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PBS film shines light on Mexican migrants in California wine country

Roger Morris takes a look at PBS’ latest documentary, which shines a light on the role of immigration in two of the most important winemaking regions in the USA.

Vanessa Robledo [Photo: PBS]
Harvest Season, a documentary by director Bernardo Ruiz airing at 10 p.m. ET tonight (Monday, 13 May) on PBS, tells the story of a year in the vineyards and wineries of Napa Valley and Sonoma County from the point of view of Mexicans and Mexican Americans who have long been the backbone of the industry, rising over the years from primarily vineyard workers – a role they still dominate – to increasingly becoming winemakers and winery owners.

The beauty of the film is that in doing so, Ruiz strikes a very positive approach to progress being made, without glossing over the sins of the past and present.

Rene Reyes (Photo: PBS)

His is not a political film, but rather one that tells its story via the vineyards – from winter pruning in 2017 to winter pruning 12 months later – and through the eyes and words of four people. He does this with an amazing accuracy about the wine business, while drawing viewers into the people’s lives and their work, shows Ruiz’ strength as a director.

The film follows Rene Reyes who, in his 30’s, makes his first journey to California on a work visa, sending money back to his growing family in Zamora near Mexico City. He is a quiet but determined man who radiates warmth and intelligence. Then there are two winegrowers – Vanessa Robledo in Sonoma and Gustavo Brambila in Napa – whose stories are similar, yet different. Robledo’s family has been in the wine business for generations, but she had to make a choice, she tells us, when her father decided to give her job as winegrower at the family vineyards to her brother when he became interested.

Hispanic women in California are increasingly showing determination to overcome racism and sexism to lead family wine businesses, so rather than accept the familial slap in the face, Robledo now owns her own winery with her mother at her side.

Brambila is the embodiment of the history of modern vine growing in Napa Valley, having worked at Chateau Montelena with Mike Grgich when Grgich made the Chardonnay that won the Judgment of Paris historic competition in 1976. He joined Grgich when the latter founded Grgich Hills winery and then later set out on his own.

The fourth person in the cast is Angel Calderon, who runs a worker housing facility partially funded by the large wineries that charges tenants $14 a day for room and board. Calderon, a quiet-spoken man, also serves as sage and mentor to workers such as Reyes.

The film has no narrator, and a sequence that shows a solitary Calderon wordlessly watching President Trump speaking about Mexicans from a television on the opposite wall is priceless.

There was an unexpected entry in the arc of making the film when the devastating forest fires struck Napa and Sonoma during the 2017 harvest, and Ruiz’ footage is compelling as it documents both the rage of the fire and the determined response of the community.

“I thought I had wrapped everything up when the fires broke out,” Ruiz said during a phone interview from Mexico City where he at a work on his next project, a documentary for ESPN about the legendary distance runners of northern Mexico.

Bernado Ruiz, the documentary’s director [Photo: PBS]
“I shot footage of the fire for days and days,” he says, “and I think how the community responded to it was very impressive.”

Ruiz says he had long been interested in the dominant role Mexicans have played in California wine industry, and he briefly touches on the controversial braceros program and brings the viewer up to date on the immigrant battle being fought at the border by the Trump Administration.

“I was surprised that the story hadn’t been really told,” he says. “I spent about two-and-a-half years on the project before I started shooting.” His decision to let the story tell itself without narration and with minimal dialog, works beautifully. “My goal was to be true to [cinema] verite,” Ruiz said. “I would have lost viewers if I had been too strident.”

Harvest Season will be available simultaneously for online streaming at pbs.org free for 30 days. Then the film will be available to buy on PBS’ streaming platforms (Amazon Prime, Comcast, and iTunes).

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