Wine documentary lets genie out of the bottle

Challenged to document the rise and fall of two Bordeaux vintages, vintner and filmmaker Warwick Ross came up with a 'wine thriller', writes Bernice Chan

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 July, 2014, 5:09pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 July, 2014, 5:41pm

Warwick Ross was nervous at the first-ever preview of Red Obsession, the documentary he co-scripted and directed with David Roach about the 2009 Bordeaux vintage that fetched record prices and then the dramatic plunge of the following year's wine.

His audience that evening: 500 Bordeaux chateaux owners and other members of the wine community.

Afterwards, "a few of the major people came up to me and said, 'Not only did we love the film, but we loved the fact that you told the truth'," Ross recalls. "And that meant so much to me, as a docu-maker. They felt it hadn't been twisted. But the film is quite dramatic. One person has described it as 'the world's first wine thriller'."

The filmmaker credits Australian master of wine Andrew Caillard with pitching him the story on a flight from Sydney to London. "He goaded me, saying I was a winemaker and filmmaker, [so] 'how come you haven't made a wine film yet?'"

Ross, who runs his family's Portsea Estate in Victoria, New South Wales, producing award-winning Burgundy-style wines, feels that most wine films are for self-promotion, or for wine buffs. Caillard, however, was talking about the 2009 vintage - possibly the best in the century.

"Andrew said a lot of clients were worried about pushing prices to the point where no one would buy, but the Chinese were stepping in and that's a whole new world. And that's what got me: China was the hook."

The 59-year-old Australian was born in Hong Kong and remembers being terrified when, as a child in the 1960s, he saw soldiers with machine guns at the border between Hong Kong and the mainland. "And there were so many refugees coming in, and floating down on inflated pig bladders to try to get away from that society, that culture. What kind of culture can be so extreme that you would need to do that?" he says.

"And then Deng Xiaoping opened up China in 1979 and since then China has done some amazing things but at a cost. If the Chinese are buying these wines, then what has happened to China in the last 20 years that has gone from communism to Chateau Lafite?"

Ross and Roach moved quickly, shooting just weeks after their initial planning meeting to record the en primeur (first release) of the 2009 vintage to wine critics, writers and merchants, the critical first part of the story.

The documentary follows people's love of wine, from those who work in the vineyards to the wealthy collectors in Hong Kong and the mainland. The pair interviewed people in Bordeaux, or Bordelais, involved in the industry. In China they spoke with wealthy wine collectors such as Peter Tseng, who made his money producing sex toys, and wine educators like Fongyee Walker and Debra Meiburg, who explain China's cultural gap in wine.

At times, Ross and Roach felt they were making two different films in two countries and needed a way to link them together. That came in 2010 when that year's vintage was touted as being just as good - if not even better - than the 2009. But, Ross says, "Chinese buyers were annoyed because they were saying, 'You told us the 2009 was the perfect vintage and you are telling us again that it's just as good but it's 25 to 30 per cent more expensive?'

“What has happened to China in the last 20 years that has gone from communism to Chateau Lafite?”
Warwick Ross

"And quite rightly they just bought the 2009 instead. The Chinese made fools of the Bordelais, who had put all their eggs in one basket hoping the Chinese would be their saviours, while ignoring their traditional markets. So that became the foundation of our film."

Red Obsession is also the rare documentary that's narrated by Russell Crowe. The actor is a family friend of Ross' executive producer Robert Coe. They called Crowe who asked to see the film, liked it and agreed to do the narration.

"But he was so busy. At the time he was [working on] Noah, playing Superman's father [in Man of Steel], he was in [ Broken City] as the mayor of New York City, and finishing Les Miz and then we asked him to do this voiceover," the filmmaker says.

"He said, 'Mate, you've asked me to do this at the worst possible time. I don't know how I'm going to do it. When do you need it by?' You can't write the narration until you've finished the edit but Russell could only do it once. And once he voiced it, we couldn't change it too much afterwards."

But then nature intervened: Hurricane Sandy hit New York in October 2012 where Crowe was filming Noah, which forced the filming to stop.

"We were mixing our film in Melbourne around midday our time and a text message [came] from Russell saying he could do the narration in about four hours time and to upload the film to him. He had to be in the sound studio to do recordings for Les Miz, which he finished at midnight.

"He started recording for our film at about 2am his time and finished at 4am. Now that's dedication."

Crowe had warned Ross he didn't like much direction so the filmmaker only gave a few hints on the script and during recording. In the end Crowe only flubbed two French words but using sound editing technology they were able to splice the sound to make it work. That private screening in Bordeaux took place soon after.

The opening scene of Red Obsession is impressive, showing an overhead view of the Chateau Lafite vineyards with time-lapsed clouds. It's a shot Ross is proud of mostly because he did it in secret. "Our budget was tight but I wanted to express the grandeur of Bordeaux and I just think you can't do that from the ground," he says.

Ross managed to secure a helicopter and a Cineflex camera which is housed in a ball that rotates like a gyroscope. The technology was invented by the US military to make for more accurate targeting. The camera operator manipulates the lens with a joystick and can programme it to focus on a certain spot while flying overhead. The filming is very stable despite the vibration of the helicopter engine.

"That's why every shot is like a fluid piece of poetry. It was expensive but a great result," Ross says. "I didn't tell anyone I was doing this. When that was done I flew back home and then told them what I did. I didn't even tell my wife because she's scared of me going up in helicopters!" he says with a laugh.

Red Obsession is Ross' first documentary and his future projects include another with roots in reality and in Hong Kong: he wants to adapt Escape from Hong Kong, former BBC journalist Tim Luard's account of how more than 60 British, Chinese, Danish and Canadian intelligence, marine and naval officers, including the one-legged admiral Chan Chak, eluded the invading Japanese forces and left Hong Kong on Christmas Day 1941.

This time, there's an even stronger personal connection: one of the officers in the escape party is Ross' father, Ted.

Red Obsession opens on July 17