Every year the California State Fair (which going on as I write this on July 21, 2014) holds a highly esteemed wine competition of commercially produced wines from across the state. For KCRA-3’s once-a-month magazine program Common Ground, it was decided to lead off the opening segment with wine as the theme. The lead story was about how wine is judged, followed by two stories about vineyards and wineries.
To this end, a few weeks ago, in the middle of a week off I received an e-mail from Millicent Ozdaglar, KCRA special projects producer who produces Common Ground, which I do the post-production on and try to contribute a story to every month. She told me of a winery that was going to be profiled and asked if I’d care to do it as one of my one-person photographer-reporter pieces.
I love shooting vineyard and wine stories!
They couldn’t be more California. I love photographing the symmetrical lines of the rows of grape vines. The bunches of grapes. The people working the vineyards. The people making the wine. It’s a never-endingly fascinating process. And every vineyard has its own unique style, process and story.
I also love wine. Dry reds are my favorite. The redder & dryer the better. How dry? If there was a red wine varietal called Sahara, that would be my favorite label.
Cabernet, old vine zinfandel, table red, pinot noir, merlot—in that order—are essentially my blood type.
The assignment was to shoot the Navarro Vineyard & Winery, which had won Best Winery in California for 2014.
That would be interesting enough. But what had us really hooked was that this winery was extremely water-efficient.
California is deep into its second year of severe drought. For the second year in a row now the winter rain and snowfall has been only around 30% or less than average. Where I live in Sacramento, our principle water supply comes from the runoff from the melting snow, feeding streams, rivers, lakes and reservoirs. Right now all Californians have to be water conscious. Currently almost all the reservoirs across the state are far, far below normal and water restrictions are being enacted. Many Californians are under restrictions on watering lawns. Many are replacing their lawns and landscapes with rock, gravel and drought-resistant plants. In some neighborhoods you’d think you were in Arizona, not in Northern California.
So a drought-conscious winery was a place we wanted to visit.
Then I saw that the vineyard was thirty miles south of Fort Bragg in Mendocino County—nearly 200 miles away!
—4 hours there
—a few hours shooting
—4-5 hours back
Adding up to one helluva long day. On the plus side, however, it would be that it would be a day that I could spend all by myself. No writing of the story. No editing. Just drive, shoot, gather interviews, drive back. The rare opportunity of being given an entire day to work on my own—in some of the most beautiful country in Northern California—all by myself—and get paid for it. Case closed. I was in.
Day of the shoot I was up at 5 AM to hit the road by 6 AM. Scheduled arrive time was 10 AM. I’d stocked up with hot tea and a cooler of water on ice & an iPod loaded with podcasts to get caught up on. With the anticipated bay area morning commute logjam factored in, I arrived at the location at 10:15.
I arrived at the winery around 10:15 and was introduced to Ted Bennett—in his 70s, a big, burly, force of personality, bounding with energy. The kind of person we call in the news business “a sound bite machine”—meaning that everything he says is clear, articulate, thoughtful, and with a terrific sense of humor, which translates well on television. So much so that at some point along the way I determined that he would be the entire story. I wouldn’t need to speak to anyone else. It would be a profile of the vineyard & winery through the person who spearheaded it.
Right away Ted said, “let’s take a tour of the vineyard and I can show you around and what we’re doing here.
First he took me into a nearby vineyard where workers were arranging leaves and vines for better growth. Then to the warehouses where the current crop will be squeezed after being harvested in the next few months, and then into the temperature-controlled room where the juice is aging in wood barrels into wine. A process that I always find fascinating and beautiful.
“Let’s go up the hill and I’ll show you our water.” Ted climbed into an SUV with his dog Skip and we started out on a dirt road that wove through the vineyard and up to the top of a hill.
The Navarro Vineyard and Winery is just off Highway 128, around 30 miles south of Fort Bragg, on a 940-acre property on one side of a valley that rises up the side of a hill. There is more property beyond the hill that is an old-growth forest that Ted has decided not to develop so that the forest and wildlife that call that land home will continue on.
