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Tribeca Diary: 'Red Obsession'

Workers in a Chinese vineyard pause for a break in the new documentary <em>Red Obsession</em>.
Workers in a Chinese vineyard pause for a break in the new documentary <em>Red Obsession</em>.

Writer Joel Arnold is surveying the scene at the Tribeca Film Festival, which runs in New York City through April 28. He'll be filing occasional dispatches for Monkey See.

Beginning in Bordeaux and traveling as far as western China as it tracks the reach of today's global wine market, Red Obsession uses the banner Bordeaux seasons of 2009 and 2010 as a springboard for an analytical profile of the modern wine industry.

Sense-indulging shots of grapes on the vine and of Bordeaux's stately chateaux are par for the course, but they're less a focus than intriguing interviews with vineyard owners, wine critics and investors trading in wine as a commodity. Narrated by Russell Crowe — who knows why, though he did play an all-work and no-wine investment trader who inherits a vineyard in the forgettable A Good Year -- the film doesn't assume an oenophile's disposition; it accessibly surveys the centuries-old history of France's premier wine-producing region and the vagaries of the temperamental process before turning to the effects of dramatically rising wine prices and China's growing thirst for the grape.

Because of falling demand in recent years for Bordeaux wines in America — once its largest buyer — wine sellers have made significant inroads in China, where economic growth has empowered the business and middle classes to explore a taste for Western luxury goods. To enthusiastic entrepreneurs turned wine collectors like George Tong and Peter Tseng, Bordeaux wines are synonymous with wealth and status. In one scene at the intensely competitive Christie's auction of Bordeaux wines, multiple bidders send the price of one notable crate to $1.5 million. For wine, money is no object for the Chinese elite.

Yet Red Obsessionargues that this kind of frenzy can't last forever — or at least that it can't keep benefiting the Bordelais alone. French winemakers have made a gamble on China, but raising prices to take advantage of burgeoning interest there could alienate legacy markets. Meanwhile, fervent demand in China has come to greatly exceed a supply that's inherently limited by geography and climate — and a competing fakes market, complete with knockoffs of Chateau Lafite and others, already plagues French sellers.

Red Obsession outlines a near future in which China could be a center not only of wine consumption but also of wine production. In Bordeaux, wine's story has been one of tradition cultivated over hundreds of years. In China, where there's been heavy investment in vineyards and grape-growing technology designed to help local producers compete with France, a story of innovation could just be beginning.

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