Friday was a big day and night at the 15th Annual Sonoma International Film Festival with continued screenings at the eight (8) venues around the Sonoma Plaza. The crowds were very large and also very appreciative of the films presented many of which were represented by the film makers and actors. Three outstanding films will be acknowledged in this, and two subsequent articles, for their creativity, contemporary timeliness and ability to evoke emotion and thoughtful reflection.
The Sebastiani Vineyards & Winery barrel room, just blocks off the plaza, was the perfect screening location for Director John Beck’s feature-length celebration of harvest. The documentary was filmed in Sonoma County and follows five family wineries and an all-female picking crew from Mexico through the very challenging 2011 harvest. The winery families featured, Foppiano Vineyards; A.Rafanelli Winery; Robledo Family Winery; Harvest Moon Winery and Robert Hunter Winery, are truly representative of the Sonoma wine country. These families span the gamut of century old Sonoma County grape growers; successful Mexican immigrant vineyard workers who have made the leap from field worker to ownership of a successful vineyard management company to vineyard and winery owner; four generation Italian immigrant families and finally, successful professionals who have become grape growers as a ‘retirement’ or recent lifestyle choice.
But this story is not about the families who own the vineyards or the wine itself. It is about the 2011 harvest, which some have called the worst in forty years in terms of the harvest conditions. The film focuses on the actual work in the vineyards in September and October of 2011 which was especially challenging and unnerving because of the early and persistent rains. Harvesting as much ripe fruit as possible was vital as the late spring rains had already reduced the yield. Those rains had knocked off a significant amount of the flowers on the vines thereby shrinking the size and quantity of fruit clusters maturing through the summer. These early autumn rains now threatened low sugars and the development of molds that would render the grapes unusable.
Like the annual cycle of death and rebirth that the vineyards experience, these families live similar cycles with the death of first generations, pruning, new plantings and the grafting by marriage making these families more resilient and tolerant of the hardships all farmers undergo.
Randy Pitts grew up around his parents’ Russian River vineyards but left to work in San Francisco. Like the prodigal son, he returned in 2000 and helped create Harvest Moon Winery’s inaugural vintage in 2002. He showed an amusingly dry sense of humor as he made philosophical observations throughout the film. He had successfully harvested his fruit, mostly, in advance of the terrible weather.
Leading players in the management of vineyards, including the harvest, are vineyard management companies like Bacchus Vineyard Management, whose pickers included the all female team from Mexico. The female team was assigned some of the vineyards most affected by mold as they are known for their more patient and selective picking techniques while the men are known for speed and strength. In the end, the women nearly matched the men in volume and exceeded them in quality (cleaner grapes and less left on the vines).
The Robledo family, like the Rafanelli’s, Hunters, Pitts and Foppiano’s, exhibited the tenacity, endurance and resignation that all farmers must have to survive the curveballs nature can pitch like rain and wild pigs. That adaptability was put into words by Vanessa Robledo when she said, “yes we lost 40% of the fruit but we are thankful because Mother Nature gave us 60%!”
Equally committed to their families and courageous in the face of hardship, are the pickers who toil in the rain and cold, sometimes around the clock to bring in the fruit before it is ruined. Their humility and strength was captured with this quote, “We were paid very little but we enjoyed the little we made. We enjoyed it with our family.” A sense of value and spirit perhaps lacking among many Americans today.
Professional actors could not have better expressed the rollercoaster emotions than the real people in this documentary. Shelly and Dave Rafanelli; Paul Foppiano; Reynaldo and Vanessa Robledo; Bob Hunter and Randy Pitts as well as the vineyards workers truly embodied the stoicism and faith of those who annually experience this human endeavor.
Many truths and lessons can be learned while viewing this evocative film. It could even cause the most ‘sober’ wine aficionado to lift all future glasses with a sense of gratitude and a toast to the growers, wine makers, pickers and especially mother nature for this annual cycle of bud break, flowering, fruit set, veraison, and HARVEST. Salute!!