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'Harvest Season': A Year in the Life of Immigrant Workers in Wine Country

By Valentina Valentini

From Bernardo Ruiz' "Harvest Season." Courtesy of Roberto Guerra

Bernardo Ruiz has always been interested in stories about borderlands—“In particular, the love/hate relationship between the US and Mexico,” he says. When he’s not busy as a director and producer-for-hire on films for ESPN’s 30 for 30 series or Alex Gibney’s Jigsaw Productions (on the recently released Facebook Watch miniseries, USA v. Chapo), the movies he’s produced independently have each dealt with this theme in different ways.

His first documentary feature, Reportero (POV), was about a group of journalists in Tijuana who cover organized crime and political corruption. His second feature was Kingdom of Shadows (Participant Media, POV), which dealt in similar terrain, but followed three people whose lives have been impacted—or rather, destroyed—by the drug war. And now his third, Harvest Season, again deals with US/Mexico relations, but from a very different context—the wine industry in California.

“It was a conscious decision to make Harvest Season,” says the Mexico-born, New York-raised filmmaker. “I wanted to do something that was celebratory of the Mexican diaspora and the immigrant community in this country.”

The movie follows three people whose lives are rooted in wine-making and takes place in the lush and luxe Napa and Sonoma Valleys of Northern California, known for their top-tier wine-making. Ruiz wanted to create a sort of love letter to that community, as opposed to the type of stories his two previous films focused on—trauma, suffering, violence. And when it comes to wine and those that are deeply involved in its production, there is usually joy and introspection, dedication and planning. It’s not without its tragedy, however—it’s well documented that fires and droughts have increased due to climate change. And while that issue places a backdrop for the stories showcased in Harvest Season, focusing in on the unsung heroes of this industry was the main point for Ruiz.

Documentary caught up with Ruiz before his film’s premiere on PBS’ Independent Lens on May 13 about his two-and-a-half years making the film and its challenges and triumphs.

Documentary: It seems a very deliberate moment to show a film like this. What were your thoughts on making a film about both wine and immigration?

Bernardo Ruiz: We’re still in a “foodie” moment. There continue to be all of these programs about food and travel. Anthony Bourdain, prior to his suicide, created such a celebrated travelogue where food and drink were tantamount to his storytelling. There’s Netflix’s Chef’s Table, too, and I was thinking about how that kind of programming tells a certain narrative—a top-to-bottom storyline talking about all aspects of a particular chef’s life and contribution to food-making. When it comes to wine country in California, it’s just shocking that there have been no high-profile series or documentaries about this work force and its roots in the field and its roots in Mexico. It was a glaring absence to me. And I thought, This is an opportunity to tell a story that I think is really rich and layered. And, I mean, people really love their wine.

What has been the response at screenings?

I found a way to do two things: to tell a story that’s about immigration and diaspora and the long-standing historical relationships of these immigrant communities to California, and also I was able do something that was more fun. People that love wine show up to these screenings without an expectation of learning about immigration, but hopefully they’re walking away with some new perspective about this product that they love.

Other than depicting the fires that happened in 2017, this movie is more of an intimate character study without a lot of dramatic ups and downs. What was your motivation for that?

I’m most interested in characters. The thing that is great about vérité feature docs is that your investment of time is really rewarded. The more time you spend with people, the richer the storytelling is. I think there is a kind of ebb and flow to the process, because there are times when things are pretty quiet and then there are times like the harvest, which happens at night, and it’s very energetic and dramatic. The wildfires were an enormous curve ball. At least 44 people died. As a production team, it caught us completely off guard, and as someone who’s covered conflict in other places for other outlets, it was very interesting to see Napa and Sonoma—these luxurious tourist destinations—transformed temporarily into areas where FEMA is showing up and where aid shelters and tents are being set up. Regardless of your political ideology, if you’re a farmer, you are dealing with more extreme weather each passing year and growing problems due to climate change.

In the film, you didn’t go much into how climate change would affect them, though. Was there a thought that including that aspect would be overkill for the narrative?

The goal was to have immigration, economic inequality and climate change be present within the narrative, but I wasn’t interested in making a didactic film. The one storyline that I really developed in production but that did not make it into the final cut was one about housing. Affordable housing in Northern California is a very big issue. Napa County, where I did the bulk of the filming, only has three farmworker housing centers and each one of them has 60 beds. That’s only 180 beds, and only for male workers. There’s no housing for female workers or families. And while there’s discussion of the construction of a fourth housing center, so many local residents feel like that’s just not enough. I had followed this housing storyline by attending county halls and it became more like a Frederick Wiseman-y storyline where I was observing this political process in the background, but ultimately, we—my editor and collaborator, Fiona Otway—decided it was too much exposition and that it was really taking away from the kind of core storyline of following this one harvest-season period. And I think cutting it was the right choice. We had immigration, the upstairs/downstairs story of vineyard owners and vineyard workers, and climate change was a present element.

How did you find your main characters and decide they were the ones to follow?

There are about 20+ wine-making Mexican-American vintner families. Generally, my MO is to be interested in the underdogs, maybe the ones that aren’t as self-promotional. I went on tastings to all the Mexican-American vintners—a really tough reporting assignment, to go taste wine [laughs]—and that’s where I met Gustavo Brambila. Interestingly, his story was fictionalized in the 2008 Hollywood movie Bottle Shock. Freddie Rodriguez plays him, this young, passionate, Latino winemaker. Shortly after, I met Vanessa Robledo and her mother who were, to me, just this very compelling duo. Vanessa in particular because she began as a kid working in the fields and then had to separate from her father because he only wanted his sons to take over the family business. And with Rene Reyes, the H-2A guest worker, it was finding someone who was going to put up with you filming them for a year or two. Also, I made a very conscious choice to not film an undocumented worker, because I didn’t want to put anybody in harm’s way.

You knew going in there were specific things the winemakers and migrant workers were struggling within their industry. Was there anything you learned that you didn’t know before going in?

There are a lot of documentary projects about immigration broadly that deal with the kind of precarious status of people who come to this country without authorization, or at very different levels of stories about immigration. I think part of what was interesting to me about this film is to take a multi-layered approach and show both the story of someone who’s coming here to work as a recent immigrant, but then to also talk about people who are second and third generation. Gustavo came here as a three-year-old. Vanessa’s second generation. I wanted to tell their story, too, of people who are entrepreneurs and artists who have a longer history in the United States. So, when you take all three people together, you’re getting a very layered portrait.


Valentina Valentini is a writer traveling the world in search of her next story. She covers entertainment, travel, food, culture and people for Vanity FairBBC TravelVariety and many more. Follow her adventure at @valentina_writes.