Winemaker Vanessa Robledo control-burning her dry grapevines
Filmmaker Q&A

Bernardo Ruiz Tells Story of the Central Role Latinos Play in California Wine Industry

May 07, 2019 by Craig Phillips in Behind the Films

Two-time Emmy-nominated documentary filmmaker Bernardo Ruiz, who was born in Guanajuato, Mexico and grew up in Brooklyn, made his directorial feature debut with the PBS film Reporteroabout attacks on the press in Mexico, which New York Magazine called “a powerful reminder of how journalism often requires immense amounts of physical and psychological bravery.” He’s followed that up with films like Kingdom of Shadows (POV, 2016), the award-winning Roberto Clemente (American Experience), and the two-part bilingual PBS series, The Graduates/Los Graduados (Independent Lens, 2013).  Ruiz returns to PBS with Harvest Season, about Latino winemakers and vineyard workers in California’s Napa and Sonoma Valleys, in the midst of one of the most dramatic grape harvests in recent memory.

“[I]t is Ruiz’s commitment to valuing the interpersonal moments that makes the handsomely-shot Harvest Season worth watching, as a document of timely 2019 issues (immigration, labor rights, climate change) that puts people and communities — not statistics or soundbites — first” (Remezcla). Adds Criterion Cast about Harvest Season: “Told expertly and with some startlingly gorgeous photography, director Bernardo Ruiz gives a first hand account of small wine producers and the struggles they face both economically and politically in 2018 America…a film that’s as beautiful as it is intimate and emotionally moving.”

Ruiz talked to us about what led him to make a film about this lesser-known side of winemaking, what he learned, how California’s devastating wildfires became an unexpected and dramatic part of the film, and updates on the main characters.

Why did you want to make a film about the Napa and Sonoma wine industry? What was your knowledge of it before you undertook this film?“Whenever I read about or heard about California wine, it was almost exclusively presented as a history of white American entrepreneurs.”

My grandmother Lupita (Guadalupe) was born in Michoacán, one of the states in Mexico that sends the greatest number of workers to Napa and Sonoma (along with Jalisco, Guanajuato and Zacatecas.) My grandmother was pregnant 18 times throughout her life. Of those pregnancies, 10 of her children lived to adulthood (my father being the oldest of those 10). Before she went to bed at night, she would have a little thimble-full of Jerez (sherry), a little sweet wine, to kill the pains of the day and to help her sleep. I remember tasting it and thinking it was too sweet, and yet enjoying the lovey burn it produced as it went down my throat and radiated out throughout my chest. That was about the extent of my wine knowledge as a young person.

As an adult, whenever I read about or heard about California wine, it was almost exclusively presented as a history of white American entrepreneurs. I never heard about the central role that Mexican workers and their descendants had played and continue to play in what we think of as California wine. And though there has been some sporadic reporting on the role of Mexican immigrants and their children in the industry, my sense is that the topic has been treated as a novelty, rather than as a fundamental aspect of the business. The general neglect of this material created a creative opportunity for me. It also gave me the opportunity to connect to communities who hail from the same place that my grandmother was from.

Filmmaker Bernardo Ruiz in a flower field in Napa
Filmmaker Bernardo Ruiz

What was one of the most surprising or shocking revelations to you while making it?

As you see in the film—and it is visually very dramatic—most of the grape picking during harvest happens at night, with the rows of vines illuminated by portable light towers and with workers wearing headlamps. The night picking is done for the cooler temperatures (both for grapes and workers.) Everything is at a fever pitch during harvest. Workers, who are paid an hourly rate during other times of the year, are paid only for the tons picked during harvest (the formula is: total tons picked, multiplied by the set price, and then divided by the number of workers in that group.)

In other words, workers are incentivized to hustle. In some sequences in the film, it appears as if we sped up the footage, when in fact we recorded the picking in real time, with workers like Rene Reyes, working furiously to get the crop in before dawn breaks. As winemakers say they are struggling to find workers, you are also seeing the rise of machine harvesters.

What do you think is one of the most misunderstood aspects of the wine industry, at least California’s, or a myth that you aimed to rebut?

I wasn’t so much aiming to rebut anything as much as to create a fuller, and by extension, accurate portrait of California’s wine country. At every level of the wine industry, from workers in the field, to cellar workers, to office workers, to vineyard workers, to winemakers, there is a significant presence of Latina and Latino immigrants, most of whom who have roots in Mexico. The fact that this rich history has been neglected by media outlets—significantly many of the films on wine—became my opportunity.

Can you talk about how the devastating wildfires in Napa and Sonoma affected or changed your plans, and how you managed to weave that in? And how did you stay safe? How did your journalist background come in handy during that time especially?

It has been well documented that at least 44 people died, ranging in ages from 14 to 101. Thousands of homes were destroyed. Approximately 245,000 acres burned. It was devastating for the region and for the surrounding area. In my case, the work was about documenting the extensive damage and then focusing the storytelling on the film’s participants and their communities—it became one of the most dramatic sequences in the film.

harvesting grapes in Harvest Season

On a personal level, it was shocking to be in Napa and Sonoma – places that work hard to remain idyllic – transformed by the fires, filled with FEMA trailers, Cal Fire trucks, the National Guard and helicopters overhead. Of course this extreme and erratic weather caused by climate change is the new normal for farmers in California, and there are fears of more fires in the future.

Were you a wine connoisseur yourself before filming, and did working on the project make you more or less of one afterwards?

Let me take off my ascot and put down my snifter to answer this question…No, I am not a serious wine connoisseur, but I do like specific types of wines. In particular, I like wines that handle the heat in certain Mexican dishes well. It is an absolute myth that you can only pair beer with Mexican dishes. Maria Robledo, Vanessa’s mother, who you meet in the film, is an excellent cook and has been pairing wines with her chile rellenos and enchiladas for decades. It makes for an incredible meal.

Can you give us any updates on any of the main characters in your film, how they’re doing today?

Vanessa Robledo and her mother will finally begin replanting the vineyard they lost in 2017. They will replant in June. “It is exciting to finally get those plants in the ground,” she recently told me. However, it will take between 5 and 7 years for the vines she plants to mature. So, the earliest the new vines will bear usable fruit for wine will be 2024.

Gustavo Brambila, continues to sell his speciality wines direct to consumer and through his wine club. His Cabernets are very sought after, and I imagine the small batch of 2017 wines he releases, including the wines made from grapes that survived the fire, will sell very quickly. Rene Reyes did not return to Napa this year and remained in Michoacán with his family.

What are your own favorite or most influential documentaries or feature films, or films you have in mind when you shoot?

For Harvest Season, I was actually inspired, in part, by Jon Else’s Sing Faster: The Stagehand’s Ring Cycle. I saw it at a Sundance documentary lab eight years ago. That film is about the staging of an opera, but told from the point of view of the stagehands. I really appreciate how that film uses both humor and fly-on-the-wall verité to demonstrate how critical unseen labor is to the staging of an opera, ultimately allowing the diva to shine. There is a nice parallel to the wine world where hundreds of hands support the winemaker who gets to put their name on the bottle.

Can you tell us what you’re working on next?

I’m directing a film for ESPN’s 30 for 30 series. It is a gripping story set in northern Mexico that I can’t talk too much about. Unfortunately, there is no wine angle.

a Latino wine worker's wrinkled hands, close up

Craig Phillips

Craig is the digital content producer for Independent Lens, based in San Francisco. He is a film nerd, cartoonist, classic film poster collector, wannabe screenwriter, and owner of/owned by cats.