Wooing Hollywood to Wine Country

Pray tell, is it “campaign” or “champagne” season? I always get those two confused, seeing as corks tend to pop around voting booths, at least when I’m around. You see, I’m a political demigod – I learned long ago that true power, like crap, is taken not given.? Or, at least that?s how I imagine it. Everything I know about politics I learned hanging around the office of a ?West Wing? producer, where the Emmys were so abundant they were handed out as door prizes for dropping by.

Similarly powerful producers overran Sonoma last weekend. They were part of an envoy dubbed ?Guild and Grapes,? a program that brings members of the Producers Guild of America to wine country. Though their collective credits could crash IMDB, the Internet Movie Database (mine could too but only because of the viruses), it fell upon me to act as Sonoma County?s de facto emissary to the motion picture industry. I exhibited such intimacy with ?Schmoozing and Boozing? that one might conclude they were family relations of mine from the old country.

My charge was to lead the producers through various locations where film had been shot in Sonoma County. This included pit stops at Potter School in Bodega where Hitchcock shot the ?The Birds? as well as a few favorite locations in Petaluma (?American Graffiti? and ?Peggy Sue Got Married? but not ?Howard the Duck?). In the Valley, we were kindly hosted by Kunde Family Estate (replete with private barrel tasting), the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art (with a fine greeting by executive director Kate Eilertsen and wines provided by Muscardini Cellars poured by the man whose name is on the award-winning bottle) and cave dinner at Nicholson Ranch, catered by Victoria Campbell of Brick and Bottle. A fine time was had by all. The only starlet who stormed off the set was moi, seeing as I was late for Sonoma International Film Festival alumni Abe Levy and Silver Tree?s on-set soiree during the shoot of their feature ?Lawless.?

This is what I learned about film producers when they are not in their natural habitat ??A) It?s extremely easy to get a green light when the glasses are full of red (the motion picture version of my life will be coming soon to theater near you); B) Other counties, states and countries offer rebates and incentives to film productions because they tend to be large, unwieldy users of resources for which they happily pay. They?re sort of like tourists but fatter, hungrier and require many more beds.

Though I don?t believe those minding the budgets of our local governments, let alone our citizenry, would cotton to the notion of wooing a Hollywood bankroll with taxpayer cash, it does behoove us to attract big spenders to the area. Executed correctly, a virtuous loop could develop wherein productions beget additional productions by virtue of our inherent hospitality and scenic locations, duly depicted on the silver screen. It?s like there paying us to make a commercial for Sonoma, which, by the way, I have yet to see ??done right.

Dig this ??Sonoma County hasn?t had a film commissioner as such since the last century (though the Sonoma County Economic Development Board?s executive director Ben Stone and Colette Thomas do an admirable job with film-related biz, as does their colleague Kevin Lopeman at the county?s Permit and Resource Management Department). This astounds me. In fact, it rallies me to political action: I hereby declare myself Film Commissioner of Sonoma Valley. So there.

As your newly (self)appointed film commissioner, I will endeavor to bring both studio and independent productions to the Valley, get heads and beds and turn restaurant dead days into humming commissaries. Local actors and artisans rejoice ??their film permits will be contingent on your employment.

Now, if you contest my appointment or believe you could do a better job (insert haughty laughter), it?s yours. Now, get me permission to shoot my transmedia epic, ?Winos? on the Plaza and a tax rebate for the privilege of doing so. Or you?ll never do lunch in this town again. Now, where?s the champagne?

Robert Kamen: Hollywood & Vines

FADE IN:

EXT. COUNTRY MOUNTAINSIDE – DAY

ROBERT KAMEN, the wordsmith behind well over a dozen films (from Taps and the Karate Kid franchise to the wine-themed romance A Walk in the Clouds – he has also collaborated with French diretor Luc Besson such as The Fifth Element and the Transporter films) navigates an SUV through the switchbacks and hairpins of Sonoma’s rugged topology. His passengers include a REPORTER and a PHOTOGRAPHER.

Kamen’s puckish good looks and conversational manner simultaneous evoke both the sage and the trickster. He is a natural raconteur, which makes him an affable tour guide as he unfurls the narrative of his journey from Hollywood to vines as the SUV trudges ever closer to the vineyards of Kamen Estate Wines, where, as he quips, he is “Lord of the Free State of Kamenia.”

Wine on, wine off.
Wine on, wine off.

“I came to Sonoma when I sold my first screenplay,” says Kamen, referring to the un-produced career break that occurred in the late ’70s. “It was a sizable check at the time – well, sizable for me, having grown up in city housing in New York. I called a friend of mine and said ‘I’ve got a six-figure check in my hand. Should I spend it all on drugs and alcohol down here in L.A. or would you like to participate?’ He said, ‘Come on up.’”

