‘Weed & Wine’: An interview with director Rebecca Richman Cohen

Photo of Rebecca Richman Cohen, director of "Weed & Wine"
Racing Horse Productions/Courtesy

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“Weed & Wine,” the newest documentary by Emmy-nominated filmmaker and Harvard Law lecturer Rebecca Richman Cohen, is intriguing for its title alone, though it does not fully predicate the film’s intimacy. What begins as a broad overview of two niche cultivation processes unravels into a cultural and personal examination of family life in two different industries. In an interview with The Daily Californian, Cohen discussed her original inspiration — an examination of terroir in both marijuana and wine production — and how this message changed as the film developed. 

“It started out as a kind of love story about wine and weed,” Cohen said. “Then it became a story about parental love, about the complexities in the relationships between parents and children — about what it means to work together in uncertain times.”

With film premieres and release dates continually being pushed back amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Cohen, like many other directors, worried the message of “Weed & Wine” might no longer be relevant when it would eventually come out. Upon rewatching the project during quarantine, however, she realized that a tightknit yet often arduous family relationship like those depicted in the film was as topical as ever. 

“It’s about what it means to have a family and parent during times of profound uncertainty,” Cohen said. 

Rhone Valley, France and Humboldt County, California serve as backdrops for the two family-owned cultivation companies presented in the documentary. You can guess which one produces which. 

And while the documentary opens as an environmental and cultural juxtaposition of two crops, as the historical nature of the growing process is contextualized, so too are the relationships between the featured families. As cultivating wine has historically been a more socially acceptable process, the Rhone Valley family’s tension is centered more on climate change and adapting to unexpectedly early and inconsistent harvest dates. On the flip side, marijuana growth and cultivation has long been a shadowed process, solely for its illicit nature. But today, with recreational marijuana legal in 10 states plus the District of Columbia, families like the one in Humboldt must hurdle the transition into the public sphere. 

“People call Humboldt the Redwood Curtain because work was done on the illicit market there for so many years,” Cohen said. “A lot of people were private about it, and it was tough for one to make that transition into the public eye.”

This is not to say, however, that cultural adaptation is the film’s primary concern — or that there is a primary concern in this work at all. Rather, the aforementioned effects of global climate change are a complementary motif in terms of uncertainty. 

“Climate change is definitely a subtle theme that runs through the film,” Cohen said. “In France, it’s clear. The film depicts the earliest harvest they had in memorable generations. And even though it was a fantastic vintage, it was a low yield — they harvested about half their grapes. That is a direct effect of climate change.”

The French family bears the brunt of the crisis in its yield rates, but the Americans face a more daunting and intricate obstacle. 

“We filmed in 2017, so it was before the fires affected the Humboldt area,” Cohen said. “But as you know, climate change is something that has now markedly affected both families. In different ways, too. In the cannabis industry, farmers can’t get insurance, so they’re much more vulnerable to intense climate conditions.”

Kev, the featured father behind the Humboldt operation, opens up about difficulties not only in his illegal beginnings on the East Coast, but also in his current legal farming practice frequently throughout the documentary. 

As the film dives into personal accounts from both families, its storyline is complemented by stunning panoramic shots of the sunny French countryside and cool, dank California forest. Eric Phillips-Horst’s cinematography as a whole is one of the crowning achievements of this production, which functions alongside an original score composed by Max Avery Lichtenstein, whom Cohen partnered with on three films prior. 

“One of my very favorite parts of filmmaking is working with Max because he understands the work on such a deep emotional level and can translate that into music,” she said. “He found a palette for each character and tried to sound true and real — it’s such an important part of the film.”

Eclectic French indie pop band Juniore polishes off the documentary with its original soundtrack, which combines with Lichtenstein’s score for a uniquely intimate feeling. And though the film was originally intended for the big screen, Cohen hopes that these sentiments of intimacy and uncertainty are still transferable to viewers. 

While weed and wine are tantalizing and popular as products alone, there’s an undeniably striking intimacy involved in their creations, made visible only by “Weed & Wine.”

Contact Ethan Waters at [email protected]. Tweet him at @ewate1.

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the documentary takes place in Bordeaux, France. In fact, it takes place in Rhone Valley, France.