Australian filmmaker Warwick Ross (“Reckless Kelly,” “Young Einstein”) is part of a growing trend among directors and producers — he has a day job.
“I’m a winemaker and also run a wine business,” says Ross, recently in Tokyo to promote his new film “Red Obsession,” a documentary about the Chinese demand for fine Bordeaux wine and the changes this demand is bringing to the global wine market.
“Winemaking is a big part of my heritage,” says Ross, whose parents purchased a 16-hectare farm in Australia’s coastal Portsea/Sorrento area and, in the late 1950s, devoted themselves to cultivating grapes for winemaking. Ross took over the family business 14 years ago and now divides his time between wines (Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are two of his favorites) and making films.
“Red Obsession” merged Ross’s two loves in one of the most talked about documentaries of 2013.
Get ready to have your jaw hit the floor as the film shows how the Chinese have taken over the wine market: They’ve driven prices up to unimaginable levels at wine auctions and seem to be clinking glasses — filled to the brim with fine wine — at every opportunity.
U.S. and U.K. investors were once the leading buyers of Bordeaux wines, but they have faded into obscurity. I suppose they’re drinking beer.
Given his love of wines, how did Ross feel about the tidal wave of Chinese investors turning the tables on the global wine market?
“As a businessman, I’m exhilarated to be part of a market that’s so volatile,” says Ross. At the same time, he says he also felt a kind of fear while making “Red Obsession” with co-director and co-writer David Roach.
“Frankly, I was scared. Where’s the wine market going? What does it mean to be a winemaker these days? I think it’s the same for everyone working with Chinese clients. The nation is an unpredictable giant. The Chinese appetite for fine wine is voracious and real, and the potential is incalculable. Everyone wants to be on the receiving end of this enormous machine but the future is hard to foretell. I was in a meeting with the Australian prime minister about Australian wine and one of the crucial things on the agenda was, ‘What are we doing about China?,’ ” says Ross.
As for the Chinese, they’ve started making their own wine, which the film touches upon and, according to Ross, “Chinese investors just bought half a million hectares of land in Australia for wine-growing purposes. They’re also looking at land in South Africa, Europe and in Chile.
“On the one hand, I want to cheer and applaud. On the other hand . . . it’s complicated,” says Ross.
As explained in the film, the Romans planted the first vineyards in Bordeaux and later “the wine was carried to western China on the Silk Road,” says Ross.
“Historically, wine has an ability to travel, and it has a marvelous subtext — if you wanted to be cultured, you had to understand how to drink the stuff. Wine is different from other forms of alcohol: It allows you to sit around the table and hold long conversations with people, and share food with family and friends. You don’t really do that with spirits.
“Wine also has a notion of romance. The French understood that, and they exploited it ruthlessly. That was a huge attraction for the Chinese — they looked at the chateaux in Bordeaux and learned about the history and they were wooed by all the romance. They wanted to be part of the fairy tale.”
Ross has lived in China and traveled extensively in Asia, including Japan. He remembers Japan’s own wine boom in the late 1990s but says, “the Chinese appetite for wine is incomparable and unprecedented. Many Japanese are wine connoisseurs and there’s a formidable wine culture here. Still, the Japanese have a different approach to wine. They have so many other options and the history is entirely different.”
“One thing we have to keep in mind about the Chinese (and this was also a comment made in the film), is that they’ve been to hell and back. For 40 years they endured the Cultural Revolution and being closed off from the rest of the world. When the shackles finally came off, imagine the impact of personal freedom. Many Chinese asked themselves, ‘What do I have to do to become a cultured, international person?’ And high on the list was cultivating a taste for fine wine. It was a natural desire after being suffocated for so long.”
No doubt about it, the Chinese are in the driver’s seat now, but there’s a possible mechanical problem with the vehicle in the form of climate change and factory farming. “Climate change is the gorilla in the room,” says Ross.
“All of this pales in significance when you think about how global warming is affecting the wine industry. For example, in the Hunter Valley in Australia, the winters are a lot warmer now and winemakers are moving to higher altitudes in the mountains to grow their grapes.
“On the other side of the world, Bordeaux is producing some of the best grape crops in the last 50 years because that region has always suffered from cold spells, which wreck the balance of acid and sugar (in the grapes). Bordeaux has always had problems ripening fruit but now they have unusually warm summers and lovely, ripening weather. If that continues, there will be more fine vintages, which is crucial to keep their Chinese clients interested and coming back for more.”
Ross says that by 2020, 80 million Chinese will be drinking wine, and that most of what will be consumed will be coming from Bordeaux’s high-end chateaux.
“The Bordeaux fairy tale continues,” says Ross. “But with wine making and selling, there’s never a happily-ever-after ending. And with the Chinese more or less controlling the market, anything can happen.”