Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Wine, Weed and Weaning: Must See Documentary Shows What It Takes to Launch the Next Generation of Growers in Uncertain Times

Wine documentaries can be notoriously dull. 

In general, in a wine doc, what can be filmed? The grapes growing - slowly. The wine tasting - you can't experience it. The traditions of the many generations of some European families in a wine region - which, is (however tasty the wines) basically a semi-boring grape monocultural landscape where everyone is talking about this thing called terroir. Which you cannot really see. No one every sprays chemicals (contrary to reality). No one is putting on a Hazmat suit (contrary to reality). Maybe if you're lucky there will be a few drone shots.

I'm happy to report that - fresh from its world premiere in France at the Deauville Film Festival in France - the new documentary Weed & Wine, making its U.S. debut at the Mill Valley Film Festival Oct. 9-18, is none of the above. 

This intimate film centers on two families - an organic marijuana grower in Humboldt County, where the crop is cannabis, and a biodynamic wine grower/vintner in the Southern Rhone, where the crop is grapes and the product is wine. 

Audiences who turn out for the film may be fooled into thinking, from the title, that these intoxicants are what the film is about. 

But in truth, the film is has greater gifts to offer, which we can feel especially grateful for in this year of infernos and the unthinkable incineration of fabled lands. 

From climate change to the virus to a tense election, here in this country, the times they are "a changing." Maybe even "a transforming." And that theme of change, tied to family and generations, is at the epicenter of this film. I can say no more - see this film!

As director Rachel Richman Cohen says:

" is a film about the preciousness and precariousness of family - about what it means to parent in times of deep uncertainty.  

And for farming families. deep uncertainty is every year - every vintage, you know."

For me it was a great pleasure to have a chance to interview the director from her home in Maine (a state I used to live in) and to combine two topics in my life - documentary filmmaking (I was a professional filmmaker for PBS for national docs for five years and have made 50+ films for Apple) and wine.

Here's an edited transcript of our conversation.


You have a background in filmmaking and also as a lecturer at Harvard Law. What led you to make this particular film?

So it's a really different film than any other film I made before. My training was not in film but law. All of the films I have made before have been about issues related to the law - particularly focusing around incarceration - and the film I had finished immediately before this was about the sex offender registry and childhood sexual abuse. That was just a very hard film, and I was looking for something really different.

After I finished my last film, Untouchable, I took some time off work and travelled for a few weeks and landed in Paris spending time with my best friend who is a wine connoisseur and has always loved wine. 

I've always enjoyed wine, but never knew very much about it. One night, we were up late, at a wonderful wine bar, and she was going on about the idea of terroir. This was actually an idea I'd never heard of...I didn’t totally understand - only loosely understood -  what it meant. 

And one of my first questions to her was: does weed have terroir?

I knew a lot more about cannabis at the time, than I did about wine and we thought it would be really interesting to make a film about that comparing weed and wine. So the original idea was actually to compare terroir in weed and in wine.

But once I started researching for ideas about the film, I got up to Humboldt, in California, where I met Kev (the cannabis grower featured in the film). Once I met Kev, I knew he would be an interesting person to make a film about. 

It took a couple more trips before I met Kevin’s son, Cona. 

When I realized Kevin was bringing Cona up in the business, I saw the intensity of their relationship and their deep commitment and love for one another and I thought - “well, that's one half of the film.”

Wine grower and vintner Helene Thibons

Then it was an incredible challenge to find a wine counterpart who was both open to participating in the film and a good comparison to the cannabis industry. It took me almost a year after that to find the Thibons but once I did I knew we'd have an incredible film.

How was the film financed?

We got some small grants early on in the development stages from some foundations. I had a fellowship through the Harvard film Harvard Film Center. The process was how independent film is always financed - lots of folks working on deferred payment and some loans and we were able to finish.

What was your path to becoming a filmmaker? 

Before I went to law school, I had worked mostly as an assistant editor and thought about film school and thought about law school and wasn't really sure entirely what what the path would be, but it felt like both were three-year programs - and about the same amount of debt. 

Law opened up many more worlds to me - including that of film - and so I went to law school and worked at a public defender's office. And in turn, while I was in law school I worked on a defense team and an international war crimes tribunal, and there was a film there, and that's how I can make my first film War Don Don, which is about a criminal trial at the special court for Sierra Leone in West Africa. That film took about three years to make. 

And then I just continued to make films about issues related to law on a range of topics from the international criminal justice to cannabis policy reform. This is my second film about cannabis.  

What was your initial path into film as an assistant editor before law school? 

