Red Obsession review: Why All Winemakers Need an “8” on Their Labels

Red Obsession review: Why All Winemakers Need an “8” on Their Labels

red obsession

The moment in the captivating new movie Red Obsession when Chinese wine enthusiasts sprint to a tasting like oligarchs storming the entrance of Art Basel Miami or Gaga fans hurdling into a concert hall, you know you are witnessing a particular degree of infatuation.  Opening last week in in New York, this Russell-Crowe-narrated documentary transports the viewer inside the patrician world of Bordeaux wine and among the money-is-no-object Chinese collectors who have now supplanted their American counterparts as the leading importers of investment-grade Bordeaux.

The movie packs deep flavor into its 78 minutes, encompassing lush aerial sweeps of Bordeaux vineyards, candid commentary by wine pros such as the UK’s Oz Clarke and China’s Jeannie Cho Lee, and a front-row seat to the Chinese frenzy for prestige wine as both a tool for investment and a symbol of their newly-won wealth.

The movie also reveals a certain Bordelais ambivalence towards their voracious patrons in the East, some of whom are snapping up vinous treasures for pure speculative purposes, with no intention of ever wetting their lips.  China’s most coveted Bordeaux premier cru, Château Lafite Rothschild, however, evinces no hesitation; aware that “8” is a lucky number in Chinese culture, the estate shrewdly embossed the symbol for 8 on each bottle of ‘08 Lafite.  The price of that wine shot up almost 20% days after the labeling was announced.

The film also shows us the darker sides of this consumptive ardor, particularly the market bubble that has already begun to deflate and the growing scourge of counterfeiting.  And we learn that the Chinese aren’t content to merely buy; they are fiercely interested in cultivating their own vines and beat the French at the own game, converting vast stretches of their homeland with the aim of eventually becoming planet’s largest producer of fine wine. Indeed, visiting Shanghai a few months ago, I tasted a fruit of these new efforts and documented it in this video.

Red Obsession is the rare grape flick with broad appeal, a fast-paced swirl of the economic and social implications that attend China’s explosive demand for fine wine.  Ultimately it is about passion: the devotion that Bordeaux vintners have for their storied terroir and their determination to exploit the demand for it wherever they can, as well as the compulsion felt by China’s new rich to embrace symbols of Western success.

In one of the film’s funniest moments, we see how fervor for wine can take over for more carnal inclinations.  Explains Peter Tseng, sex-toy billionaire and irrepressible wine collector: “When I was younger, I preferred sex.  Now I prefer wine.”

“Red Obsession is currently in limited release in select American cities; check your local listings.  You can also download it now via iTunes and Amazon.

Henri Jayer: The Greatest Wine You’ve Never Heard of

Henri Jayer

You don’t have to be a wine hipster to be familiar with Dom Pérignon or Opus One or Chateau Pétrus.  Sideways introduced many to Cheval Blanc, Miles’ exalted chugger-of-choice at the end of the movie.  If you’re into Burgundy, you’ve likely daydreamed about a perfumed, willing decanter of DRC (Domaine de la Romanée-Conti).

But still floating below the casual drinker’s consciousness is a producer that may be the most coveted of all: Henri Jayer (pronounced Zheye-aye).  No song immortalizes his red Burgundy.  No motion picture teaches us that this is not just the summit of wine, but perhaps the very mound on which the flag gets planted.

You just have to know it.  Even better is to know someone who actually has some and is willing to share.  (A collector would be forgiven for wanting to drink it alone, in a dark room, with shades pulled.)

This is exactly what happened when I was with some friends a few weeks ago (not the dark room drinking, mind you, but the Jayer generosity.)  Because an adequate description of the wines stretches beyond our current lexicon, let’s just say that they brought the ruckus as only the finest aged Burgundy can: beetroot and menthol on the nose, velvet on the tongue, and exhilaration in the heart.  Wine like this makes even the most law-abiding drinker contemplate a life on the lam.

As the six of us drained the five bottles noted below, I was reminded that Jayer made his wine in microscopic quantities and only officially until the mid-90’s, though he kept a hand on the pipette until a few years before his death in 2006.  His lack of pretention was said to be as great as his dedication to the vintner’s art and the modernization of its methods.  While other winemakers of the day were filtering their wine to make it look clearer, Jayer knew that this could diminish its flavor.  Not only did he just say no to filtration, he announced it on a special sticker above the label: “Ce vin n’a pas été filtré.”  To me, c’est un badass.

A farmer in the best Burgundian sense, Jayer turned Cros Parantoux — a tiny, unloved tract of land in the village of Vosne-Romanée — into a parcel of Pinot perfection.  He discusses his vineyards in this vintage BBC video with UK wine authority Jancis Robinson.

