In Living Wine, filmmaker Lori Miller documents the journey of natural winemakers in Northern California during an unprecedented wildfire season of drought and record-high temperatures, which threatens to destroy their harvest. The film explores the artistry behind the creation of natural wine, which uses no chemical additives and is created through innovative sustainable farming by small producers. Innovative techniques used by the diverse group of farmers highlighted in the film fight to combat climate change by healing the land and creating more flavorful and healthy wine in the process.
Dr. Tim LaSalle (Center for Regenerative Agriculture) and Elizabeth Candelario (Mad Agriculture) serve as experts throughout Living Wine, explaining the impact of agriculture on climate change. Carbon is released through the tilling of soil, which also causes soil degradation. Fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides contaminate waterways. Chemicals that were used to make ammunition for bombs during World War II were later repurposed as chemical fertilizers.
I spoke with director Lori Miller about what drew her to this subject. We also discussed what it was like to experience these dangerous and unexpected wildfires while in production for Living Wine.
Risa Sarachan: What made you want to create this film?
Lori Miller: My brother, who lives in Santa Rosa, California, sent me a case of natural wine at the start of the pandemic. I hadn’t heard of natural wine, or tried it, and was immediately intrigued. Upon initial research, learning that my belief that all wines are natural was actually false and that many wines (especially mass-produced wines) are processed and their flavors are manipulated, I thought there might be something there and worth exploring.
Sarachan: How much did you know about the natural wine movement beforehand?
Miller: Although I buy and cook mainly organic and sustainable foods, I was unaware of the natural wine category when I began research for the project. I was surprised to learn that most of my friends and colleagues were also unaware, which spurred me to continue researching and wanting to learn more.
Sarachan: Did anything surprise you about the process of making natural wine?
Miller: My biggest takeaway was that our subjects’ farming of their vineyards was an extremely important factor in their winemaking. Industrial agriculture, which began in the United States following World War II, had made its way to the corporate wine sector, and the small producers who I followed were committed to farming sustainably and regeneratively. They are all conscious of soil health and the makeup of what’s in the soil – microbiology and minerals – which contribute to the taste of wine. Other factors which contribute to “terroir,” such as climate, flora, and fauna, are equally important, but it all seemed to start with the soil. It was also exciting and eye-opening to see and film the artistry involved in the hand-making of wines: hand picking, foot stomping, pressing, and fermentation.
Sarachan: The footage from the wildfires was harrowing. What was it like filming during that forced early harvest due to the fires?
Miller: I was struck by the determination of the winemakers, and their simultaneous resignation and hopefulness about their situation. Climate change is always in the background of their work, but they are both determined and creative about working within this reality.
From a filming standpoint, this was an unexpected turn for us. The heat and smoke levels – specifically in Sonoma County – were dangerous and terrifying. Being right there in the fires helped us see and experience the physical danger that the winemakers and their co-workers endure, which seemed to me to be a greater metaphor for how much of the world’s population is affected by climate change within their local communities.
Sarachan: What did you learn from the resilience of these winemakers?
Miller: I think that their resilience emanated from their unconscious commitment to the work that they were doing. They were all where they wanted to be and on a journey. There was a spiritual and meditative quality to the work that they were doing which I don’t think can be mimicked in corporate winemaking, and was the basis for their resilience and commitment.
Sarachan: What do you hope viewers take from this film?
Miller: Through the making of the film, I found many multi-layered messages, including healing the earth through farming, and doing work that you love. But a simple and overreaching message is that as consumers, we can choose quality over quantity. In all segments of society, there is a profit-motive drive to mass-produce products like hotels, houses, food, fast fashion, and action films.
The wines highlighted in the film are all unique tasting and looking, and made with thoughtfulness and integrity. Vintages and even bottles from the same vintage may vary as the wine is meant to express the changes in the natural environment, climate, and topography. These qualities can be enjoyed and valued, and I hope the film inspires people to look for and try wines from small producers.
This interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.