Life on the Douro, Trip no. 5, Days 3-4 – Storytelling and Photography

On Monday, I traveled from Porto to the Douro Valley, and stayed at the Fladgate Partnership’s Vargelas estate, warmly hosted by Alistair and Gillyane Robertson. I interviewed Alistair to get the history of the company going back to 1692, one of the missing pieces I need to finish the film. I just needed a brief overview, but ended up with over an hour’s worth of material. More great stories, and more anxiety how I’m going to fit it all in.

I went on to Tua on Tuesday to film the old, disused trains in the station that once moved people and goods through the Douro Valley, probably before there was electricity in the area only a few decades ago, and that now rust away as silent and overlooked witnesses to another era. My shots were mostly still and lacking in movement, occasionally some people in the distance would walk through the frame, or the leaves of the trees would move with the breeze.

At times like that, when the shooting goes well, I feel like I’m a photographer who just happens to be using a video camera, and that my films should also be silent witnesses, telling all through images. Great photographs are that, capturing a whole world in an instant, and what need is there for words when an image can say it all?

But then I think about Alistair and the many others I’ve interviewed for Life on the Douro, thinking about the incredible stories I’ve heard, often told with love, passion, and humour, and how fortunate I have been to have had that experience, and that those stories should be more widely known, and again I wonder how I’m going to fit it all in.

(You can support the documentary – and spread the word about the Douro and Portugal – by pre-ordering a DVD –


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Life on the Douro, Trip no. 5, Day 2 – The River

Outside of three important interviews, the reason for this trip is to get quality visual material that will convey much of the story. On Saturday, I filmed for a couple of hours during a boat ride on the Douro around the area of Porto and Gaia courtesy of Oscar Quevedo, complementing two previous ones in other areas of the river.

I’ve been long fascinated with the symbolic and psychological meaning of water, and have used it in videos and paintings. In wine, rain, and sometimes hail, will determine the quality of the year’s crop. And in the Douro in particular, “pipas” (large casks) of wine were loaded on boats, moved to the warehouses in Gaia, and then shipped out on the Atlantic to the UK and elsewhere.

If the terraced Douro valley slopes has a sense of enduring stillness and timelessness, it is water that shows the cycles of life and nature and man, and hopefully images of water will transmit that movement through the Douro, and through life.

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Life on the Douro, Trip no. 5, Day 1 in Porto

I’m feel an urgency to get some very high quality shots to finish Life on the Douro.

Yesterday, I got a few hours of shooting in Gaia and Porto. Great, sunny day, and I had to ruefully tear myself away to go have lunch with Ryan and Gabriella Opaz of and then we all went to celebrate Oscar Quevedo’s wedding with Nadia, both very enjoyable events, but in the back of my mind, there always lurks a voice saying, “You could have been shooting”. Some stills below.

Very much enjoyed catching up with Andre Riberinho of and girlfriend Beatriz, taking about possible visits to Lisbon in the future.

I also had a great conversation with Gustavo Devesas, a Marketing Manager with Symington’s and son of Jean Philippe, owner of Vinologia, a fantastic Port wine bar with some 200 different bottles, and who I interviewed on my first trip over a year ago. Gustavo was also part of the insane party including Roy Hersh and Oscar Quevedo who sampled eight “francesinhas” in one day to rate the best in Porto. One is a normal person’s limit.

All these little circles and connections that make life interesting.

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Life on the Douro, Trip no. 5, Day 1 in Porto

I’m feel an urgency to get some very high quality shots to finish Life on the Douro.

Yesterday, I got a few hours of shooting in Gaia and Porto. Great, sunny day, and I had to ruefully tear myself away to go have lunch with Ryan and Gabriella Opaz of and then we all went to celebrate Oscar Quevedo’s wedding with Nadia, both very enjoyable events, but in the back of my mind, there always lurks a voice saying, “You could have been shooting”. Some stills below.


