Sonoma Wine Harvest Stars in Film

Documentary of 2011's difficult crush debuts April 13

by Jane Firstenfeld
harvest film movie vineyard
Paulina, a vineyard worker interviewed for John Beck's documentary "Harvest," carries a lug through vineyard rows in Sonoma County.
Sonoma, Calif.—Soggy vineyards, rotting clusters and reduced yields plagued grapegrowers in Sonoma County during the 2011 harvest season, while picking crews struggled to bring in the precious crop. John Beck, a local film director/producer and former journalist, captured moments of struggle and triumph from a crush season that many veteran growers termed the worst of their careers.

The result, titled “Harvest,” is a 94-minute documentary, which will have its world premier at the Sonoma International Film Festival on Friday, April 13.

Although it opens with vineyard beauty shots typical of winery websites, it quickly gets down and dirty in a tense, fast-paced depiction of winegrowers sweating out the weather and immigrant picking crews sweating among the sodden vines.

Both employers and labor openly express their concerns: The growers need their crews—mostly veteran Mexican males—to pick both rapidly and selectively. The pickers, including one all-female crew, want to take home as much as they can possibly earn, and at one point engage in a heated debate about piecework vs. hourly wages when the weather cuts short their working time.

Although during the brief harvest season the migrant workers are well paid—the most productive can earn up to $27/hour—Beck was plainly moved by the border-crossing odyssey many endured to get to the vineyards. One of the female pickers described her trek from southern Mexico at the hands of professional “coyotes” who smuggle workers into the U.S. “I had a fear of crossing,” she said through a translator. “It was like they were selling us.”

Interestingly, Beck recalled, the female crew “all wanted to tell their border crossing stories,” regardless of their immigration status. “The fallacy,” he said, “is the lack of a migrant-worker system. You can cross illegally and still get a green card,” but that does not promise a secure stay in the U.S, he pointed out.

“Harvest” history
Originally hired to produce promotional videos throughout the year for the Wine Road Northern Sonoma County,  Beck, who for 12 years covered entertainment at the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, was gripped by the drama he witnessed during night harvest and decided to create an independent documentary of the crush. “It had a sense of urgency, a dramatic arc, a beginning and an end,” he told Wines & Vines.

Beck raised more than $6,000 online to defray expenses, and the Wine Road contributed funds for post-production costs. Representatives from the wineries and grapegrowers each have camera time to tell their histories and narrate the harvest as it sloshes to its conclusion. All of them lost significant portions of their normal crop, some as much as 50%, after the short, damp and late growing season.

“Harvest” features small wineries, mostly family-operated, including Robledo Family Winery, A. Rafanelli Winery & Vineyards, Foppiano Vineyards, Harvest Moon and Robert Hunter Winery, and an amateur home grapegrower/winemaker.

The ominous weather is leavened by good humor: An inter-crew baseball game; an end-of-harvest folkloric dance ballet and a visit from tourists attending “wine camp,” who toil briefly to pick a few clusters, inappropriately clad in white T-shirts and unsteady footwear.

Grower Wayne Rogers endured a rare invasion of wild hogs, who broke through a fence, plowed up the ground and messily devoured the low-hanging fruit in his Zinfandel vineyard, taking 80% of the crop.

Beck said he hopes “Harvest” will draw its audience from “anyone who drinks wine anywhere in the world.” After its premiere and a second screening Saturday April 14 at the Sonoma International, Beck will take his film on “the festival circuit,” including the Santa Cruz Film Festival (May 10-19) and Vegas Cine Fest (June 21-24).

He’s looking to find it a broadcast slot on PBS (probably cut to about 50 minutes), and eventually will make DVDs available for sale. “We’ll show it in churches, anywhere you’ve got a screen,” including wine education programs and seminars, Beck said.

“Harvest” is not “Sideways,” but it graphically shows the grubby uncertainty of the wine industry. “There is no swirling, no sniffing no sipping or quaffing.” It reveals, Beck said, “The blood, sweat and tears that go into every bottle of wine,” including a drop or two of his own. To see a brief trailer, click here . For more information, email john@sideshowvideo.com.

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