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Fruits of Their Labor 

'Harvest' makes stars of immigrant workers and small winery owners at Sonoma International Film Festival

click to enlarge CHARLIE GESSELL

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."

click to enlarge BEYOND THE BOTTLE Maria, sharing a laugh in the vineyards. The all-female picking crew in 'Harvest' often relies on humor to get through tough times. - CHARLIE GESSELL
  • Charlie Gessell
  • BEYOND THE BOTTLE Maria, sharing a laugh in the vineyards. The all-female picking crew in 'Harvest' often relies on humor to get through tough times.

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."

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