To provide historical context, Kamen adds with a laugh “Sonoma looks pretty much like it did then, except you could buy crap that was useful.” He steers the SUV up another steep embankment as the reporter fusses with his digital recording device.

“We drove to the end of the road. There was a fence marked ‘No trespassing,’ which we climbed over, and we hiked about two miles straight up until we were at 1,400 feet. There was no electricity, no water. It was, as it had always been, from time immemorial – just a bunch of volcanic rock and scrub oak. I get to the top of the property and all the while I’m saying ‘What the hell? Can’t we drink anyplace? Why do we have to walk so far?’” he laughs.

Kamen’s friend, of course, had an agenda, which, in many ways would redefine his professional trajectory.

“I turned around – there spread before me was the entire San Francisco Bay, from Mt. Tamalpais to Mt. Diablo. I said ‘Holy crap.’ He said ‘Yeah.’ And we proceeded to drink all the wine. It’s the end of the day, the sun is setting in the west, the Golden Gate Bridge is there, the TransAmerica tower is glowing and so am I. And I’m waxing poetic and I say ‘I’ve never seen anything like this. I want to stay here forever.’  He said ‘You can. It’s for sale.’”

On cue, Kamen pulls to the side of the road and with all the showmanship of a carnival barker and baits his travel companions “Wait until you see this view.”

Indeed, the view is amazing – at the risk of overstatement, Cezanne would have wept.

Kamen continues: “We went downtown and found the realtor – this was Sonoma in 1979, so she was wearing Birkenstocks with socks and cooking her kids veggie soy burgers. The two drunk madmen showed up and I’m waving a check endorsed by Warner Bros. I say ‘I want to buy it, I want to buy it’ and a week later I owned it,” he says proudly of the 300 acres, the deed to which still bears his name. “I’m an impulse buyer.”

The impulse buy, an attractive parcel of mountainside nestled between the Monte Rosso and Moon Mountain vineyards, represents the nexus of Kamen’s career paths. Perched on top of a craggy hillside is a writing studio – the sort of space Virginia Woolf imagined in A Room of One’s Own, but to the nth degree. It’s in the sparsely decorated interior – a couple of posters from Kamen’s films hang on the walls –  that it dawns on the reporter: this is the guy who, in The Karate Kid, wrote Pat Morita’s famous line “wax on, wax off.” The sense of profundity experienced by the reporter is likely enhanced by the split of Kamen’s brilliant cabernet sauvignon he is on his way to finishing.

“It was a love of the view. It changed to an obsession with wine. I realized my impulse – not even my intuition – bought a unique piece of terroir. In this whole area it’s all red dirt, but this area is nothing but these volcanic rocks because this was the mouth of the volcano that blew all the crap all over the place,” says Kamen. “I didn’t know I’d have anything, I just knew that the view was amazing and that they weren’t making anymore of this,” he said. “I knew nothing about this part of the business. I didn’t have any interest and why would I?”

Then Kamen met lauded viticulturist Phil Coturri.

“He’s the resident genius,” says Kamen. “But when I met him he was considered hippie scum. Nobody wanted to hire him because he wanted to plant vines organically.”

After selling the military school drama Taps to 20th Century Fox, Kamen made his first legitimate foray into the wine trade.

“I said to Phil, let’s grow grapes,” he said and together they planted 40 acres. “Then my screenwriting career took off with the Karate Kid and I became ‘Mr. Big Time Screenwriter,’ whatever that means. In 1993 I wrote A Walk in the Clouds. I burned the vineyard down in the movie,” Kamen explains, then reminds with a rueful note that his own vineyard burned when a power line sparked a tree. Eventually, Kamen’s nascent vineyard recovered and he soon had 500 cases of his own wine to bring to market. 50 cases were purchased by a celebrity chef friend to market through his restaurant. The rest, however, Kamen had to sell himself.

“I was like Willy Loman with a wine bag. I still do my own sales. This is really mom and pop,” says Kamen, who now works with celebrated winemaker Mark Herold. “But the Parker score has changed everything.”

The Parker score, of course, is Wine Advocate publisher Robert Parker’s means of canonizing the wines of our times. Sonoma County wines rarely rate in the 90s. Kamen’s 2004 cabernet sauvignon recently received a whopping 95 out of 100 points.

Despite the recent accolades, Kamen maintains that his essential professional identity is that of a screenwriter. When it’s suggested that his burgeoning wine empire makes a convincing argument to the contrary, he smiles and says “Unless you go to a video store and there are 19 titles with my name on them.”