ARThound

Geneva Anderson digs into art

Bernardo Ruiz’s “Harvest Season,” introduces the unsung Latino and Mexican-American heroes of Napa Valley’s wine industry—world premiere Saturday, MVFF41

VanessaRobledo

Vanessa Robledo, a Napa viticulturist, is profiled in Bernardo Ruiz’s documentary, Harvest Season, which was filmed in Napa and has its world premiere Saturday at MVFF41.  Filmmaker Bernardo Ruiz, Producer Lauren Capps and subjects Vanessa Robledo, Maria Robledo, Angel Calderon, and Gustavo Brambila will be in attendance. Image: Roberto “Bear” Guerra

Two Latina viticulturists from Sonoma, Vanessa Robledo and her mother Maria Robledo; long-time activist for affordable farmworker housing, Angel Caldero; H-2A temporary worker from Michoacán, René Reyes Ornelas; and Napa winemaker Gustavo Brambila, all co-star in Bernardo Ruiz’s new documentary feature Harvest Season (2018), which has its world premiere at the 41st Mill Valley Film Festival (MVFF41) on Saturday, October 13, 2018 and then will be shown again on Sunday, October 14, 2018.  The film is part of the festival’s ¡Viva el Cine! line-up which showcases 15 award-winning Latin American and Spanish language films during the course of the 10 day festival which kicks off Thursday evening.

“The big impulse for the film,” said Ruiz, speaking from his office in New York, “is that I love wine and I love Northern CA.  It took three years to make this and the film is really a love letter to immigrant Napa and the generations of people who have been working the field picking grapes and, through hard work, become entrepreneurs themselves.”

Bernardo Ruiz, director of Harvest Season. Photo courtesy: Bernardo Ruiz

This is Ruiz’s third feature documentary, following Reportero (2012), about violence against the press in Mexico for reporting on drug trafficking and government collusion and Kingdom of Shadows (2015), a front-line view into Mexico’s drug war from the perspective of three workers dealing with its fall-out.  The two-time Emmy® nominated filmmaker is also heavily involved in documentary television. When we spoke, he was hard at work on a series he was producing for documentarian Alex Gibney.

“There are so many films out there about rock-star vintners, high profile people in the industry,” said Ruiz.  “We’re trying to highlight and celebrate the behind-the-scenes players, often small producers whose roots are tied to working these fields or, in Angel’s case someone dedicated to improving the lives of workers.”

Ruiz cites two films as highly inspirational: Morgan Neville’s Oscar winning 20 feet from Stardom (2013), which focused a long-overdue spotlight on the contribution of back-up singers to musical hits, and John Else’s Sing Faster: The Stagehand’s Ring Cycle (1999) which presents Wagner’s Ring Cycle from the point of view of the stage hands at San Francisco Opera. Harvest Season tells four stories to shine a light on the hard-working individuals in Napa’s wine industry who have often propped up the rock stars and recently stepped out into their own ventures.

Ruiz was born in Guanajuato Mexico (central Mexico) to an American mother and Mexican father and moved New York when he was six and has lived there ever since. “I’m very interested in stories about immigration and the relationship between the US and Mexico.  A number of news outlets have done broad profiles of the Mexican-American and Latino vintners and, slowly, we’re starting to see more reporting about that.  Mexican-American vintners are the underdogs in the huge Napa constellation and I wanted to explore that further, bring their stories forward.

Ruiz began researching the film and doing a little shooting in Dec 2015 but the bulk of filming took place during the harvest in the summer and fall of 2017.   He filmed during the fires, which is a thread in the story but doesn’t overwhelm the film.

“I actually had an interview scheduled the 8th of October and went out to Napa and, just like everybody else, witnessed the devastation.  For the next two weeks, with various crew members, I filmed—destruction, shelters and did lots of interviews.  What impressed me was the way people mobilized so quickly, pulled together, and how particularly devastating this was to the community I was documenting.”

Vanessa Robledo, Maria Robledo

Vanessa Robledo (seated) and her mother Maria Robledo.  Image: Art & Clarity/Janna Waldinger

 

Ruiz interviewed Vanessa and Maria Robledo during an early scouting trip. “Here were these two women running a Napa vineyard. Vanessa is an accomplished entrepreneur, but she is genuine and passionate about the wine business and that passion gives her a quiet power.  They are a tiny but growing operation and tell the story of small women producers who are doing something very interesting.”

