Russian River Valley’s Unique History: From Obscurity to Excellence, a Documentary Review

From Obscurity to Excellence: The Story of Grapes & Wine in the Russian River Valley, A Documentary

a map of the Russian River Valley AVA, approved in 1983; image from Russian River Valley Winegrowers

In 1997 Maurice Joe Nugent began planting grapes in the Russian River Valley, having found his calling, in a sense, after leaving a professorship in Chemistry in order to fulfill his hope of living in California. Within a few years the fruit had proved to be reliable and he found himself enjoying his days driving a tractor about the property, pulling leaves to moderate sun exposure, and simply enjoying his new career. While walking through the vineyard he began to wonder about the history of the place–how did wine in Russian River Valley get so good?

That initial question set Joe off on a quest of talking to people on film–asking them to tell their stories about their life of wine in the area of the AVA founded in 1983, but reaching back to a history of wine production established well before Prohibition. What is remarkable about the project is that Joe succeeds in recording interviews with men that not only lived through Prohibition, but also helped jump start the California wine industry immediately after its demise.

The interviews have been brought together in a documentary film to tell the story of what is now called the Russian River Valley. What this film does well is bring together a wealth of information with the intimate insights of genuine story telling. The interviews shown throughout capture men in the revelry of their memories, offering a glimpse at the lives the people of the area have lived, while eliciting the history of the place itself. In this way, one can’t help but be charmed with how the history is told. At the same time, the movie offers clear insight into details of the industry’s trajectory, along with some, perhaps, illicit implications into the founding of one of the larger producers of wine in the area.

Where the movie limits itself is in a few interviews filmed with less polished technical effect. What becomes clear by the end of the documentary, however, is that those moments offer irreplaceable recordings of men sharing history. The rougher interviews are included for this reason–they are irreplaceable. Some of the figures shown in the story are no longer alive. In this way, the movie is an opportunity to hear from our elders in the wine industry, those any of us in Sonoma County are, in a sense, indebted to.

From Obscurity to Excellence: The Story of Grapes & Wine in the Russian River Valley shares the history of pre-Prohibition immigration and migration to the then-remote area of Northern Sonoma, the post-Prohibition boom, and the quite recent move from bulk wine to a focus on quality, resulting in the development of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay as the area’s grape figure heads. Best of all, the movie manages to share this history alongside the charm of real people that impacted the success of the wine industry in Sonoma.


From Obscurity to Excellence: The Story of Grapes and Wine in the Russian River Valley will celebrate its release on December 1, 2012 at the Wells Fargo Center, 50 Mark West Springs Road, Santa Rosa, CA.

For more information about the movie visit the movie’s website:

To purchase tickets for the December 1 screening (some of the people interviews in the film will also be present at the screening):


Thank you to Joe Nugent for including me in the pre-release screening, and for taking time to talk with me.

Thank you to Kanchan Kinkade.

Copyright 2012 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews



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