I always loved watching film, and it wasn't clear to me, before I learned how to edit, that I would be able to make them, but then I started as an assistant editor. It was really my first job, right out of college. I worked on a few projects including Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 - that was my job immediately before law school. I got to know some other really incredible folks, including some junior folks who were also assistant editors or assistant camera on those films, and those are people I have worked with.

On my first film, War Don Don, Nadia Hallgren shot it and then went on to be an incredible filmmaker in her own right. She just directed the Michelle Obama documentary.

It was really a great experience making the Moore film that and getting to know other young filmmakers early in their careers.

Can you say more about your point of departure in making this film? 

I think there are so many points of comparison between the cannabis industry and the wine industry, in which some families have been making wine for almost 500 years. They have certain ways of doing things. The Thibons family in the Rhone have never used pesticides. They transitioned the land into biodynamic winemaking, but they have always been ethical producers 

The family has a blueprint for this. They have done this generation to generation and understand how to pass it on from one generation to the next. 

In the cannabis family, Kevin became a cultivator on the illicit market when things like being organic were word of mouth. It was small communities in Humboldt County, figuring out best practices, neighbor to neighbor. And then the age of legalization ushered in a lot of new stuff. 

Now the Humboldt folks are trying to figure out how to stay afloat, when it isn't clear the ways in which they're going to be taxed, it isn't clear what government regulations are. Everything is changing so quickly. 

And they're driven by their triple bottom line. They want to be good to people, they want to be good to the planet, but they also need to make money doing this, and it is extraordinarily hard as the big producers flood the field. It's true for wine, too. But it's a different set of challenges for them than navigating this. New multi-million dollar producers are coming in and flooding the market with inexpensive cannabis, whereas, you know, the Thibons’ customers know the family has cultivated their customer base, over generations. 

Like most small growers, Kevin’s family can hardly keep up with the changing cannabis marketing standards. They can't sell direct to consumers. So it's an entirely different set of challenges. 

Our goals is filmmakers was to contrast these two to say what can one learn from the other, but also what can one not learn from the other where are they so different. The newness and the oldness. The Thibons family has these deep traditions to learn from versus in Humboldt, I think they sort of frame themselves or reframe them, but they look like cowboys. This is the frontier. They're trying to figure this out.

You’ve mentioned that you enjoyed sampling the particular products each producer makes. 

Well, it's such a joy. There are few things as wonderful as getting to enjoy an agricultural product with the people who produce them. And with knowing the landscape first hand and also the cultural practices around it. 

So experientially it's always wonderful to be able to consume things that are produced hyper locally. And then they're both incredibly talented at what they do. The Thibons' natural wine is always just so fresh and and vibrant. Kev has a wide range of cannabis and knowledge about how it can affect your mind and your body in such different ways. 

After a long day of shooting, Kev would recommend different varietals based on whether or not we were dealing with muscle pain from carrying heavy equipment or if we really wanted to kick back and relax. Each meant a different varietal of cannabis. He had one he kept calling ”the soccer mom” that we would enjoy, if we just wanted to take a quick break, but we could get back to work quickly - and that was always fun.

Are we able to buy the Thibons’ wine here in California? 

They do have distributors, but I can't figure out how to get you anything in California. Their distributors are on the east coast.

(Get in touch with DJK Imports for more info).

You became pregnant in the course of making the film. Did you have any concerns about being around pesticides? 

I wasn't looking specifically for vineyards that were organic certified (though the Thibons are Demeter certified biodynamic). I was looking for ethical producers. 

Looking for winemakers, my preference was to find a woman winemaker. And even though both industries are definitely dominated by men, there are incredibly talented producers who are women. 

My preference was also for biodynamic but that wasn't like a hard-and-fast criteria, but someone in the natural wine movement.

Aurélien Thibons

I was also looking for a producer who was somehow transitioning - so if we filmed for a couple of years, they would be in a different place than when we started. So when we learned Aurélien Thibons was just coming home from New Zealand to France, and that the family was then in this transition - on how to incorporate him back into the family business - that seemed like it would work for us. 

And then the last thing I wanted was someone who would be as philosophical and dynamic about their work as Kev and Cona (the cannabis family). This was not hard in the wine world. 

When I started talking to cannabis producers, I was attracted to folks who would really think meaningfully about the work they were doing and its impact generationally…Later, I think this was connected also to my deep curiosity about what biodynamic winemaking was. 

I remember when I first started learning about biodynamics, a friend explained it to me as “organic plus magic.” I was so interested in what it was. It seemed to be something that producer to producer could be quite different. 

Pretty early on in my wine learning and my wine education, I had a number of friends who were winemakers who were somewhat dismissive of the woo woo around biodynamic winemaking. And then they were slowly transitioning themselves into it, because when they had done tests on their own land, they didn't always see differences in the quality of grapes, but they did in the quality of soil. 

