A film festival awaits

The Napa Valley is known for its legendary wines, scenic vineyards, exquisite culinary scene, and stunning feats of architecture.  However, one thing that is not traditionally synonymous to Napa is film.  Yes, there’s Sundance, Telluride, Tribeca, and other domestic festivals, but until recently, Napa never entered any of these conversations (except, perhaps, in a half-joking manner at an after-party, as wine was being poured).

Volunteer kickoff rally with the stars from “Rising from Ashes.” Yountville Community Center.

Although abundant efforts have been made over the years to bring the arts to the valley, as a discipline, film has never really stuck.  Until recently, the sole theatres serving the valley were an intimate and quaint cinema in St. Helena and an antiquated structure in downtown Napa.  Both were well loved and frequented by valley residents, but the extent of their influence was localized.  Mainstream flicks were du jour and well-worn seats catered more to masses than to the critically trained eye.

Then something changed.  In 2011, two enterprising local residents decided to rectify this.  Having tested their abilities with the Sonoma Valley Film Festival for seven years (from 2001 to 2008), Brenda and Marc Lhormer decided to transfer their experiences to the Napa Valley.  In November 2011, they launched the inaugural Napa Valley Film Festival.  Even in its first year, their efforts were monumental.  In addition to cultivating film villages in four towns (Napa, Yountville, St. Helena, and Calistoga), they also included wine pavilions in each respective village, an impressive line-up of food demonstrations, abundant VIP lounges, a Celebrity Tribute, winemaker dinners, and a full gamut of panel discussions.  In all, it was a daring and bold undertaking.  And it worked.  People came.  People enjoyed.  People talked.  And they vowed to return.

Due to this success, the catchy mantra quickly became:  Film.  Food.  Wine.  Three simple words that carry incredible weight and impact.

VIP Reception at the Napa Opera House.

Not having lived here when this event first launched, we initially had no idea that it even existed.  But upon our second month in the valley, we caught wind of it and immediately volunteered our services.  Anything to get involved; anything to meet new people; and anything to be a part of such an exciting event.  And so it was that I became a VIP concierge.  My assignment?  To ensure that patrons, sponsors, filmmakers, actors, and various other VIPS feel as comfortable and welcome as possible.

On the surface, it seemed an easy enough task.  But that was before I understood the full magnitude of the event.  More than 7500 attendees, a whopping 400+ volunteers, 120 winery sponsors and partners, more than 70 films, a dozen jurors whose names read like a veritable who’s who list of filmmaking circles, nine VIP winemaker dinners, and one world premier.  In all, this was a serious event.  As I attended various prep meetings in anticipation for what was to come, this reality was reiterated again and again.  This festival was striving to make a name for itself. And although it was smaller than the other big name festivals, it was ready to cultivate a unique niche.

With just 12 months on the festival circuit, the Napa Valley Film Festival is already getting a reputation.  It has become known as the intersection of brilliant artistry, delicious grub, and sinfully divine wines.  What happens when these three converge?  You have five consecutive days of back-to-back parties, a significant influx of guests, an extensive array of vendors, and an impressive line-up of films.  Given this, happiness and madness meet to create an exuberant – and ballooning – crowd.  Everyone wants access to the fun.  Everyone wants to attend the after-parties.  Everyone wants to engage with the celebrities.  And everyone wants to attend the most celebrated and talked about premiers.

Kicking it on the NVFF red carpet. Already looking like pros.

On a brisk Wednesday evening in early November, the Napa Valley Opera House opened its doors to launch the second annual festival.  With much anticipation, the World Premier of SOMM, the directorial debut of Jason Wise, took top spot on the night’s playbill.  Three years and five continents in the making, the film chronicles four sommeliers as they attempt to pass the grueling Master Sommelier exam.  The appropriateness of premiering a wine-focused docu-flick at the Napa Valley Film Festival was not lost on anyone.  Of the 197 Master Sommeliers currently living around the world, more than a quarter traveled to Napa to attend the premier. This, in itself, was a social coup, signaling the magnitude of the event.  After packing two back-to-back screenings at the Opera House, a second venue was opened to handle a third opening-night viewing.