Even as much of his land lives on in the acclaimed wines of his nephew, Emmanuel Rouget, the wine Henri Jayer himself nurtured represents a singularly heightened benchmark for Burgundy and Pinot Noir.  They are Led Zeppelin conquering the Garden in ‘73 or Kurt Cobain rasping behind the stargazer lillies: pure glory, glorious purity.

The collector reminded me of his friend’s experience visiting Jayer in the 1980’s.  As the friend stood among the racks of fabled bottles, he asked Jayer who was helping him.

Jayer reportedly shrugged and answered with characteristic directness:
“Mes deux mains” (my two hands).

Henri Jayer Vosne-Romanée “Cros Parantoux” 1988
Henri Jayer Vosne-Romanée “Cros Parantoux” 1996
Herni Jayer Vosne-Romanée “Beauxmonts” 1996
Henri Jayer Echézeaux 1988
Henri Jayer Echézeaux 1999

Winter Rescue via Tormaresca Primitivo

It’s winter. I’m lying near the Khumbu Icefall on the Nepalese side of the Himalayas, my climbing gear crusted over with blue ice, my body a glacial mass so cold that not even a shiver can issue from my hopeless limbs. All turns to black as I fade deeper…deeper…deeper into my alpine tomb.

winter dog wine

And then, out of the corner of my icy eye, I see them.  A duo of Saint Bernards, yelping and bounding towards me, toting around their necks the ultimate rescue kit: a bottle of rich red wine and a container of steaming pasta with meat sauce.  I am saved…

…Ok, so maybe I’m not on Everest tended to by a pack of connoisseur rescue dogs.  But in the piercing frigidity that has seized New York City, I have discovered an antidote of similar efficacy: Tormaresca Primitivo and Tortellini con Ragu, both of which I wolfed down like a starving rescuee during a recent visit to the East Village’s funky trattoria, Il Bagatto.


Affordable, aromatic, and always a satisfying choice, Primitivo will light your primal fires with soft, spicy fruit and rich, sun-baked flavors.

prim2Producer: Tormaresca (Puglia, Italy)
Wine: Primitivo Torcicoda
Vintage: 2001
Cost: $19

Blood will rush back to your extremities with this wine’s potent, medium to full bodied embrace.  Big, blackberry fruits join with hints of licorice and cedar, followed by an enduring, velvety finish.  As with so many Italian reds, it shows a slight edge of tannin and acidity, but they are well-integrated and help the wine match beautifully with rich winter fare.

Tormaresca is owned by Antinori, the celebrated Italian producer based in Tuscany.

"Waiter, Chill My Red": A Lesson from Beaujolais Nouveau

Chill out: While dining out a few nights ago, I ordered a bottle of the 2005 Beaujolais Nouveau, the feel-good elixir released annually every third Thursday in November.

When the bottle was delivered to the table at room temperature, I asked our server to put it on ice for a few minutes.  She eyeballed me as if I asked her to transgress the laws of nature, then shot me a “suit yourself” look and swiped the bottle back.

What my server didn’t know – and many wine lovers never learn — is that light reds like Beaujolais Nouveau carry a chill as jazzily as Aretha Franklin carries a tune.  Not only will time on ice make these wines more refreshing, but they will become less overtly alcoholic, or “hot,” in winespeak.  And because wines like Beaujolais are low in tannin (the main source of bitterness in red wine), you don’t have to worry about the cooler temperature accentuating their sensation of tannin like it would with more richer, more astringent types like Cabernet Sauvignon and Barolo. So versatile are these gentle reds that in Oldman’s Guide I call them the “Very Chillable Crossdressers”: they are like whites masquerading as reds.


Don’t hestiate to ice down your reds a bit if they are light-bodied and spare on tannin.  Qualifying reds include Beaujolais Nouveau (and other types of Beaujolais such as Beaujolais-Villages and Fleurie) as well as light-style renditions of Pinot Noir, Dolcetto, Chinon, and Rioja Crianza.

chill your wineProducer: Georges Duboeuf
Wine: Beaujolais Nouveau
Vintage: 2005
Cost: $9
Track it down: virtually everywhere

This wine is the real zing, with sling-shot hits of raspberries, blueberries, and other exuberant, shirt-staining fruits.  Its abundant (but not excessive) acidity gets your juices revved up for all manner of bistro fare, including onion soup gratinee, coq-au-vent, and boeuf bourguignon.  It also makes a perfect quaffing partner with lobster rolls, hot dogs, chicken nuggets, pulled pork, and other medium-weight dishes that cotton to the wine’s zesty-berry ebullience.