I wanted to learn more about what these practices were, and why these sorts of wine makers seem to have such a connection to the land. 

By the end of spending time with the French family, what did you come to understand about biodynamics that might have been a change in your perception? It certainly wasn't a central focus of the film're watching it day-to-day, right?

What would be different about biodynamics and conventional winemaking? It's hard for me to say because the only harvest I've ever participated in was with the Thibons. It’s the only vineyard where I've spent any amount of time in. Mostly I was just learning about winegrowers.

Did the idea that biodynamics was magic get demystified? 

That's such a good question. I guess it depends on what you know and how someone defines magic. I think what I would say about learning about the process is that viticulture and vinification are magic. And once you learn a little about wine, it's so clear how much you have left to learn. 

A big part of the film takes place during the harvest. We filmed every evening as they would taste the different vats. They would talk about it and they would compare and debate - what they thought had more tannins, or less, or how the wine was changing. We would taste things that one day would taste like grape juice and thereafter would taste like an early form of wine. 

That really felt like a form of magic. 

Then just hearing the debates within the family - their deep disagreements - and to learn there wasn't a clear course of action. This was a science, but it was also an art, and I think with the arts, they're always felt to me like there’s some real magic in it that there could be these people have disputes and then at the end the day would come when a wine that they all loved would be the result. I see that as magic. I don't think they would explain that it's magic but I experienced this as magic.

Did either family put any restrictions on what you could and couldn’t show in the film?

No, both families were incredibly open.

In fact, when the film was finished, they both met each other on zoom, and we actually filmed that first meeting. And for Mill Valley Film Festival audiences, that'll be available to view.

I had really clear conversations with both families ahead of time about what the filmmaking process would be like and the sorts of stories that we were interested in filming. When we were finished, we showed the families the films before we showed audiences. I think both families felt really powerfully that we had been fair, that we had captured something that was truthful and real about their families. 

I don't think either family were under any illusion that we would film something that wouldn't show the challenges and hardships and intentions within the family. It's very gratifying to me to feel like my subjects felt that we honored their stories including all the complexities of what happened. 

How can audiences see the film? 

Right now we don't have any distribution. So we have incredible sales reps, Submarine, taking it out and we hope to have news later in the fall. But right now everything is still on the table, which is okay.

I know so many wine films are tedious and self congratulating. “Oh, the grapes are ripening.” Nothing is happening really. A family talks about terroir and tradition. But it’s kind of formulaic. 

Instead this film is really enlivening - about not just the legacy but actually the day to day task of passing on the skills and knowledge to be a good farmer, and about the families’ responsibilities to prepare the next generation for what the family thinks is going to be a forward path that will support them in life. 

And yet, as you know, in the film - I don’t want to give anything away here, but - the younger generation faces challenges that even the older generation has no experience dealing with. Everyone is vulnerable in the end. How did those themes emerge in the process of making the film (which at first was driven by the concept of terroir)? 

That's a great question. 

I never thought this would be a film that was about the industry or really about cultivation. Those just weren't the themes that interested me most. As soon as I found Kev and Cona, the themes about family and passing it on - that was the most interesting to me. 

I hoped that would appeal to people like me who were interested in weed, but would also be drawn in by these families' stories. 

I also started thinking about parenting as I was making a film. Early on, I had all these lofty ideas I was reading Roland Barthes (a French writer on wine and philosophy). So the film I wanted to make was not just white wine and weed, with questions around agriculture, but also cultural symbols, which I think the film does get at - the Frenchness and the American-ness - of each family. Culture is the backdrop though and not the central story arc. The central story arc is about family. At the same time, as I was finishing the film, I was starting down my path of becoming a parent and when we had finished. We finished filming in the spring a few months before I got pregnant with my daughter. So, it's very much for me a journey about parenting.

When the pandemic first hit, I was curious how the film would be received in light of these changed circumstances and then I watched the film for the first time with my parents and with my infant daughter a couple months after she was born. And I actually thought the film felt incredibly relevant for its times. At its core it is a film about the preciousness and precariousness of family - about what it means to parent in times of deep uncertainty and for farming families deep uncertainty is every year every vintage.

For the rest of us. I think we're confronting parenting in times of covid that is a new sort of uncertainty, but for Kev and Cona (as illegal cannabis growers for a long time before they went legal) - they've been navigating parenting in uncertain times for their entire lives.

Well for me the film succeeds beautifully in delicately showing us the fragility of life and the kind of both craft and skills - as well as emotional resilience - families have to pass on. The film is a one of kind treasure, a rich, emotional experience that lets us look inside theses families and the challenges they face along with their deeply shared joys.

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