it was as crop-dependent as a lot of people think. The Chinese had discovered Château Lafite Rothschild, which had taken the market to these extraordinary highs. But there were so many fakes out there that the Chinese discovered during the year we were filming. Anecdotally, toward the end of that year, there was only one in ten bottles that was a real bottle of Lafite. The rest were fakes. And so people stopped trusting the brand. And in China, it’s very important to maintain face. If you’re buying a bottle of the world’s most expensive wine to present you don’t want there to be any question that it is not the real wine. So they stopped buying Lafite; they looked around and said, okay, we’re not buying Lafite, what else are we going to buy? Lafite crashed by 60%,
DR: I think the Bordelaise sort of put themselves in a corner by raising the prices so high on the 2009.
DP: A price bubble is talked about in your movie. Did you feel then that it was going to burst?
DR: There were rumors when we first arrived in Bordeaux of the bubble. The rumors were that this new vintage, which was just about to be raised when we stepped foot in Bordeaux was going to be a second perfect vintage. We wanted to find out what was going to happen. What are they going to do? Are they going to put the prices up? How are the Chinese going to react?
WR: Reflecting on the film. it almost plays out like a Shakespearean play to me. There are elements of arrogance, greed, and hubris, but ultimately, for the Bordelaise, humility, at the end. Because they realized they pushed the prices too high.
DP: But we can’t really sympathize with them.
WR: No, they created the bubble. They collapse, they rise up like the phoenix, they raise their prices again and collapse again. They just don’t learn anything. But that year was an extraordinary period in Bordeaux.
DP: You said that the wine industry in France has always been dependant on the global economy, but in the film it came across to me that wine is independent of the economy because it’s prices go up much higher than the growth rate. Even before China came in, the prices went up despite there being a global economic downturn.
DR: I think we’re talking about Bordeaux, which is slightly different from French wine. Bordeaux is a particular, tiny, tiny region that is separate from the rest of the French wine industry.
WR: Bordeaux has seen rises and falls in its fortunes, always tied to the global economy. So when the Russians were strong, Bordeaux rose. When Russia fell, Bordeaux fell again. So now with the Chinese coming into and dominating the market, a lot of people in Bordeaux who are quite fearful.
DR: The markets for its elite wines have always been pockets of wealth around the world. It just so happens that now its market is China.
DP: What you’re saying is that Bordeaux needed at least one market and if not America, they needed an alternative, and China jumped in.
DR: Bordeaux sells pricy wines, so it needs rich people to buy them. Since Deng Xiaoping changed things in 1979, the Chinese people have been allowed to accumulate wealth. Now they shoot for the stars. One of our characters says the Chinese have no fear. They shoot for the stars because they’ve had nothing, and the worst that can happen is they go back to nothing. That’s allowed them to look around and say, “I want that Louis Vuitton bag, that Rolex watch, that Chanel perfume, that single-malt scotch, that Mercedes-Benz, and that bottle of Château Lafite Rothschild.”
DP: In the film someone remarks that drinking wine for the Chinese is like swallowing Western Society.
DR: What’s interesting is that they look to the West to express their power, wealth and independency, and also how they are part of the wider world after being isolated for so many years. And they look for the best and it’s generally the most expensive. In wine, it’s Château Margeaux and Château Lafite.
DP: Wine has become a status symbol there. Does that annoy you?
WR: I think it’s a natural progression in China. I think it has to be a status symbol first but over time they will choose quality over brand.
DR: Collectors for decades, have spent extraordinarily amounts of money on expensive wines from Bordeaux and bring them back home to the States or the UK, and display them like antiques and trophies. But the Chinese will buy these hundred-year-old wines and serve them to their colleagues and friends. It’s about status, but it’s also about sharing.
DP: A key line in your film relates to how once wine becomes a commodity it loses its soul. Do you want to regain the soul of wine?
WR: Yes. I think wine deserves to be drunk. That was the purpose when it was made. The way I like to think of wine is very much what [French winemaker] Christian Moueix says at the end of the film, that wine is a message which we send out to the world, and for me it’s more than that. It’s almost like a message in a bottle. It locks in a time, a place, weather, a history of the people who’ve made the wine. That’s the message that a glass of wine contains. And it evolves. Generally a top wine will have the same life span as a human being, which I think is really delightful. And you can open that wine at any stage along those fifty, sixty, or seventy years and it will tell you something different. It gives you a variation on the message that originally was stored in that bottle. Wine is not a commodity. It’s the billionaire collectors from the West who are disregarding the beauty and elegance of the vineyard and the honor due to the wine, by buying expensive wine, storing it away for two or three years, and selling it for a million dollars’ profit. Whereas the Chinese don’t see it as a commodity but as something to drink.
DP: Do you believe the critic who talks about how your taste depends on your background? His background was music and he claims to actually hear the wine. If that’s true, we’ll never know what the Chinese feel when they drink wine.
WR: The Chinese don’t try to describe the sensations they’re getting aromatically or on the palate by Western standards. In the West we describe the sensation by comparing it to fruits. The Chinese don’t have a lot of those fruits, so when people say blueberry, they don’t know what the hell they’re talking about. What they’re beginning to do is express their of sensory experiences by comparing them to the foods and aromas they have in China.
DP: Like tea?
WR: Tea has a tannic structure, as does wine. So they find it easier to approach the wine through their culture of tea. They have their own systems of descriptors.
