Behind the wine
Benicia filmmaker goes behind scenes at 5 Sonoma vineyards
By Keri Luiz
LOCAL FILMMAKER JOHN BECK wanted to know more about wine. But he wasn’t interested in making a documentary about what makes a great pinot noir.
It was the frantic, exhausting work of the harvest — from vineyard owner to grape picker — that caught Beck’s interest, and eventually became the subject of his feature-length documentary, “Harvest,” which premieres Friday at the Sonoma International Film Festival.
Beck, 41, makes promotional videos. While on a shoot for a winery organization in 2010, he learned about night harvests and was urged to see one for himself.
“All of a sudden I found myself out in the vineyards — it was Foppiano Vineyards (in the Russian River Valley) — at two in the morning, and it looked like a UFO had landed out there,” he said. “It was surreal. That sense of urgency — they had to get those grapes off (the vine) at that exact moment in time.”
Beck, a former staff writer at the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, could see the makings of an intense film. Focusing on a handful of Northern California vineyards, he started filming last August, driving every other day to Healdsburg for the duration of the three-month winegrape harvest. In the end, he said, he had somewhere between 75 and 100 hours of footage.
“Harvest” largely tells the story of the work of five family wineries: Robledo, Rafanelli, Foppiano, Harvest Moon and Robert Hunter. It tells a story that, as the movie’s website says, “reveals the blood, sweat and tears that go into every bottle of wine.”
Much of the “sweat” part of the equation had to do with the pickers, and Beck tells their story with enthusiasm.
He said in the course of making the film he learned of a crew of women pickers working for Fulton-based Bacchus Vineyard Management. “I stumbled on the women,” Beck said. “They steal the show, when you get down to it.”
Beck’s wife, a copy editor at the Press Democrat, sits next to a research assistant whose boyfriend worked for Bacchus Vineyard. When the research assistant found out about Beck’s documentary, she mentioned that Bacchus was putting together the all-female crew.
Beck’s good fortune continued when he met the crew. Three of the women really opened up to him, he said, especially in telling how they came to be grape-pickers in Northern California vineyards.
“It was like, ‘Tell me how you got here,’ and all three of them — Maria, Margherita and Paulina — just went right with it. I think they understood it was important to get across the sacrifices that they made to be there.”
He found all the pickers’ journeys fascinating — and revealing.
“What struck me is, where do these people come from? What have they done to be here, doing a job that most Americans will not do? We have record unemployment in this country right now and you won’t find any non-Mexicans in the fields.”
Beck said interesting characters abound in “Harvest.”
“My goal from the beginning was to follow an ensemble cast, you know, from all walks of life. To me the harvest requires everyone, and that’s what is cool about it. The owners, the winemakers, the vineyard managers, the pickers.
“I was telling someone the other day, I think Robert Altman would make this film 10,000 times better, but he would be attracted to this. Altman liked ensemble casts. It really requires all hands on deck.”
Including Beck’s. While on location, he pitched in, too, picking grapes for hours alongside the vineyard’s veterans.
“I picked for three hours. It’s tough work,” he said. “(The others) were making fun of me. They’d call me ‘el tortuga,’ the turtle. My Spanish is horrible, and I had a translator but she wasn’t out there yet. They were just giving me hell, they thought it was funny. But it was a good way to kind of relate to them, too.”
JOHN BECK’S “HARVEST” will make its premier this weekend at the Sonoma International Film Festival with two screenings at the Sebastiani Winery Barrel Room, Sonoma. The first screening is Friday at 5 p.m., the second Saturday at 3:15 p.m. For information visit www.harvestmovie.com and www.sonomafilmfest.org.