Battle Hymn of the Tiger Bidder
October 6, 2013
Someone needs to sign Peter Tseng for a reality television show. We’re introduced to him about 35 minutes into the new documentary Red Obsession, as he lights up a pipe and walks filmmakers through his anal-retentively neat cellar and its enviable holdings of (what else?) Château Lafite-Rothschild. “I have bottles of Château Lafite everywhere,” he laughs, “in the dining room, in my office, even in my bedroom.” I must admit: Like many people who’ve been priced out of Lafite for several years now, I have cursed the Chinese billionaires who drove its prices to unprecedented heights for no apparent reason other than a vague perception of Lafite as “the best of the best.” But Mr. Tseng is such a wonderful caricature that it’s hard to hold a grudge. With his Sherlock Holmes pipe, Bond-villain cat, and sideburned, mustachioed visage, his screen personality seems a roughly equal admixture of Hugh Hefner and a boss in a kung-fu movie. The Hefneresque aura is enhanced by the fact that he made his fortune in what the narration calls “the pleasure business,” and his infectious laughter suggests that the absurdity of becoming one of the richest men in the world from a dildo empire is not lost on him. “When I was younger, I preferred sex,” he chuckles, “but as I get older, I prefer wine.”
Red Obsession is a story in three parts. The Chinese billionaires don’t come in until the second act. The film opens with a time-lapse shot of Médoc vineyard plains as a cloud cover rolls in. From there, it interpolates some of the most breathtaking vineyard cinematography ever filmed with interviews from Bordeaux VIPs such as Petrus’s Christian Moueix, Palmer’s Thomas Duroux, and Paul Pontallier (et fils) from Château Margaux, each of whom attempts to articulate just what it is that has made Bordeaux the gold standard in wine over the last several centuries. That’s familiar marketing spin, of course, but some of them, particularly Moueix, come across genuinely passionate. It’s a passion that seems easy to share as one absorbs the imagery: Bordeaux has never looked this beautiful, even in person. Shots of Château Lafite from the same vantage point as its iconic label seem quite literally to bring the scene to life; the effect seems like what I imagine it must have felt like for a generation of silver-screen moviegoers to see black-and-white turn to technicolor for the first time in the Wizard of Oz. With its time-lapse sequences, aerial panoramas, and radiant landscapes, it struck me that the vineyard cinematography itself was enough to carry the film. Cut out the interviews, add a Philip Glass soundtrack, and it could pass for an installment of Godfrey Reggio’s ’Qatsi trilogy.
I actually wonder if an homage might have been specifically intended, because it isn’t just the imagery that reminds me of Koyaanisqatsi‘s “life out of balance,” but a good part of the narrative arc, too. In Koyaanisqatsi, serene desert landscapes ultimately segue into scenes of monolithic skyscrapers and soul-crushing urbanity, most powerfully in a sequence where Glass’s “The Grid”—essentially twenty minutes of building adrenaline—plays over time-lapse reels of thousands of office workers endlessly churning through congested streets and subway turnstiles in filthy pre-Giuliani Manhattan. In Red Obsession, the second act begins with a transition from pastoral Bordeaux to modern Beijing, dramatized by a time-lapse shot of a thirty-story skyscraper being erected in a mere 15 days.
The ChiComs had to be dragged kicking and screaming into modern civilization but having gotten there they are apparently determined not to be outdone by anybody. They are now enjoying a bender of economic growth that has produced literally too many billionaires to count. The inevitable result is a lot of conspicuous consumption and kitsch, which Red Obsession portrays honestly, but also somewhat sympathetically, nodding to the historical context. “If they have lived through the horrors of the Cultural Revolution,” remarks wine writer Ch’ng Poh Tiong, “this means they’ve gone to hell and come back.” So they have earned the right to enjoy their billions.
Nevertheless, the film does leave a certain irony about this chain of events unacknowledged and unexplored. The Cultural Revolution went even further than the rest of history’s many spectacularly failed experiments in communism and became a mass pogrom against every aspect of China’s culture that was not explicitly Maoist, including both its own traditions as well as any semblance of Western influence. Suffice to say that possessing a bottle of Lafite would certainly have qualified as “counter-revolutionary.” Yet the same Party with the purges of the Cultural Revolution on its résumé is presiding over the minting of nouveau riche capitalists fixated on Lafite and Prada and Gucci and, for that matter, any other brand in the world with the trappings of Western European luxury. “Wine now is a new Silk Road,” remarks one Chinese wine merchant in the film. “It is one of the intermediaries to connect China to the rest of the world. You look at China now, they’re all dressed in a shirt and tie like me. It’s part of Westernization they wear on the top of their skin. Now you talk about wine . . . they swallow Western civilization, inside the body.” Once it was a nationalist act to smash these idols; now it is a nationalist act to drink them in. Robert Frost was right: “The trouble with a total revolution / . . . / Is that it brings the same class up on top.”