The air was literally buzzing with excitement as fans lined the streets to gain access to SOMM.  As filmgoers waited patiently in the cold, they eagerly flipped through their festival programs, mapping out their exploits for the week. An important benchmark of the Napa Valley Film Festival is that it’s not just about film. It’s about capturing the true essence of wine country. The connectivity; the splendor; the feasting; the creativity; and the passion.  As such, absolutely every event was infused with wine.

Evidence of this was found in the following forms…

Opening night festivities included an elaborate kickoff party was held at the downtown shops in Napa where entire storefronts were converted to match the visions of respective parties such as Duckhorn Portfolio of Wines, Benchmark Wine Group, Spire Collection, Krug and Ruinart, Terlato Wine Group, Napa Valley Vintners, Southern Wine and Spirits, and the Tasting Panel.  Throw in some beats, nibbles, and decked out attendees and it was a recipe for a legitimate party.

The “super secret” VIP room at Mondavi Winery.

The Thursday night gala was hosted at Mondavi Winery, where the “super secret” VIP room was found tucked below the second-year barrel room in a huge, cavernous expanse known as the first-year barrel room.  Yet even for those without access to this VIP room, the general festivities and exploits were in full force.  With celebrity chefs lining the halls, a live band cranked out tunes, abundant wine poured forth, and no one was left unattended.

The Friday night VIP soiree was held at legendary wine couple Gina Gallo and Jean-Charles Boisset’s home (the former Mondavi residence). Located high above Stag’s Leap, it boasted one of the most amazing views in the entire valley, as well as free-flowing champagne, talented DJs, delectable bites, elaborate décor, and exuberant hosts.

The Saturday night winemaker dinners were a sequence of intimate dinners hosted by Alpha Omega, Lail, Raymond, GrGich Hills, Cardinale, and others.  Each was as distinct and varied as their respective proprietors.  From relaxed crab feeds to formal sit-downs, the full range of culinary expression was explored.

And finally, the wrap party on Sunday evening, where even more wines were poured and copious amounts of food was served.  The fact that people were still standing on Sunday evening was testament to the perseverance and durability of the party-hard attendees.  Speaking from personal experience, I was ready to crash in a self-induced slumber by Saturday evening.

Ornate chandelier over the ever-changing color of the indoor pool? Just another night at the Boisset Residence.

In addition to all of these events, the festival included four wine pavilions, innumerable pre and post-screening receptions, and late-night lounges.  As such, even if attendees didn’t have time to formally visit wineries during their visit to the valley, their appetites were fully satiated through the back-to-back sequencing of these events.

By Monday evening, when staff and volunteers met for one final recap (as well as an encore screening of SOMM), the general sentiment was a mixture of appreciation and excitement.  Even as the crowd stifled yawns, there were murmurs about next year’s festival.  Having received resounding high praise from the actors, jurors, filmmakers, industry veterans, and attendees, the planners were eager to get working again.  Expectations were already being set to take the festival to an even higher level.  Given the triumph of these past two years, one can only imagine what 2013 will bring.

And yet, despite all of these parties and extravagances, this festival is ultimately about celebrating the achievement of film.  It is about recognizing the perseverance and courage that it takes to bring an idea from concept to market.   As such, the films are the real reason for all of the celebrations.  They are what motivate audience attendance, patron and sponsorship interest, media engagement, and more.  They are the unifying force behind all of this.  So while the galas, parties, dinners, and receptions may be the most notorious, one cannot forget why the festival even exists. To this point, we would be remiss to not include the trailers of a few of our favorite films showcased during these five hectic days.  We encourage everyone to step outside their comfort zones and to do a little recon work to find and watch these films.  Wherever it is that you live, we hope that these films will impact you, as they have us.

For a full 2012 program line-up, please click here.  For general information on the festival, please click here.  And for information on purchasing passes for the 2013 festival, please click here.  We hope to see you all next year!

Rising from Ashes (direced by T.C. Johnstone)

SOMM (directed by Jason Wise)

Stuck (directed by Stuart Acher)


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