Crossing the great divide
In Napa, now it’s wine, food…and film
Some of the documentary Somm was filmed in Hanzell Vineyards in Sonoma and will open the Napa Valley Film Festival. Somm follows four wine aficionados through the grueling final exam of the Court of Master Sommeliers. How I Became an Elephant tells of one girl’s efforts to save the dwindling population. Year of the Living Dead looks at cult hit-maker George Romero’s rise to fame.
There’s a rivalry of sorts, a sort of viniferous divide, that separates the Napa and Sonoma valleys and leads to dueling PR campaigns and wine-born speculations about the true nature of each valley’s soul.
Some Sonomans view Napa as snooty, pretentious and too commercial, while Napans of a certain pedigree may look down their noses at Sonoma as Napa’s red-headed stepsister with a freckle outbreak and a shortage of sophistication.
But much of this is idle chatter and, meanwhile, Sonoma residents Marc and Brenda Lhormer have successfully bridged the great valley divide by directing film festivals on both sides of the Mayacamas Mountains.
After a 2011 launch, they are now in their second year of a star-studded Napa Valley Film Festival that attracts thousands from both valleys.
“We have found a welcoming home over in Napa,” Brenda Lhormer confirms, as the couple prepares for the launch of their second annual Napa Valley Film Festival, following a strong showing their inaugural year. The first time out of the gate, they managed to offer early screenings of Academy Award nominated films like Leonardo DiCaprio’s J. Edgar and George Clooney’s The Descendents. This year is shaping up to be equally glamorous, with three yet-to-be-named celebrity tributes and more than 100 films and parties stretching from Napa to Yountville, from Saint Helena to Calistoga, beginning on Nov. 7.
“It really is four festivals in one,” Brenda Lhormer says. “Every town wanted their own event.”
Early in the planning process the Lhormers realized that, to create an inclusive atmosphere they would need to branch into all four Napa Valley cities. It may sound like a logistical nightmare, but it offers expansive opportunities to enjoy the bounty of Napa Valley and to explore copious quantities of wine, which reflects the theme of the opening film.
The documentary Somm follows four friends preparing for the grueling final exam of the Court of Master Sommeliers, and exhaustive test of wine knowledge, but filmmaker Jason Wise insists it is not about wine.
“This is a story about insane passion and dedication. Hyper-focused would be such an understatement,” he says, explaining that the final exam is so difficult, only 197 people in the world have ever passed it. “To me, it was like filming people going through the Navy SEALS boot camp… I think any story where people are this passionate, you get hooked in.”
After filming for three years in various wine regions around the world, and despite stringent resistance to having their work labeled a “wine” movie, Wise and his producer, Jackson Myers, could think of no better place to premiere the film than Napa Valley. Master Sommelier Geoff Kruth, who can be seen in the film as well as on the pages that follow, will be talking wine at the première party. The film also features heavy hitters of the area’s wine industry, such as Bo Barrett of Chateau Montelena and Pax Mahle of Wind Gap Winery. But it’s not all Napa; filming took place in Sonoma’s Hanzell Vineyards as well.
“How could we play anywhere but Napa?” Wise asked. “It’s one of the greatest choices we’ve made.”
The festival is packed with about 100 films, including feature narratives like the poignant drama, Any Day Now, which depicts a gay couple in the 1970s who take in a mentally disabled teenager no one else wants.
Up-and-coming actress Julia Stiles (The Bourne Identity) is expected to attend the festival with two of her latest projects. In the drama Between Us, she stars as a woman learning how money, success, and sex can interfere with old friends; while in the dark comedy, It’s a Disaster, a group of friends hunker down in a house waiting for the world to end.
But features aside, documentaries really shine this year, offering intimate glimpses of extraordinary lives. Rising From Ashes documents the impressive plight of the Rwandan cycling team, members of which emerged from war-torn genocide to compete at the 2012 Olympic games in London. While Brooklyn Castle follows an award-winning chess team from an inner-city school, it is really about the power of social programs, in which a simple chess game makes all the difference for at-risk youth.
High Ground heads to the Himalayas, as 11 veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan ascend the 20,000-foot Mount Lobuche, led by blind adventurer Erik Weihenmayer, the first sightless person to summit Everest.
Famed film critic Leonard Maltin will be reviewing all of the week’s films as he leads the festival jury, awarding the top prize of $10,000.
The festival, which attracted 5,000 attendees who spent an estimated $3 million during its first year, is expecting a 50 percent increase in patrons this time. Tickets range from admittance to a single film to VIP access to all the action.
Divide be damned, Brenda Lhormer assures Sonomans that, even though they’re from the “other” valley, all are welcome at the Napa Valley Film Festival.
“I hope I see all my friends and neighbors, it’s only 15 minutes away, after all.”
Get passes, film schedules, promotional discounts and all the details at napavalleyfilmfest.org.
From the 2012 Fall issue of SONOMA