At the top of the hill is another vineyard producing a different type of grape that is beside a pond of water. Ted had created a system for capturing rainwater during the winter rains, which are greater there because of the close proximity to the Pacific coast, into the pond, as well as other ponds strategically placed around the property to provide drip-irrigation to each of the thousands of grape vines. Also, the water is gravity-fed with no pumps, and thus no electricity.
Adding to all of this, prior to when Ted and his wife Debra bought the property in the 1970s, it had been a working sheep ranch, so the land was rich from the years and years of sheep manure being worked into the soil. Ted still keeps sheep on the property to go through the vineyards and eat the weeds, scrub and other growth around the base of the grapevines. Again, a natural and efficient method of maintaining the farm.
At this point I had everything I needed for the story that I’d driven four-hours from Sacramento to get.
I thought I was done.
I was getting some beauty shots from the top of the hill looking down on the Navarro Vineyards in the valley below and chatting casually with Ted. It was then that I asked about the seasonal-worker situation in that area. The vast majority of California agriculture is dependent upon migrant, typically Mexican, laborers working as “guest workers.”
That’s when Ted responded that he didn’t use seasonal labor: that he had a staff of 50 or so people who worked there full-time, with health insurance, vacation plan and profit sharing: that this helped put their children through school, and that 80% of their children were going on to college.
At this my jaw dropped.
I’ve been around a lot of vineyards and wineries in Northern California and I couldn’t remember hearing this before.
(Ted also told me that at harvest time they needed a lot more people to pick the grapes, but that even then they kept it the family. Wives, children and parents of the full-time workers would help in the picking, earning as much as $30-per-hour!)
Ted said that this way the workers had a vested interest in the farm and making it do well. When he profited, they profited—in addition to their regular full-time wages.
I suddenly realized that I had a much larger story than the one I was initially sent out on.
As I was setting up to wrap up with an interview with him down in some shade around the warehouse area, a fellow who I’d met earlier came walking up and said, “Be sure to ask Ted about the stereo business he used to have that got him the money to buy this place in cash.”
Now I had even MORE of a AMAZING STORY!
I talked with Ted and, again, he was a sound bite machine, holding back on nothing, proud of the accomplishments of his winery, which he saw entirely as a group effort with all of the people who worked there with him.
After that I shot a few more beauty shots—inside the wine shop of some of the award-winning Navarro Vineyard wines—and a few more of bunches of grapes hanging on the vine just immediately outside.
(Did I mention how much I love to photograph big bunches of grapes in a vineyard!)
It was now approaching 3 o’clock in the afternoon.
I’d been there for 4½ hours!
I’d shot nearly 2 hours of footage!
(Admittedly, that included almost 30-minutes of footage double-shot using my Canon 7D with the Tokina 11-16 mm super-wide lens to add dynamic images, where I am simultaneously rolling on my Sony HD XDCAM to later synch the sound together using the audio waveforms. So, in truth, it may have been closer to 1½ hours of footage. But OH MY GOD!—what a whopping amount of footage! I honestly couldn’t remember when I’d shot so much material for one story!
I instantly resolved to break this up into two stories. One that would be the larger, longer Common Ground magazine profile that could run for almost 4-minutes in length. A second story focusing exclusively on the water-efficiency of Navarro vineyards could run as a separate package in the news to help promote Common Ground.
Once I’d loaded my gear to start the four-hour drive back to Sacramento (which became a five-hour drive hitting the Bay Area rush-hour pile up) I called Millicent Ozdaglar back at KCRA to update her on the shoot and all the additional elements I’d discovered. I wanted to make sure that they would be as interesting to her as they were to me. As I rattled them off I just heard Millicent respond with, “Wow.” And then another, “Wow.” And then yet another, “Wow!”—confirming that I’d come across something really exceptional.
BOTTOM LINE: When you head out on a news story
you never know what you’re going to get.
You have to be flexible and roll with things.
This story proved to me that sometimes in California—
—you still can strike gold!