The streaming service Netflix recommends movies and TV shows you’ll like based on your prior viewing habits. So it should come as no surprise that Netflix recently suggested that I watch Red Obsession, a documentary about China’s infatuation with top-tier Bordeaux wines, and A Year in Burgundy, which is, well, self-explanatory. (Netflix also suggested I watch New Girl, but that’s besides the point.) I placed my heels on the coffee table and dug in, hoping either or both films could explain the appeal of the world’s two greatest – and perhaps most confounding – wine regions.
Red Obsession is the more approachable of the two films, which was foreseeable simply because Bordeaux is bigger, it makes more wine across all price points, and as a region it’s only as bewildering or off-putting as you, the drinker, want it to be. After all, it’s perfectly easy to wander into a wine shop on your way home, grab a Bordeaux red for $10 and be perfectly happy. If you want to start spending $50 or $500 or $1,000 per bottle, that’s when you start concerning yourself with Left Bank versus Right Bank, the five First Growths, the 1855 classification system, and so on. But the point is that because Bordeaux is widely available and accessible in price, embracing wine nerdiness is never truly necessary with this region, much less a precursor to wine enjoyment.
Fortunately, Red Obsession takes the viewer into those upper echelons with ease, explaining them clearly and simply – and in doing so, exposing their outright absurdity. If the mere notion of paying $1,000 for a bottle of Lafite-Rothschild or Haut-Brion weren’t ludicrous in its own right, this film masterfully exposes the top Bordeaux estates’ greed simply by letting their proprietors speak for themselves. This not only lessens the amount of time you spend listening to Russell Crowe’s somewhat dry narration, it elevates the enjoyment of watching the Bordelais gracefully inserting their shiny loafers into their mouths again and again.
It gets even better as the film's focus suddenly shifts to China, where billionaires have gulped every tastevin full of BS the Bordelais have served them, shelling out millions upon millions of wealth on First Growth wines. One of the most prolific collectors is, in fact, a baron of the sex-toy industry. I suppose there’s some humor to be derived from the idea of money flowing from Westerners in need of vibrators to an Imperial-looking Chinese tycoon to a Bordeaux winemaker. But the real joy of this film is its analysis of the cultural nuances that made the trade boom in the first place. At its heart is the simple fact that the Chinese don’t have much of a taste for wine – it’s that they have a taste for flaunting their riches and power. In China, being a collector of the inaccessible and unaffordable conveys a certain message to colleagues, collaborators and competitors.
While that might sound foolish, it’s really the First Growth Bordeaux estates that wind up being the butt of the joke for chasing the immediately available riches rather than thinking about the nuances of the Chinese culture that made them bedfellows in the first place. The Bordelais, in fact, are the only ones surprised when they experience a bad vintage in 2011 and the Chinese lose interest, as fickle rich people often do. What’s more, the Western world, previously snubbed in the excellent 2009 and 2010 vintages for new Chinese wealth, has no interest in coming to Bordeaux’s aid to buy up the wine. Though never mentioned in Red Obsession, the smartest person of all is the one who, instead of trading up, grabs that $10 Bordeaux red on his way home from work and enjoys it just fine.
That wine drinker, it so happens, is exactly who should stand to gain the most, yet is in fact rewarded least, by watching A Year in Burgundy. It’s safe to say that no wine region in the world does a better job of keeping the insiders in and the outsiders out than Burgundy. The region is a patchwork of confusing sub-regions, villages, classifications and designations devoted to just two grapes: Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. One could argue that the monks who developed this system centuries ago are due wine lovers’ thanks, but it’s easy to counter that they couldn’t have made Chardonnay or Pinot Noir more confusing or less desirable.
And then the makers of A Year in Burgundy came along and really finished up the job for the monks. It’s certain that the filmmakers’ intent was pure, as they use one Franco-American negociant’s interactions with seven winemakers to shine a light on different stylistic approaches. Some work more with science, some more with the gut. Some are traditional in their approaches, some are willing to embrace modern technology. Some love romance and mystery, some have no patience for it.
That’s all well and good, but it isn’t until the last 10 minutes of the 90-minute film that there’s simple mention of the fact that wine is made by the grapes’ sugar being converted into alcohol by yeast. And there’s a missed opportunity at the beginning of the film to give the most basic hint of what makes Burgundy so special: that all the villages along the river have vineyards that are delineated into a quality hierarchy, Grand Cru, Premier Cru and Village, and that all this actually means something to you, the wine drinker, and what you’re actually paying for with each bottle. Instead, these designations and other pieces of Burgundy-specific terminology and geography roll off the narrator’s tongue as if they’re hollow adjectives – which is what they are to anyone not already in the know.
The film does have brief flashes of appeal, mostly as harvest time rolls around and workers stream into the region to pick grapes. It’s a difficult, tedious task, and there’s something refreshing, raw and alluring about the fact that regular, hardworking people from all walks of life undertake this backbreaking effort. You might even want to join in when you see how handsomely some are rewarded for it, with lavish, multi-course meals three times a day, every day. This aspect of the movie is fleeting, though, and when the cameras turn away from the down-to-earth story of Burgundy, the enchantment becomes angel’s share.
Rather appropriately, A Year in Burgundy concludes with a tasting led by one of the film’s featured winemakers. He is presenting his best vintages to clients at a private dinner at Blackberry Farm, a Tennessee luxury resort with one of the most robust wine cellars in the world. It’s the type of place where if you have to ask how much it costs to dine there, you can’t afford it. Perhaps that’s why just watching this brief scene leaves you with even less of a taste for Burgundy’s Chardonnay and Pinot Noir than you might have had before the film’s fade-in.