YOUNTVILLE — Though the Napa Valley Film Festival officially started Wednesday, it screened a controversial documentary on Tuesday that presented an unfavorable view of Napa Valley.
“Food Chains,” directed by Sanjay Rawal, focuses on tomato pickers in south central Florida, but segues to celebrants at Auction Napa Valley juxtaposed with families living in a farmworker camp said to be along the Napa River.
The film has gained considerable notoriety among the local wine industry, with one vintner who asked not to be quoted suggesting it wasn’t appropriate to highlight it in the Film Festival. “The Film Festival asks for our support, then features a film that disparages our work,” the vintner said.
The Yountville Community Center was almost filled with festival fans as well as wine industry members to watch “Food Chains,” then hear a discussion moderated by Napa City Councilman Alfredo Pedroza, the son of a former grape picker.
The panel included Amelia Ceja, herself once a grape picker and now co-owner of Ceja Vineyards, and the elected heads of two local wine industry organizations; Russ Weiss, chairman of the board of directors for the Napa Valley Vintners and president of Silverado Vineyards; and Steve Moulds, president of the Napa Valley Grapegrowers and owner of Moulds Family Vineyard.
Fighting injustice in tomato fields
The bulk of the film describes the efforts by Florida tomato pickers in the unincorporated small town of Immokalee to raise their wages, which the film said were 1 cent per pound picked, by one penny.
The film alleges that workers in the area were not only underpaid but some suffered sexual abuse and even slavery.
Having discovered that the growers they worked for were impotent in negotiating higher prices from the supermarket and fast-food chains, the workers formed the Coalition of Immokalee Workers to pressure the retailers, especially Publix, by far the largest supermarket chain in Florida. They attempted to gain publicity with hunger strikes and demonstrations outside Publix stores.
Eventually, the group signed agreements with many big tomato buyers to buy “Fair Food Tomatoes,” but not with Publix.
The film also looks at the plight of workers in other areas, notably Napa Valley, claiming that the labor content of a bottle of wine is only 25 cents, and paying farmworkers more would hardly affect the final cost.
Jennifer Putnam of the Napa Valley Grapegrowers, however, responded later that the full cost of labor in an expensive bottle of wine is $30 to $40.
Why spotlight Napa?
When the film ended, most of the audience stayed for the discussion, with moderator Pedroza asking Rawal why he chose to spotlight Napa.
“We started in California and I expected farmworkers in Napa Valley to be treated better,” Rawal said. “I expected Napa to be the gold standard.”
“Yet I uncovered things in Napa Valley that were shocking. I didn’t even include some of them. Yes, the majority of the workers may do well, but not all.”
Rawal, whose father was director of tomato research for Del Monte in Northern California, said he spent summers with him in the Central Valley on farms that grew experimental varieties of tomatoes.
Rawal found Immokalee was a center for abuse, but things have changed as a result of worker efforts. “Now there’s fast justice, If a grower abuses his workers, he can’t sell tomatoes to most top chains.”
Wages or charity?
Rawal questioned why the Napa Valley Vintners donates proceeds from the Wine Auction for education and health initiatives that benefit farmworkers as well as others locally.
“Why not give the $7 million raised in the auction to the farmworkers as bonuses instead of giving them charity,” he asked. “Don’t you trust them to make the right decisions?”
Weiss took exception to Rawal, characterization of donations to improve health care facilities or train workers for better jobs or to speak English as charity. “These are building the fabric of the community,” he said.
He also pointed out that the workers could never build such facilities or provide the services by themselves, to which Rawal countered, “If they organized, they could.”
Where are the unions?
Rawal is a fan of worker-driven programs. He asked, “Why have unions fallen out of favor in the valley?”
Amelia Ceja, who was once involved in union activities, said it was “unfortunate to see the United Farm Workers disappear from Napa Valley. They gained many rights for workers [all over the state]. But Napa Valley observes their principles even without them.”
Putnam, executive director of the Napa Valley Grapegrowers, said farmworkers have an organization that gives them a voice and power: the Grapegrowers.
“Farmworkers are deeply involved in planning our programs. Almost every person on our education committee is a farmworker,” she noted. Just as wineries and growers work together here, so do workers and growers.
Rawal claimed that local farmworkers should be getting $21 per hour but presented no source for his assertion that it takes $27 per hour to rise above the poverty level here.
Putnam said that the most recent study of wages and benefits among farmworkers here by UC Davis pegged the entry level wage at $12 to $14 per hour, with average wages higher. That’s far above the $9 President Obama has called for as a federal minimum wage, she said.
In the end, Rawal admitted that Napa Valley is a unique situation. Still, his film portrays Napa in an unflattering way.
Why? “It gets people’s attention,” said Putnam. “They always quote Napa. It shows our importance and can be good for us, but in this case, he brought Napa Valley in for its shock value.”