Skip to main content

INDEPENDENT LENS: Harvest Season

Airs Monday, May 13, 2019 at 11 p.m. on KPBS TV + Thursday, May 16 at 11 a.m. on KPBS 2

Winemaker Vanessa Robledo walks through her vineyard.

Credit: Courtesy of Roberto Guerra

Above: Winemaker Vanessa Robledo walks through her vineyard.

Documentary Spotlights California’s Mexican American Winemakers and the Migrant Workers Behind Every Bottle

“Harvest Season” probes the lives of the temporary laborers, permanent residents, and multigenerational Latinos intimately connected to the production of premium wines in the Napa and Sonoma regions of Northern California — in the midst of one of the most dramatic grape harvests in recent memory.

The film follows the stories of three subjects essential to the wine industry, yet rarely recognized for their contributions: veteran winemaker Gustavo Brambila, Mexican migrant worker René Reyes, and wine entrepreneur Vanessa Robledo.

Their stories unfold against the complex backdrop of reality in California’s Wine Country — a region of immense wealth that was accountable for $1.53 billion in export revenue last year.

Trailer | Harvest Season

A story usually hidden behind a more glamorous front, Harvest Season probes the lives of the multigenerational Latinos, temporary laborers, and permanent residents intimately connected to the production of premium wines in the Napa and Sonoma regions of Northern California — in the midst of one of the most dramatic grape harvests in recent memory.

From this notion, Director Bernardo Ruiz exposes Napa and Sonoma counties as spaces that inherently symbolize the contradictions foundational to the American story: on the one hand, romanticized global destinations replete with luxury hotels and precious real estate, and on the other, working-class agricultural communities with high rates of poverty and crises in affordable housing.

With immigration raids across the state and increasingly strict enforcement at the border, Napa’s growers and labor contractors are facing a severe labor shortage.

Some have turned to the H-2A visa program, which allows them to bring in foreign nationals, like René Reyes, to fill temporary agricultural jobs.

Although the work is hard, René intends to make the trip every year.

The separation from his family is hard, but in Wine Country, he can make more in one hour what he used to make in a day as a truck driver back in Mexico.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Roberto Guerra

Migrant farmworker Rene Reyes during harvest.

Vanessa Robledo’s ancestors came to work in the vineyards in the 1940s.

Her grandfather and uncles were brought to California through the Bracero program, settled in Napa, had nine children and built a successful vineyard and winemaking business.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Roberto Guerra

Vanessa Robledo as a child, with her family.

Growing up, Vanessa developed a profound respect for farming and the land, but also a desire to break away from the constraints of her role as a daughter in a traditional Mexican family.

Now running her own business, she takes great pride in managing the same vines that her grandfather taught her to tend as a child.

Not far from the Robledo vineyards, we meet veteran winemaker Gustavo Brambila. For Gustavo, tradition, craft, and quality are paramount.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Roberto Guerra

Winemaker Gustavo Brambila hand-labels a wine bottle.

The son of a vineyard worker, he came to the U.S. from Mexico when he was three years old. He has been making wines since 1976, and still spends countless hours perfecting each vintage.

The stories of Gustavo, Vanessa, and René culminate in a dramatic grape harvest — the most critical time of year for California winemakers.

Harvest Season - My Grapes Are Ready to Harvest - Clip

In this excerpt from the film "Harvest Season," Napa Valley winemaker Vanessa Robledo and her mother Maria walk through their vineyard inspecting grapes, including checking the grapes' sugar levels. They're on the verge of being ripe and then it will be time to harvest--the most intense work of the year.

During harvest, the number of workers doubles. Tourism is at its peak. Prices rise, tempers flare, and for workers, growers and the small wine producer, the pressures could not be higher.

Before the end of the 2017 season, wildfires ignited in both Napa and Sonoma counties, resulting in a history-making disaster that caused widespread damage and claimed at least 44 lives.

For growers like Vanessa and Gustavo, winemaking is full of constant challenges, but their work is also a labor of love and a cherished part of their heritage.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Roberto Guerra

Winemaker Vanessa Robledo is forced to set fire to some of her vines that have been infected with a virus.

“Wine is not just in a bottle magically,Vanessa reminds us. “If you go out and spend a season in the vineyards to be able to appreciate the man or the woman who is farming those grapes, at that point, you will have true wine appreciation.”

“We’re very pleased to work again with Bernardo Ruiz whose documentary explores the myriad ways in which the Latinx community has contributed to the history and evolution of the wine industry in Napa,” said Lois Vossen, INDEPENDENT LENS executive producer. “In digging beneath the romance of Napa Valley, Harvest Season brings to light the schism between the love that Americans have for the labor that immigrants bring, and America’s immigration and climate policies that threaten the sustainability of the entire industry.”

Photo credit: Courtesy of Roberto Guerra

Angel Calderon manages a farmworker housing center in Napa, which provides affordable housing and meals for migrant workers.

Watch On Your Schedule:

This episode will be available simultaneously with the broadcast for streaming on demand for a limited time. Extend your viewing window with KPBS Passport, video streaming for members ($60 yearly) using your computer, smartphone, tablet, Roku, AppleTV, Amazon Fire or Chromecast. Learn how to activate your benefit now.

Join The Conversation:

INDEPENDENT LENS is on Facebook, Instagram, and you can follow @IndependentLens on Twitter. #IndieLensPBS

Credits:

Directed by Bernardo Ruiz (Reportero). Co-Producer: Lauren Capps. Editor: Fiona Otway. Director of Photography: Victor Tadashi Suarez. Additional editing: Lucas Smith. Associate Producer: Andrea Cordoba. Composer: Alaskan Tapes.

FEATURED PODCAST

San Diego News Matters podcast branding

KPBS' daily news podcast covering local politics, education, health, environment, the border and more. New episodes are ready weekday mornings so you can listen on your morning commute.

Want more KPBS news?
Find us on Twitter and Facebook, or sign up for our newsletters.

To view PDF documents, Download Acrobat Reader.