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‘Living Wine’ chronicles natural winemakers against backdrop of climate change

In the face of climate change and shifts in weather patterns, Wine Country farmers and vintners are looking at a future that could force them to revise longtime practices.

That’s one of the underlying themes in a new documentary, “Living Wine,” which chronicles a handful of natural winemakers in California who already are taking steps to adapt to a warmer planet.

Natural wine, generally understood to mean wine made from organically grown grapes and produced with few or no additives, accounts for less than 1% of wine made in California, according the the film. Yet as a practice, natural winemaking has the potential to improve the land, decrease atmosphere-warming carbon dioxide emissions and make the most of limited water supplies.

“Before making the film, I just assumed wine was a ‘natural’ product,” said Lori Miller, the director and producer of the 85-minute documentary, which opens in Sebastopol’s Rialto Cinemas on Aug. 19 and runs through Aug. 25. “Learning more about natural wine through the filming process made me hopeful that the film could have at least a small effect on helping consumers see this connection.”

The filmmaker is best known for her documentaries on art and culture, such as “They Came to Play,” about outstanding amateur piano players at a prestigious international competition and “Shakespeare High,” about the inspiration at-risk teens in Los Angeles found through reading works by Shakespeare.

It was her brother’s purchase of a house and vineyard outside Santa Rosa that started Miller on the path to making “Living Wine.” The vineyard had been conventionally farmed and treated with regular doses of the herbicide glyphosate, which may have compromised a well that supplied the household water.

Before making the film, Miller said, she already was a longtime advocate of organic foods but was an ill-informed consumer.

“I was only peripherally aware of the possibilities that farmers can have to positively affect climate change,” Miller said. “Anything the film can do to inspire better farming practices, as well as consumer demand not just for wine but for any type of food or product made from plants, then we will feel like we’ve made a positive contribution.”

In Sonoma County

In Fulton, vintner Darek Trowbridge of Old World Winery has developed a system for capturing carbon using a special mulch with fungal mycelia. Carbon capture aims to trap carbon dioxide, a major contributor to global warming, before it enters the atmosphere.

Trowbridge, featured in “Living Wine,” developed the mulch through his side business, Soil Carbon Management. The mulch also creates healthy soil, increases crop output and eliminates the need for irrigation, Miller said.

Yet even with the availability of carbon capture and other environmentally oriented methods, the wine industry needs to catch up.

“The natural wine movement is about 20 years behind the organic food movement,” Trowbridge said in “Living Wine.” “People tend to think all wine is ‘natural’ because it was grapes that (were) just turned into a liquid. You can’t see the process, but typically wine is a manufacturing, machine-driven product that needs adjuncts to make it work in a timely manner.”

People don’t understand industrial farming and that chemicals are often added to shorten the grape-growing and winemaking process, Trowbridge says in the film. Neither did he, until he earned a master’s degree in winemaking.

“I thought, ‘Oh man, this isn’t what I want to do,’” Trowbridge said.

About 100 years ago, his ancestors planted a vineyard in the area, before farming with chemicals became the norm.

“I want to make wine the way my grandfather did,” Trowbridge said in the film. “I work to do good on my farm for the land and for the ecosystem.”

Natural wine is perceived by some as a risky venture because it forgoes additives that could stabilize the wine. For example, sulfer is an additive used as a preservative. Natural winemakers, however, counter that the enhanced flavor profile and benefits to the land outweigh the risk.

“My hope is that the film can become part of a broader conversation among consumers about the many different ways that wine can be made and that it encourages people to try natural wine,” Miller said. “It seems like there’s a lot of curiosity and forward momentum.”

Farming shifts

For a deeper understanding of industrial farming and its history, Miller tapped Elizabeth Candelario, director of strategic partnerships with Mad Agriculture, a company based in Boulder, Colorado, that offers resources to help farmers with a holistic approach to farming.

“After World War II, chemical companies got quite crafty at repositioning from making bombs ... to using fertilizers on farms,” Candelario said in “Living Wine.” “Nerve gas became re-purposed as synthetic pesticides.”

Miller said she was drawn to chronicle this postwar shift in farming practices, which created a dependency on big agricultural corporations.

The documentary was a two-year endeavor. Research began at the onset of the pandemic in early 2020, with post-production in May of this year. The project unfolded during the largest wildfire season on record, with daunting challenges from the Lightning Complex wildfires.

“Our winemakers are facing rising temperatures, shorter growing seasons and more frequent and virulent wildfires.” Miller said. “But they’re staying true to their ideals, and they’re healing the very environment they’re surviving.”

You can reach Wine writer Peg Melnik at peg.melnik@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5310.

Peg Melnik

Wine, The Press Democrat

Northern California is cradled in vines; it’s Wine County at its best in America. My job is to help you make the most of this intriguing, agrarian patch of civilization by inviting you to partake in the wine culture – the events, the bottlings and the fun. This is a space to explore wine, what you care about or don’t know about yet.

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