Russian River Pinot Is the Star

Grapegrower/filmmaker documents development of AVA's signature wine

by Jane Firstenfeld
From Obscurity to Excellence russian river valley
"From Obscurity to Excellence" premieres Dec. 1 in Santa Rosa, Calif.
Santa Rosa, Calif.—A former chemistry professor who took up viticulture “to make money” in his retirement, Joe Nugent might seem an unlikely filmmaking auteur, but his first release, “From Obscurity to Excellence: The Story of Grapes & Wine in the Russian River Valley” will debut on the big screen in Santa Rosa on Dec. 1.

Nugent, who just last week finalized the sale of his vineyard to his exclusive, longtime client Donum Estate in Los Carneros, was mentored by its president/winemaker Anne Moller-Racke. Neither party disclosed the selling price.

When Nugent planted his first Pinot Noir on the 20-acre property in the Russian River Valley in 1997, he’d taken only a single viticulture course at Santa Rosa Junior College. Thanks to Moller-Racke, then with Sonoma’s historic Buena Vista Winery, Nugent Vineyards Inc. was a success from day one. Moller-Racke not only “taught me everything I know about grapegrowing,” Nugent said, she bought his entire production every year.

Hardly typical of a novice grapegrower, Nugent hadn’t even finalized purchase of the vineyard and he already had a pre-plant contract for his eventual grapes. The experience may have influenced his decision, in 2008, to get into filmmaking.

“I was probably at one point congratulating myself on my success,” he told Wines & Vines. “How is it possible a guy like me can do this and make money? People who hadn’t been around said it was the fog, the weather,” but Nugent realized that Russian River Valley hadn’t always represented the pinnacle of Sonoma County viticulture.

Talking with fellow growers who meet informally every month, and influenced by the famous paean to Pinot delivered by Maya to Miles in “Sideways,” he began conducting video interviews with the elders of the region, including the late Louis J. Foppiano and members of his winemaking family. A longtime history buff influenced by the epic “How the West Was Won,” Nugent organized a multi-generational history along the same lines.

Among sources, Nugent accessed the Wines & Vines archives and provided staff with a preview copy of his film, which is reminiscent of a Ken Burns documentary.

Lots to learn
Interspersed with on-camera interviews with Russian River Valley pioneers are clippings and stills going back to the earliest settlers, with ample coverage of Prohibition’s ravaging (and restructuring) of the area’s agriculture and wine industry. Even long-term followers will learn something new, including the Gallo family’s ties to the region dating to Repeal, when it began shipping (then cheap) Sonoma grapes to its Modesto, Calif., headquarters.

Gallo’s successful bid to expand the Russian River Valley AVA in 2008—strongly opposed by Nugent and other local grapegrower as a carpet-bagging incursion—was, he learned, rooted in local history.

Grape/wine broker Joe Ciatti provides the most amusing clip in the 1-hour, 16-minute film, recalling the prelude to his first, nerve-racking meeting with Julio Gallo. “Editing out the off-screen laughter was really tricky,” Nugent recalled.

Nugent self-financed the film, conducted the interviews, did much of the camera work and editing. “It’s nonprofit by accident,” he said. Told by a PBS editor that he’d need to reshoot the interviews—informal, comfortable affairs in farmhouse living rooms and kitchens—his distribution model is evolving, starting with the double screening in Santa Rosa.

Although they’ve sold the vineyard, Nugent and his wife Cynthia will continue living on the property west of Santa Rosa. “At 75, I haven’t had a vacation in a long time,” Nugent said. Cynthia is a travel agent, and they’d take some trips. “I’d like to take a few weeks off,” he said. The Donum vineyard crew will remain the same, but most of the time, “I’ll still be the only one here 100%.”

Attend the premiere
Nugent rented Santa Rosa’s capacious Wells Fargo Center, invited some of his subjects including Burt Williams, Joe Rochioli and Davis Bynum, and he’ll be serving Bynum wines courtesy of its parent company Rodney Strong Wine Estates. “I like the idea of showing it at events,” Nugent said.

Cynthia Nugent has been spreading the word at tasting rooms throughout the valley. “She used to go shopping on the weekends; now she goes out to tasting rooms with our posters,” Nugent said.

With the right grape at the right time, and the fortuitous “Sideways” effect on Pinot Noir sales, Russian River Valley has gone from dim, fog-bound stepsister of Dry Creek and Alexander Valleys to a premier source for Burgundian grapes and wines, with prices reflecting demand: What once sold for $50 per ton are, Nugent said, now finding buyers at $2,800 to $5,000.

“Obscurity to Excellence” will run at 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. on Dec. 1 at the Wells Fargo Center in Santa Rosa, Calif. Tickets are available online for $12. For details and a preview, visit Russian-Riv er-Valley.com.

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