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Wine Country Film Festival: A sneak peek

  • Jonathan Demme's “Enzo Avitabile Music Life”

Twenty-seven years ago, when Stephen Ashton founded the Wine Country Film Festival, the mission was simple: “We wanted to use cinema as a means for transformation,” he said.

The budget was tiny and the venues were the Raven Film Center in Healdsburg and the Palace Theater in Petaluma, where they had to fight for space amid the blockbusters of 1986 like “Top Gun” and “Ferris Bueller's Day Off.” One of the inaugural film programs was “Cinema of Conscience” focusing on South African and apartheid films.

Over the years, festival highlights have included director Jonathan Demme's surprise screening of “Married to the Mob,” a visit by actor Gregory Peck and packing the house for the gypsy documentary, “Latcho Drom,” solely by word of mouth in a pre-Internet age.

Now, more than a quarter of a century later, as everything once celluloid is now digital, “the vision remains the same,” Ashton said. “We love film and we love to bring it to those who also love film.”

For Ashton, a Long Island native who migrated westward in the 1960s while working with documentarian Hilary Harris, it's been a dream to merge his passion for cinema with his passion for wine. (He and his wife, Justine Ashton, started farming Ashton Vineyards in Glen Ellen in 1970.)

Before the 27th annual Wine Country Film Festival kicks off on Sept. 25 at Deerfield Ranch Winery in Kenwood, we chatted with the winemaking cinephile about four of the films in this year's program:

“A Portrait of Artist Adam Shaw” — 32 minutes: Bay Area filmmaker John Knoop's documentary short film goes behind the scenes with widely collected Glen Ellen artist Adam Shaw, who once studied poetry and practiced as a physician before taking on the role of painter.

“Adam stepped into the shoes of the 1950s movement, not as a copycat but as a guy who's been able to see the soul of abstract expressionism,” Ashton said.

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