She has paid $2,000 for Grape Camp, a three-day getaway for tourists who want to learn how to pick grapes in the vineyards. She has perfect salon hair, neatly plucked eyebrows half hidden by sunglasses, and the relaxed demeanor of, well, someone who can afford to spend $2,000 on Grape Camp. While Mexican laborers work the vineyards behind her, she speaks to the camera.
"We've talked a lot over the last couple days about how happy everybody is," she says, earnestly. "How happy people are. And you sort of see why. It's a beautiful way to live."
It's a nice thought.
In Harvest, the new documentary by filmmaker and journalist John Beck premiering April 13 at the Sonoma International Film Festival, vineyard workers do backbreaking work, hustle to fill bins in the dead of night, pick overtime to beat the rains, live in fear of deportation and are expected to smile when the tourist buses come rolling through.
Shot entirely in Sonoma County, the 97-minute documentary covers three months of the 2011 harvest and features an ensemble cast. Harvest contains no swirling and quaffing, no corporate winery talking points approved by the marketing department. Instead, it focuses on five family wineries—Robledo, Rafanelli, Foppiano, Harvest Moon and Robert Hunter—and their struggles to get through one of the worst harvests in memory. Importantly, it follows a rare all-female picking crew, whose members share harrowing stories of crossing the border.
The film's release is timely, and in contrast to the recent nationally televised idyll of wine country. Last month, Undercover Boss shadowed the president of Kendall-Jackson as he discovered that—shock of all shocks—people spoke Spanish in his vineyards. And in the eyes of those glued to The Bachelor this past season, a vineyard worker is a white, hunky twenty-something who just hasn't found the right woman yet.
With his small DSLR camera, Beck, a former staffer at the Press Democrat, does what no corporate CEO or network executive would ever consider: he wakes up at 2am and hits the vineyards with actual immigrant workers picking grapes. In visiting nighttime harvests, pickers' homes and small winemakers' garages, Beck paints a true picture of the harvest, with no interest in parroting the party line that everybody's always happy.
At the end of the Grape Camp segment, the tourists, having picked grapes for about an hour, stand around filming the immigrant workers on their iPhones. Then it's time to visit tasting rooms and restaurants. The film cuts to a Pure Luxury Transportation bus driving away on a dirt road, followed by a Mercedes-Benz—literally leaving the vineyard workers in the dust.
"I've seen tons of the sipping and tasting documentaries, and more of what I call the pseudo-mystical side of winemaking—which is the, you know, 'hint of stone fruit on the palate,' and that kind of shit," says Beck, driving up toward Healdsburg. "But I'd never seen this before. I think it's been captured in stills quite a bit, like Dorothea Lange, way back. But also, just in print journalism, I haven't seen a lot in this county—and I won't name the newspapers—but you see these stories all the time: 'Sixteen Laborers Found Living in a Building in Rural Windsor,' and you see these ICE stings. But I've never seen the whole harvest story."
Harvest is not a grand exposé, nor is it an indictment. But it's not a love letter to the wine industry either, and it bravely addresses what Beck classifies as a longstanding "don't ask, don't tell" rule in wine. Every picker interviewed for the documentary, he says, was an undocumented immigrant from Mexico. "I wanted to know how much these pickers sacrificed to be here," he says. "You know, you're buying that bottle off the shelf at Safeway, and you have no idea what went into the making of it."
Today, Beck is hoping to track down three women whose numbers he's lost but whose addresses he remembers. Paulina, Margarita and Maria are members of the all-female picking crew in Harvest, and Beck wants to give them free tickets to the screening. "What would kill me is if this premiere turned into a super-cheesy wine event, and the women didn't come to the screening," he says. "If they were not there, that would suck. But getting them there is not easy."
Hired for their attention to detail, the women pickers in Harvest are more often paid by the hour—not by the bin, and they argue this at one point in the film. In another scene, three of the women tell of crossing the border. Paulina leaves home as a teenager, pays 350 pesos to a coyote and narrowly escapes an ambush by thieves. Maria pays 1,500 pesos and hides for three days in a trailer before crossing. Margarita is dropped off at midnight, digs a hole under the border fence to the U.S., hitches a ride to Phoenix and then is transferred to another coyote who brings her to L.A. "It's as if they are selling you," she says.