DR: Obviously one culture can’t completely understand another but we can share the experience or theory one gets from drinking wine. They experience it in their way and we in our way but it’s real and intense and a wonderful experience.
DP: You were making a film about the West, France, and China. But you’re Australian filmmakers, so were you thinking about if Australians were going to be interested?
WR: Well, there are deeper themes that grow from this. One of the issues in Australia right now is that the Chinese are forecasting a long way into the future, which is what they’re good at, and trying to figure out how they’re going to feed their population. Because China only has something like 6%, 7% arable land, they’re buying up large tracts of land in other countries around the world, including Australia.
DP: The Chinese have purchased grazing land in Australia. Is that for wine?
DR: No, it’s actually for grain, wheat, and cattle. Food growing. But half a million acres or thereabouts have gone already to the Chinese. So this is a turning into a massive debate. And what could be applied to wheat and corn and cattle could also be applied to the vineyards, to buying up agricultural land.
DR: You can apply the story on these themes to Australia. In Australia in particular we’re very lucky to have commodities being exported to China. We’ve had a commodity boom in Australia for over ten years now. So we’re riding that out, and meanwhile there’s a lot of debate in Australia about, again, whether we’re putting all our eggs into the China basket. Is that an issue? What about more traditional markets, what about our other friendly markets around the world? If we simply rely on China and its economy starts to dip, does that mean we’re vulnerable? So all the things that apply to wine apply to other things.
WR: What David’s also referring to is the fear of the unknown, which we explore in the film a little bit. One of our main characters says that we’ve always been afraid of the unknown; and this has always been the case in Bordeaux. China is the unknown. The Chinese now have more billionaires in the world than there are in the US. I think they bought twelve châteaux in Bordeaux in the first year when we were filming. Twenty-eight châteaux changed hands from the French to the Chinese. So this concept of being scared of these people that are coming in and buying châteaux is very much a theme of the film–and again it pertains to Australia, with the Chinese buying up the tracts of land. In some ways what we try to do is display that, and also dispel it, try to work against prejudice.
DP: It’s clear you didn’t want to come across as being anti-Chinese-people, but try to stay on the middle road. There is a line in the movie about the Chinese thinking about the next generation, and improving things for them.
WR: That concept in China is really strong. They’re very family-oriented. In fact, we were told a funny story by one of our interviewees. He told us that when Marlborough tried to market their cigarettes in China, the picture used was the cowboy with a hat, lasso, and a horse. And the Chinese saw him as a friendless loser and the campaign completely flopped. They’re so family-oriented.
DP: I see Red Obsession as a cautionary film, in some ways.
DR: What we tried to do was to present the world as we saw it when we were filming by talking to people about their fears, and then traveling to China to really get to know who the people are. Because one way to dispel our anxiety and paranoia about the other is to begin to understand this different culture. There are all kinds of rumors and stories about what the Chinese are up to–they’re going to buy all the land, close things down–but when you get to talk to them, you become much less fearful. You come to realize that they’re just like us, and have the same sort of motivations. They too want to look after their families and develop their industries, as we do.
WR: I think you can’t help but see this in part as a cautionary tale. I think China is making its presence felt everywhere in the world, from buying up tracts of arable land, seaports and industries in Nigeria and places like that. China is for the moment economically expanding, and they want to look after their future. They’ll keep spending money to keep people employed, to keep the birthrate high. The question is, can China sustain this rate of growth? They were running at 10% there for quite a long time, they’ve now dropped to 8% and the forecast is for 5%. One of the major concerns for the Chinese government is that if that rate of growth drops below something like 6%, that will take a toll on the rest of the country. That’s what they’re most scared of.
DP: Looking back on the making of your movie, what did you discover?
DR: For me, it was filming in inner Mongolia, right out in the Western deserts of China. You’ve got to remember that the we’d just come from Bordeaux, where they trim the vines with kid gloves, and tie them up with reed–not plastic or steel–so everything is just so. But there it’s a harsh environment, where Genghis Khan was killed, and in the winter they have meters of snow. So in order for the wines to survive the end of the growing season, they cut almost all of the growth off and dig a hole and bury vine under the ground.. The biggest surprise for me was during the course of that filming was that this vineyard won best international wine of the year in its class. In the world! That was a huge surprise to a lot of people in the wine industry.
WR: When it won that award, the French scoffed, and were trying to persuade a number of people in Bordeaux that it couldn’t have possibly been a Chinese wine, that the Chinese had bought a barrel of Bordeaux red and taken it to China and put that into their own bottles and brought back to the competition.
DP: You probably saw Sideways, in which Paul Giamatti’s character talks about Pinot noir with passion. Did you relate to that?
WR: You see a million people like that, right? I love the film, I thought it was brilliant. But I’m not quite sure that I agree with him when he says that if someone says Merlot one more time he’s leaving. There are some spectacular Merlots, and the right bank in Bordeaux is predominantly Merlot, There are some that the greatest wines in the world.
DP: What does being at the TriBeCa Film Festival mean to you guys?
DR: Who doesn’t want to come to New York, firstly, it’s a fantastic city. And being invited to be part of TriBeCa is just incredibly exciting. It’s the coolest film festival in the world.
WR: Did you see that Robert DeNiro was asked about his favorite films at the festival? His answer was United States of Amnesia and “a wonderful film called Red Obsession.” Yeah!