Red Obsession also omits any mention of the role that China’s ruling Party itself has played in the Lafite fetish and the luxury-goods market in general. The only people interviewed in the movie are presumably buying wine for their own consumption. Nobody was going to be caught on camera admitting he needs to maintain a gift stash of thousand-dollar bottles of wine for purposes of bribing Party apparatchiks with not-inconsiderable influence over who can do business in their zone of influence. But two years ago, an executive of a government-owned oil company in China was caught up in a mini-scandal after it was discovered that he had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars of company money buying up the 100-point-Parker-rated ’96 Lafite—“allegedly to sweeten deals with local officials,” reported Decanter.
In any event, while Red Obsession tells a less than complete story of the Bordeaux mania in its heyday, it deserves a lot of credit for recognizing that the story is worth telling at all. There is more truth in this movie about the way wealth is earned and spent in the modern world than there is in the entire Thomas L. Friedman œuvre. I am particularly fond of the movie’s juxtaposition of Lafite’s Charles Chevalier offering his explanation of how Lafite achieved its esteem in China—“the secret of Lafite is in the soil itself . . . there is something by the nose which is [ . . . dramatic hand-wave . . . ] Lafite style”—with the explanation offered by Julien Pouplet, a French ex-pat on the ground in China as a wine consultant: “Yesterday a customer of mine told me, we think in China it is very good for the health of a lady for the skin. If you drink Lafite you have beautiful skin.” He rolls his eyes.
The final part of the movie runs through some of the consequences of all this—and hints at the endgame. There is some coverage, of course, of the problem of counterfeits. We also see some of the Bordelais and old-timers in the trade acknowledging that they have abandoned their historic customers—some even lamenting that fact, or at least pretending to lament it while barely managing to suppress the urge to make cha-ching sound effects, strip naked, and perform an Uncle Scrooge dive into a vat of euros. But the real plot twist comes when Sun Hongbo walks us through the grounds of a stately, turreted Old World chateau surrounded by a Medieval town and vines in the familiar Bordeaux fashion—except that the estate is not in Bordeaux. It’s Chateau Changyu AFIP, “80 kms north of Beijing.” Mr. Sun explains that he traveled through Europe for ten years, “visited many chateaux and famous villages,” and made up his mind “to build a European town and chateau in China.” But the unspoken message seems to be, What, you thought we were going to keep sending you our money and buying all your wine forever? Two can play at this game, you know. “It now seems that Bordeaux’s largest customer is becoming its competitor,” intones narrator Russell Crowe. “China is now planting over 20,000 acres of new vineyards every year.”
That might be bad news for the Bordelais, but it actually offers consolation that for at least some participants in China’s latest obsession, there is a genuine passion for wine as wine and not simply as a luxury good that serves the same function as a Prada bag. The only reason to plant vines and attempt to make fine wine in a place that has no historic culture of winegrowing or wine-drinking is if you want to help create one. That this is even thinkable in China is, in some sense, an even more remarkable cultural transformation than its embrace of market capitalism.
The Chinese never had a wine-god but the Greeks called theirs Dionysus. In his 1965 book of that name, subtitled A Social History of the Wine Vine, Edward Hyams wrote:
Now it is self-evident that there are very large tracts of the world between 30 degrees and 51 degrees North and between 30 degrees and 51 degrees South where there are no vineyards. There are indeed, particularly in Asia, many thousands of square miles of perfect vineyard land in perfect vineyard climates, where grapes are hardly grown at all, and then only for dessert fruit or dried fruit. It seems that the wine-vine is excluded from some parts of the world which would be congenial to it by influences other than climatic or geographical. These influences are subtler: they are social, almost religious. There are those who are people of the vine; and others, simply, are not; and the curious facts touching the repeated introduction of the vine into China, described in Chapter VIII, bear out this contention. The wine-vine is very much a plant of Mediterranean man: it is an art of the Mediterranean cultures; it is deeply involved in their religions, both ancient and modern; for even the positive, the conscious rejection of wine by ancient peoples of the vine under the influence of Islam is a negative involvement very different from the total indifference of the Chinese or the merely commercial influence of the Japanese. There are, in short, peoples whose cultures have never included the vine and which have rejected it when offered; and this is the other limit set to the expansion of the vineyards.
European man overran the whole planet; he has now withdrawn or is withdrawing from parts of it, leaving them again to the older cultures which already possessed them and were fossilized, or to any new ones which may arise. Curiously, the places he has withdrawn from are those where the vine, too, was hopelessly alien; and the places he has made permanently his own are places where the vineyards have flourished. One might almost regard Vitis vinifera as his peculiar hallmark; and in his new absence one would expect to find it lingering only among those people who have taken something fundamental from Mediterranean culture, the Christian religion for example. For, Lord Snow notwithstanding, the Western type of tool-making, called ‘Science’ and now œcumenical, while a part of a culture in the archaeological sense of the word, is not fundamental to culture in our sense here: a Chinese may accept our nuclear physics; he rejects our poetry, our music and our wine-vine. There is a sentimental illusion, fostered by liberals, that though the minds of men may differ, the heart is the same everywhere; the curious history of the association between men and grape-vines is part of the evidence that the converse may be true.
For a Beijing billionaire, a hoard of Lafite must make for a pretty nice trophy of China’s economic triumph over the debt-ridden, declining West, but the whole obsession—and the growing vineyard footprint—does raise the intriguing question of just who is conquering whom.