Beck, who spent three hours himself picking grapes with the workers while filming, calls the work "excruciating." "In this economy," he points out, "even when unemployment is a record 12 or 13 percent, you still will not find anyone who's non-Mexican willing to go out and pick in the vineyards."
We pull down a street to Paulina's house, a fourplex apartment with three kids playing on the front lawn—except the lawn is actually dirt and weeds, strewn with a shopping cart, a beer bottle, a shoe, an empty can and an overturned pink plastic tricycle. This is the Healdsburg the tourism bureau omits from its photo galleries, and that's probably just as well; drawn on the mailbox is graffiti of a huge penis, and a large, bulbous "Fuck You."
In the five minutes we're there, a woman with groceries, a young man with flowers, a kid on a bike and a small dog all enter the building. Paulina's not there, but Beck has somehow managed to find her son, who gets her on the phone. "Soy Juan, Juan Beck!" he says. "The filmmaker, la pelicula. I'm at su casa right now."
He gets an address, and we walk to the car. "You can see why I have a translator," he jokes.
North of town, we find the place—a signless warehouse next to a tire shop. Out back, a boombox plays while 20 members of Paulina's baile folklórico dance group rehearse on the pavement. Beck finds Paulina, gives her a handbill and explains that he has free tickets for her and her family to the premiere. She nods, and continues to dance.
Down in Windsor, we drive a dirt road pockmarked by gravel infill along the railroad tracks. At the end is a leaning blue house with a roof covered in plastic sheeting and cinder blocks in place of shingles. Roosters greet us at the porch, and we walk through a front door of hanging linen. Margarita is there in the kitchen, and she gives a big hug to Beck, who pulls out a handbill for her. On it is a giant picture.
"Do you know this lady?" asks Beck, pointing to the photo.
Margarita looks down, sees herself on an official film poster, and emits a squeal so loud it could probably be heard in Nevada.
On the porch, I ask Margarita about the film. She and her crew did not get paid as much as anticipated, she says. In the film, an salty Matt Reilly proclaims that "the women did just as much work, only when it was done, they did a much better job."
Margarita tells me that every one of the vineyard pickers she knows is an undocumented immigrant, with a border-crossing story similar to hers. I ask how anti-immigrant sentiment in Sonoma County makes her feel, and she responds that it only makes her want to work harder to make her dreams come true. "They're not going to make me small," she says. "Someday we will change people's minds."
After years of writing entertainment pieces for the Press Democrat, John Beck began making short films for the paper's website. Every week, he produced weekend previews, band interviews and event recaps (disclosure: I was in one once). When he parted ways as a staff writer with the paper—he still freelances on a regular basis—he started Sideshow Video, making short films for small businesses.
In 2010, he and partner Don Lewis made Worst in Show, a documentary about Petaluma's Ugliest Dog Contest. But when Wine Road hired him for a night harvest shoot, he became intrigued by the process, and the idea for Harvest was born.
Robert Hunter Vineyards was the first place Beck filmed for Harvest. "I thought, 'Oh my God, this is gonna be a nightmare,'" he says. "And every time I came back, they would just kind of say . . . I know enough Spanish to know that they're cussing and making fun of me. But if you look at the situation, man, they have no say. The owner of the winery said I can come in and shoot, and the pickers have no say in that. So I was very careful to ask them if it was OK."
The night harvest scenes have a cinematic quality all their own, even one involving a machine harvester at Foppiano. A segment about pigs invading the vineyards affirms the challenges of the small farmer. A day off at Balletto Vineyards yields a much-needed game of baseball. There's even a little bit of criticism from Randy Pitts, of Harvest Moon Winery, about other winemakers leaving fruit on the vine too long and then having to battle the rains, which makes up Harvest's third act.
Above all, Harvest doesn't fall into the documentary trap of seizing upon—or worse, creating—a touching narrative, though every story in Harvest could probably have been its own documentary.
