Mexican-American director Bernardo Ruiz’s Harvest Season is a portrait of viticulture’s dependence on immigrant labor, championing female and minority winemakers amid the disruption of agricultural devastation. The film also indirectly comments on climate change’s impact on the economic livelihood of winemakers.
At the Full Frame screening last weekend, Ruiz said he wanted to make a film about the Mexican diaspora centering on people that were not part of a tragedy, which is why he calls this story “a love letter to those involved in the behind-the-scenes work of winemaking.” But Ruiz, shooting in the style of cinéma vérité, did not anticipate the horrific California fires during the 2017 harvest season, which had a catastrophic impact on his subjects. The unpredictable arc of Harvest Season echoes the environmental risks to which the farmer is perpetually vulnerable.
Ruiz weaves together the narratives of three central figures in Napa and Sonoma County, providing a triad of vantages on production prior to distribution. He follows Gustavo Brambila, an artisanal winemaker whose profound, visceral finesse informs his intuitive sensibilities for composing complex wine structures, curating grapes from varying lots within the local terroir. His story was fictionalized in Bottle Shock (2008), a film about the 1976 “Judgment of Paris” wine competition, in which California varietals beat France in blind tastings, putting Napa on the global wine radar.
Ruiz also highlights Vanessa Robledo, a female wine-grower and entrepreneur whose family immigrated from Mexico to California during World War II to farm vineyards. Lastly, Ruiz journeys from Mexico to Napa with Rene Reyes, a guest worker who spends almost half a year separated from his family, providing an intimate perspective on the grueling intensity and sacrifice of manual agricultural labor.
Ruiz creates a lively synesthesia by pairing thoughtful editing with punchy rhythms from an original score by Alaskan Tapes. One beautifully cut scene juxtaposes wine served for tourists in theatrical environments with wine being distributed in the eucharistic celebration during a Catholic Mass. Not only are the compositional elements aesthetically parallel, but Ruiz observes performative and ritualistic patterns in how wine is consumed, gastronomically and liturgically.
As the film builds towards the harvest, Ruiz pivots to footage of a blazing inferno, which charred more than fifty-seven thousand acres of the surrounding region. Though their respective vineyards luckily escape direct contact with the fires, the smoky haze taints the grapes for both Brambila and Robledo. As a result, Brambila forfeits his best vintage of Cabernet, suffering the loss of two-thirds of his annual revenue. Meanwhile, Robledo discovers that her vines suffer from an incurable virus, necessitating their complete uprooting.
Harvest Season demonstrates how winemakers’ emotions are sown into their very soil. The film begins and ends at the Robledo family vineyard, opening with a sea of jewel-like grape clusters at night and closing with images of Robledo incinerating stacks of those very vines in a kind of funeral pyre. “What happens in the vineyard is a cycle,” she reflects. “There is something very sacred about the land.” Ruiz captures the fragility and fortitude of those whose work is contingent on nature’s benevolence, cultivating space for both abundance and famine in its perennial calendar.