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The Sounds of Silence of the Douro

Life on the Douro is in the final stages of editing, and I’m working on the audio, agonizing over the right mix of the interviews, casual conversations, background sounds, and music. The music should convey a certain sense of pace and atmosphere, but be neutral, so that it doesn’t impose an emotional mood. It shouldn’t dictate to the viewer that which the film fails to convey.

Then there are background sounds ranging from birds to tractors, to the clanging of the bottling plant, to the snipping sounds of the pruning and harvest, all of these creating a rhythm and music of its own, all of them part of the story, and have to be edited as music, just as the music has to become a natural sound.

Life on the Douro covers centuries of history, family intermarriages, and fortunes and misfortunes, as well as today’s complex situation, problems and regulations, all to be told within a certain time frame. For now I’d like to get it in at 75-80 minutes, 90 minutes tops, although I may do a more extended video installation and a series of shorter films later on with the wealth of material that I have.

Everyone has their story, and every story is important and part of it, but if it becomes too dense, then the sense of time – and wine is nothing if not about time – becomes lost. Working long days in the field, grapes from countless vines picked generation after generation, vineyards planted so that they’ll be ready to give fruit for wine in five or ten years’ or another generation’s time – how do I depict that, the beauty of that, lost in modern urban life?

Then there’s the silence the mountains and the vines that also have their stories, more eternal and enduring than that of man, that have the first word and the last say, all of which has to be listened to and told.

I’m fascinated, sometimes amazed, by the stories I hear from the interviewees, and as I cut out a phrase, I ponder whether I’m getting to the essence of it, or whether I’m losing something essential. But there are moments when I look at the images of the terraced vineyards that I think that maybe I should cut it all out, and just let the birds and tractors and vines and mountains speak for themselves.


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Life on the Douro, Short Films and Friends

I met Ryan and Gabriella Opaz of somewhere in cyberspace after finishing my first wine documentary, La Bobal, which started out an idea for a short film but ended up absorbing my life. We met in person in London at the beginning of 2009, and gradually became collaborators and friends.

Through Ryan and Gabriella, I met Robert McIntosh who in turn introduced me to the Rioja winery Dinastia Vivanco. That led to the idea of doing a short on their history which, five trips, three versions, and more than a year later, became the hour long film “Dinastia Vivanco: Giving back to wine what wine has given us”

The Opai – the plural, they claim, of Opaz – also introduced me to Oscar Quevedo with the idea of doing a short film on his family’s winery, but as always, a first trip led to a second. Then, at a famed Catavino barbecue, I also met Roy Hersh of For the Love of Port, and we subsequently made arrangements for a third trip to film the FTLOP Harvest Tour of the Douro last October.

Due to circumstances beyond anyone’s control, that was scuppered at the last minute, so I wandered the Douro by myself, camera in hand, for 12 days. Roy, realizing the value of the documentary, organized a very special tour with his FTLOP partner Mario Ferreira in February just for my film, getting me in to interview the major figures in the region’s wine production, and giving me the space and time to do my thing. There were concerns about the light and weather, but the gods smiled and the sun shone upon us, and I had just the right combination of fog in the morning, and mostly warm sunshine the rest of the time.

Now I’ll be going back a fifth time, as young Oscar is getting married, but after the wedding cake, I’ll be staying ten more days to film more material and get two or three interviews that the film needs to be completed.

If I hadn’t met the Opai, I’d be getting into trouble elsewhere, but neither film would have been made, and they have been supportive of each of my projects different ways, the latest with this post – I count on my friends to get me into trouble, and to get me out of trouble.

They invited to the EWBC in Lisbon in 2009, where I met Luiz Alberto who later came with us on the FTLOP tour, where we talked about doing a short film on Italian wine, art, and tourism in a single trip in October, but there’s already an understanding that the first trip will lead to a second.

I’ve also been filming and interviewing Ryan and Gabriella on and off over the last year or two – a project I’ll resume once Life on the Douro is done – with plans to make it into a short film.

