Screenwriter Matt Lopez was reading John Steinbeck's East of Eden when executives at ABC asked him to create a drama about a Latino family. The third-generation Cuban-American loved the idea of a multi-generational "Steinbeckian" California story about land and agriculture. The result is Promised Land, which follows a fictional immigrant family's pursuit of their American dream, in this case, a successful wine business.
Promised Land is also the latest show to cast wine and diversity in leading roles, joining NBC's Grand Crew and OWN's Kings of Napa. Promised Land's pilot episode was filmed in and around Atlanta, in the winegrowing areas of northern Georgia; the rest of the episodes have been shot in Southern California, at Agua Dulce Winery in Santa Clarita and Mizel Estate Vineyards in Thousand Oaks.
The first season of Promised Land follows Joe Sandoval (played by John Ortiz) and his family as they vie for the throne of Heritage House, a successful Sonoma winery that Sandoval helped build into one of the largest wine producers in the U.S. As his children and step-children take on bigger roles in the family business, Sandoval's ex-wife Margaret Honeycroft (Bellamy Young) aims to buy it out from under him.
Lopez, who went from being a lawyer at Dreamworks to a screenwriter and producer, calls himself a "casual wine drinker," but over the past 18 months creating the show, he's become fascinated by the wine industry's immigrant stories. He says that Heritage House is inspired by real wineries such as Ceja Family Vineyards and Robledo Family Winery, both built by Mexican-American families.
"These families started a generation or two ago as fruit workers and grape pickers, but have since graduated to starting their own labels, and I was like, 'That could be really interesting,'" Lopez told Wine Spectator. "Promised Land examines an immigrant story at two different places along the timeline: when [the Sandovals] arrive, and … at the height of their power and success."
Lopez, whose grandparents were tobacco farmers in Cuba, realized that others in the cast came from similar backgrounds, inspiring him to more intentionally show the wine industry's immigrant-powered agricultural workforce. "Audiences and network executives love the beautiful actors and homes and cars and all the twists and turns that come with that rich family story," he said, "but the heart and soul of the show is very much out there in the vine rows with the immigrant characters."
But what about the wine itself? That's where executive producer Michael Jones-Morales comes in. Jones-Morales was hired for his writing skills, but his 10 years of experience as a wine broker became an added bonus.
"The characters have different relationships, both to the business and [to the] artistry of winemaking, and it's been fun to see that," Jones-Morales said. "We think what put Joe Sandoval on the map was this amazing palate and dedication to making well-crafted wine. But as he scaled-up production and played into demands … we got a character like Mateo (his step-son and general manager, played by Augusto Aguilera) who claims Joe sold out."
Outside the writer's room, Jones-Morales worked with the prop team to make sure the wine bottles matched the types of wine (such as making sure Chardonnay didn't go in a dark green bordeaux bottle) and teaching some actors how to open a bottle of wine, pour, swirl, smell, taste and spit like a pro.
"The cast was very interested in how it's all done, but also how their character would do it based on their relationship to wine," Jones-Morales said. "The level of pride that was taken across all departments really made it a lot easier to make the show feel authentic."
However, Promised Land still has a ways to go in terms of accurately portraying the ins and outs of the wine industy—for starters, the family is harvesting wine grapes in Sonoma in May. But it also tackles subjects that the wine industry is currently grappling with, such as struggling with how to market wine to a younger audience.
Promised Land is now streaming on Hulu.
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