Vanessa Robledo, founder and CEO of VR Wine Business Consulting, was born in Sonoma and is a fourth generation grape grower.  As president of the Robledo Family Winery, started by her father Reynaldo Robledo, she took the winery from a 100 case producer in 1997 to a thriving 20,000 cases by 2007, over 80 percent of which was direct to consumer.  She then went on to become majority owner of the successful cult winery, Black Coyote Chateau, where she doubled the company’s production and sales.

Maria de la Luz Robledo, Vanessa’s mother, was born in Michoacán, Mexico and followed her husband, Reynaldo, to California in 1973.  She and Reynaldo worked in the fields, raised nine children, bought land, planted their own vineyards and started their own winery, opening the first tasting room in the US run by a former Mexican migrant vineyard worker.

The two women joined forces following a divorce that left Maria reeling and a desire on Vanessa’s part to get back to the land and grapes.  They began improving quality, replanting, and renegotiating contracts and are really enjoying collaorating.

Angel Calderon

Angel Calderon. Image: Roberto “Bear” Guerra

Harvest Season also explores the lifestyles and needs of vineyard workers through the stories of Angel Calderon, who has been active on the housing front for two decades and René Reyes Ornelas, an H-2A temporary worker from Michoacán, Mexico.

One of workers’ main concerns is affordable, safe, and convenient permanent housing.  Costs continue to rise in Napa County— the median rent is now $2,750 per month and the median home price is roughly $800,000, while many workers are paid $15-$25 an hour.  As the labor market shifts from a migrant to a year-round workforce, affordable housing is more critical than ever.  Angel Calderon immigrated to the US in 1980 and worked as a cook at Silverado Country Club and Meadowood and, even then, affordable housing was an issue.  Calderon manages River Ranch Farm Workers Housing (three housing centers) in St. Helena which provides no frills housing at roughly $14 day for farm workers and is vital in ensuring that workers needs are met.

René Reyes Ornelas

René Reyes Ornelas. Image: Roberto “Bear” Guerra

While documenting the Mahoney harvest in Napa, Ruiz met René Reyes Ornelas, a 41 year-old Mexican farmworker who became one of his central characters.  California employs about one third of the nation’s roughly 2.5 million farmworkers. With immigration raids occurring across the state, growers and labor contractors are increasingly relying on the H-2A, or guestworker program, which permits the importation of foreign nationals into the U.S. in order to fill temporary agricultural jobs.  This was René’s second harvest in Sonoma.  The nine months he spends away from his wife and two daughters is burdensome but, in the wine country, he earns in an hour what he earns in a day driving a truck back home in Michoacán.

Gustavo Brambila

Winemaker Gustavo Brambila. Image: Roberto “Bear” Guerra

Gustavo Brambila is a Napa Valley winemaker who was one of the first Mexican-Americans to earn a degree in fermentation science from UC Davis.  If the name Brambila is familiar, Freddy Rodriguez portrayed him in the famous film, Bottle-Shock (2008).  Brambila was at Chateau Montelena in 1976 when the famed “Judgment of Paris” blind tasting took place that pitted the some of the finest wines in France against unknown California wines.  It was a 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay created by Mike Grgich, who was then the chief winemaker at Montelena, that beat out the French white burgundies.  After the big win, Grgich branched out on his own and Brambila followed to work as winemaker and general manager for Grgich Hills. After 23 years, in 1996, Brambila created his own label Gustavo Wine.  By 2002, he had started his own winery and vineyard management company.  He does things a little differently: officially, he is based in Napa’s Crusher District and leases vineyards to get the grapes and his son runs the vineyard management company that cares for them.  This allows Brambila to operate with more freedom, less regulation and at much less cost than actual land ownership.

Ruiz is excited about the world premiere at MVFF.   “This is an indie film and, like a boutique winery, we make limited editions of things, no mass production.  It means a lot to premiere at Mill Valley, where many in the audience will be personally connected to the people we’ve profiled.”  Ruiz, so far, has invitations to at least three other film festivals, (he’s embargoed on mentioning names until Oct 10); there will be select screenings in New York and California and then the film will be broadcast nationally on PBS in spring 2019.  “We’re very interested in showing the film all over Northern CA.”

To read ARThound’s article about MVFF’s wonderful  ¡Viva el Cine! programming, with film recommendations, click here.

DetailsHarvest Season has its world premiere and screens twice at MVFF41: Saturday, Oct 13, 2 pm at Sequoia Theater and Sunday, Oct 14, 2:45 pm at Larkspur Theater.  Purchase tickets here.

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October 10, 2018 - Posted by | Film, Wine | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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