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Life on the Douro

In just over a week, I’ll be going to Porto and then the Douro region for my fifth trip to film material that I need to fill a few gaps in my 3/4 finished Life on the Douro documentary. By the end, I will have spent over 40 days filming in what is truly a wonder of the world. The 60-80 kilometers of steep, man-made terraced vineyards shows so clearly how dependent we are on nature. It makes so clear the vastness of wine, as something that goes beyond a single person, a single vineyard, or single era. It makes so clear that the beverage itself is such a minute part of the story, like a couple of seconds of the high note of a soprano’s aria in a whole opera production.

The story starts with wars between the English and the French, so the English go to Portugal (and Spain) for their wine in the eighteenth century. The wine is fortified to stabilise it on the long ship voyages. The demand for Douro wine rises sharply, followed by a decline in quality. An earthquake destroys Lisbon, money is needed to rebuild it, and they look at the British trading Douro wine in Gaia, across the river from Porto, to provide it. Strict rules governing the trade and the quality of wine are set up, and the Douro becomes the first regulated wine region in the world. Port wine must henceforth be shipped only from Gaia, but in 1986, Portugal joins the European Union which says that the Port trade is a monopoly, and the rules are changed so that smaller producers in the Douro itself can produce and sell Port wine, creating an exciting, dynamic and on-going renaissance in the region.

Then certain wine writers judge what’s in a given bottle, reduce it to a certain point score, ignoring the rest, and wonder why more people aren’t interested in wine.

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Paint, film, and wine

Since my early teens, I’ve had two obsessions – art and film. I did a lot of drawing and painting and saw a lot of movies, and after high school toyed with the idea of studying film but decided on art school instead. I continually had ideas for films but painting took up all my time and energy.

Then came the digital age. I could take my video camera out on the streets and capture whatever caught my interest and edit it on my computer, without having to worry about the whole process, equipment and cost involved in edting 8mm or 16mm film.

We moved from London to a small village in Spain in 2005, and built a new house where, after 25 years of fantasizing about it, I finally had a large studio space of my own. In the spring of 2008, about six months after we moved in, I took a walk through the vineyards, and decided to do a small video on grape production while continuing to paint most of the time. Within a few months, it became a full-time, all-absorbing project, subsequently leading to more wine documentaries, and for a couple of years, I hardly went into the studio at all.

I initially enjoyed the change. The wine world has certain parallels with the art world, both as an art form and as a social structure, but in wine, I’m merely a visitor and neutral observer, and the goings-on, arguments, and rivalries don’t affect me. Wine, however, is a fascinating culture unlike any other I’ve come across, involving many strata and segments weaving a complex fabric, where dirty fingernails intermingle with manicured ones.

But although the documentaries have gone from strength to strength, there were the occasional, and increasingly frequent pangs about not painting. I love filming and I love editing, but it is a complex process involving travel, other people, technical problems, sound, and a thousand distractions. Painting itself has no distractions – it is about solitude, with the canvas as your mirror. At times, when I see an individual working the fields by himself in the midst of thousands of vines, I think that that must be a similar experience.

Over the last few months, I’ve been painting again, preparing for a show in early 2012 (details to be announced) that will include paintings of amphorae and vases once used to store wine and olive oil, and video installations about wine, uniting the three elements – paint, film and wine – under one roof.

And Luiz Alberto and I are planning a trip to Italy in October to start film for a documentary looking at wine and art, again bringing the three together.

Below is a photo of three new paintings, still a long way to go. Older, but finished, works can be seen at -


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Stories and Storytelling

Life on the Douro, which I had been editing in separate segments, was finally put together on one timeline yesterday, followed by an elated feeling that it was getting close to being finished. But that feeling ended when I took a second look this morning. All the parts are fine in themselves, but together, it lacked all sense of rhythm and rhyme, and looked like a worthless mess.

One of the problems is the excess of fascinating stories, and I’d like fit in as much as possible. But then it becomes too dense, with people talking the entire time, but without giving the viewer any space to absorb it or reflect on the images. It becomes a history lesson, not a story. The imagery and pace and sense of time are also essential narrative elements; in film, the story is much more than just words illustrated by images.

