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‘Harvest Season' documentary a 'love letter' to Latinos in wine industry

Ask any winemaker or vineyard manager and they will tell you the crux of harvest lies in timing - when to pick the grapes, and when to let them hang.

But there's another chronology at play, dictated by the current sociopolitical climate. With fiery debates erupting nationwide over the politics of agriculture and immigration, the wine harvest of 2017 was the perfect moment for filmmaker Bernardo Ruiz to pull back the curtain and shine a light on Latino workers toiling in the fields, cellars and temporary housing shelters - the often invisible workforce that is the backbone of the multibillion-dollar wine industry of Sonoma and Napa counties.

“Given the hostile anti-immigrant climate, I wanted to make a film that was about both the historical presence of Mexican people in California specifically, but also in the U.S. in general,” said Ruiz, who spent several years commuting from his home in Queens, New York to the Wine Country. “And then I just wanted to make a love letter to this community.”

Add to the mix one of the worst wildfires in California history and the result is both elegiac tone poem and combustible documentary that could not have been made any other autumn.

“Harvest Season,” which premiered at the Mill Valley Film Festival last fall and aired on PBS in May, returns to the Bay Area with a screening Sept. 25 at the San Francisco Green Film Festival (greenfilmfest.org), while also streaming on iTunes and Amazon. The 83-minute documentary follows Mexican migrant worker Rene Reyes, who crosses the border with a visa to pick grapes during harvest; veteran winemaker Gustavo Brambila, who unknowingly embarks upon his most challenging harvest to date; and winegrower Vanessa Robledo, who together with the women in her family - her mother, Maria, and daughter Jocelyn - is breaking from her patriarchal family and striking out on her own for the first time.

If every season is a rebirth, culminating with harvest, then the annual pick is a perfect backdrop for the Robledo women who are starting anew in myriad ways. Their struggle is not only against Mother Nature, but also against traditional machismo culture - still very much a prevalent force today, as inequities between women and men are hotly debated.

After recently divorcing her husband, Reynaldo Robledo, the founder of Robledo Family Winery in Sonoma, Maria sets out to farm grapes on land they planted in 1984 in Sonoma and Napa.

“Mom standing up for herself for the first time in her life, it made me stronger,” her daughter, Vanessa, says in the film.

“My mom is a very traditional woman, she doesn't speak English,” said Vanessa Robledo in an interview. “She came from Mexico when she was only 18. She was married to my dad when she was 16. She left everything she knew in a small pueblo to come support my father in what he envisioned to be the future of the family, which was agriculture in the wine industry. They had this vision that they were going to have a lot of children to help farm the vineyards.”

One of nine children, Vanessa learned farming at an early age and began translating business negotiations for her father as a teenager. She eventually rose to winery president, but “there were certain cultural things that became kind of challenging for me - to be constantly hitting a wall in my family,” she says in the film.

Vanessa decides to leave the family business, even though her father warns “if you leave, you lose everything.” Now, together with her mother, they farm the land together, facing not only the dangers of fire, but also vine disease.

For Ruiz, it was all about establishing trust, so the Robledo women would feel comfortable sharing a very personal story. “It was a sensitive topic. But it was a very important story to tell, this idea of the women in the family breaking off from the men in the family out of necessity and starting anew. So it's kind of the story of the two of them - Vanessa and Maria - against the world.”

Together, with the narratives of Brambila and Reyes, the film racks a lens on an often overlooked workforce. Nowhere is it more striking than the montage that builds, cutting back and forth from tourists drinking and dining on the Napa Valley Wine Train to a solemn Catholic church service of farmworkers and their families.

“It's an army of people who labor invisibly often without any recognition. I love that idea of shifting the focus,” says Ruiz. “The irony being the finished bottle is the easiest thing to cover. The reality is that hundreds and thousands of hands are going into this beloved product. There's also a class reality and you see it in the Wine Train sequence in the film. There's an upstairs-downstairs nature to it. It feels like to not acknowledge it, is crazy.”

One of the most powerful scenes unfolds not in Sonoma or Napa, but back in Mexico. At the end of harvest, Reyes travels more than 50 hours by bus and car, back to his hometown in Mexico. Whereas many filmmakers would have been content to fade on him saying farewell or maybe gazing out a bus window, Ruiz follows him every step of the way back home. It's the middle of the night when Reyes finally arrives after being gone for nearly half the year. After tears and hugs, he pulls out presents for his two daughters. With one arm around his wife, he's beaming as they open shiny new computers. And he tells them, “All of this because of the work with the grapes.”

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