"More seasoned documentary filmmakers than I probably would have done that," says Beck, driving back south from Healdsburg. "And here's the only reason I didn't: I initially set out with this goal of filming all walks of life. And I thought of Harvest as being this ensemble cast. If it's called Harvest, and it's this broad swath, I want to show everybody. In the end, the harvest itself is the character. Does that make sense?"
'Harvest' premieres Friday, April 13, and Saturday, April 14, at the Sonoma International Film Festival. Screenings feature wine from Foppiano Vineyards. Sebastiani Winery, 389 Fourth St. E., Sonoma. Friday at 5pm, Saturday at 3:15pm. $15. 707.933.2600.
Films From Around the Way
Select local films at the Sonoma International Film Festival with North Bay ties
4 Way Stop Part of the "Believe It or Not" shorts program, this four-minute film by Sonoma County's Herbie Kritzer shows "people being people" at a four-way stop. April 12 at 12:30pm at the Vintage House; April 13 at 11:45am at the Sebastiani Winery Barrel Room Theater.
Alarm Clock Alley Shown during the "Spirited Sounds and Animation" shorts program, this three-minute Armani Cooper music video is directed by Sonoma resident Mike Lee. April 12 at 2:45pm at the Vintage House; April 14 at 4pm at Sonoma Community Center.
Bella Gaia Produced by the local Baum Foundation, this multimedia journey simulates space flight and shows planet Earth as seen through the eyes of astronauts. April 13 at 6pm at Sonoma Community Center; April 14 at 6pm at Sebastiani Theatre.
Born & Raised Coming-of-age drama by Sebastopol-bred filmmakers explores family, forgiveness and small-town life. April 13 at 7:15pm at the Sonoma Valley Women's Club; April 14 at 6pm at Vintage House.
Buskers Part of the "Sixth Sense" shorts program, this 19-minute documentary by local filmmaker Trent Anderson follows jugglers, musicians and others who make their living performing on city streets around the world. April 13 at 1pm at Vintage House; April 15 at 3:30pm at Vintage House.
Circus Dreams Feature film documents a year in the life of famed youth troupe Circus Smirkus, with performance by local acrobats before the film. April 14 at 10am at Sebastiani Theatre; April 15 at 5:30pm at Sebastiani Winery Barrel Room.
Derby, Baby! Documentary explores international boom of Roller Derby, featuring attendance of local resident Jerry Seltzer, a founder of the film festival and the son of roller derby's creator, and a demo by Sonoma County's Resurrection Roller Girls. Film, April 14 at 3pm at Sebastiani Theatre; Derby at 2pm.
Doggie Boogie This "Wizard of Oz for Dogs" by San Francisco filmmaker Romanus Wolter features pups, colorful costumes and fantastical sets. Apr 12 at 6pm at Vintage House; Apr 15 at 9:30am at Vintage House.
Everything Is Going to Be Fine Part of the "Edgy," shorts program, this humorous tale deals with San Francisco filmmaker Ryan Malloy's growing anxiety about the fate of the world. April 13 at 6:15pm at Vintage House; April 15 at 3pm at Sonoma Valley Women's Club.
On Falling Film by Peter McEvilley follows friends just out of college as they travel from SoCal to Sonoma—and into the hidden-in-plain-sight world of Northern California's marijuana land. Apr 13 at 8:30pm at Vintage House.
Luckiest Man Alive Short film about one man's happy misfortune, directed by Summerfield Waldorf graduate Matthew Temple. Thursday, April 12 at 9:45am at the Sonoma Valley Women's Club; April 14 at 8:15pm at the Sonoma Community Center.
Santa Ken This film about a Marin County man who goes decoration mad at Christmas is directed by Eric Paul Fournier. April 12 at 4pm at Murphy's Irish Pub.
My Father Who Art in Nature Sonoma native Alden Olmsted chronicles his troubled relationship with his father, California naturalist and John Muir follower John Olmstead. April 15 at 10am at Sebastiani Winery.
Special guests at the festival include John Waters, Christopher Lloyd and more. For full schedule and tickets, see www.sonomafilmfest.org.—Rachel Dovey