So after a dark morning, fidgeting, pacing and worrying, the fog lifted and back to work I went, realizing that for all the stories, without the right sense of time and space, Life on the Douro itself won’t form a story, and I won’t have a film.

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Making the Dinastia Vivanco documentary

Over the last couple of years, I’ve traveled over 18,000 kilometres, visiting about 20 Spanish wine regions, plus the Douro region of Portugal, and have filmed over 230 hours of material that will be made into four documentaries related to wine, all due to be released over the course of 2011. The films have relatively little to do with wine as a drink, but focus on the often unique, fascinating people and complex culture that produce it. It has been the stories that I’ve heard that have kept me interested, stories that deserve to be known but that are all too often ignored, even by the wine world itself.

Of all the many remarkable stories and interviews for which I am very grateful to have shared, that of Pedro Vivanco has to rank as the most incredible and unique.

No one else started off delivering family wines door-to-door on a bicycle as a teenager and subsequently rose to become the major provider of wine to Rioja wineries. No one else was a bad student in school but then went away to study wine-making at twenty-two and earned top marks. No one else gave his wife half the credit for his success. And when everyone else was destroying old wine making equipment to make way for the new, Pedro started saving and collecting those pieces that would later serve as the foundation for what is widely considered the best wine museum in the world.

I first went to visit in 2009 to film material for my Spanish grapes documentary, being introduced to the family via their London representative and ace wine blogger Robert McIntosh At the time, that documentary seemed an overwhelming task so I thought that doing a few smaller, more contained films in the meanwhile would be a good idea, especially since so many stories arise begging to be made into films.

This happened when I visited the unknown but fascinating area of Arribes on the Duero next to Portugal, with its traditionally sustainable and self-sufficient lifestyle and culture, and it happened when I went to the Douro in Portugal to do what was supposed to be a short film on the Quevedo winery in collaboration with

I love museums, so when I saw the quality of the art and anthropology pieces in the Dinastia Vivanco, I thought that I could do a half hour piece juxtaposing the winery with the museum. But when I finished interviewing brothers Rafael and Santiago Vivanco who run the winery and the museum, respectively, and started editing it, I saw that it would be an hour long film. I went back to film the vineyards, landscapes, and villages a second time. I also wanted to interview Pedro, but got no real reply, and the film was getting close to being finished when an opportunity to show it at the Anthology Film Archives in New York as part of the New Filmmakers series came up. That caught Dinastia Vivanco’s attention and they agreed that it would be a good idea for me to interview Pedro.

So back I went for a third time, thinking that I would get some reminiscences and a bit of a historical context of how it was in the “old days”. Instead, what Pedro had to say and how he said it took the documentary to whole new level, and I felt that the film had been blessed.

I returned home to edit it and the new interview fell into place fairly easily with the rest of the content. Dinastia Vivanco’s marketing director Robert McArdle came to the New York screening which was attended by about 150 people. After seeing it, he suggested that I may consider interviewing Pedro’s mother Felisa and his wife Angelica. Having finally finished the film (or so I thought), I was a bit reluctant to do so. But it was a good idea that grew on me, and back again I went. They gave further insights into life and history, but this time the re-editing took considerably more doing. I also went back for a fifth time to film the red and orange coloured vineyards at the end of the harvest.

There is a perception that Dinastia Vivanco, having opened a winery under its own name in 2004, is a new producer with funds that has enabled them to open a museum rather than the result of a century of history. No matter where I’ve been, it’s never as simple as it seems from the outside.

Pedro Vivanco himself has been making quality wines for decades, and he has had his hand in producing many a highly rated Rioja wine. The museum was the result of 40 years of collecting, as well as foresight and a passion for his profession. Although the context may be wine, it is as much as story about love, passion, vision and hard work, making, I hope, the documentary interesting for those into wine and those who aren’t.

There’s a screening and tasting in London on March 17, 2011, here’s an invite to download – Dinastia Vivanco, at the Roxy Bar and Screen, and plans are being made for more events in the US and Europe. Stay tuned.

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