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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On Perception

My interview with Tim Hanni, MW, seemed to have resonated with a lot of people, demystifying certain questions about the subjectivity of taste and perception in wine. What he said made a lot of sense to me as a non-wine person, and paralleled my experiences in the visual realm.


When I arrived in NY in 1983 at the tender young age of 25 to do my MFA at Hunter College, a tutor took our class to see art guru/critic Clement Greenberg who spent the evening telling us which artists were major, minor and really bad. All you needed was a good eye, he said, with the implication that his eye was the best, and if your didn’t agree with his assessment, then yours wasn’t. Even then, I realized that art was a more complex matter than that, and decided I would continue to make up my own mind based on my own perceptions and thoughts. Besides, almost everyone in the art world in NY would tell me that they had a good eye, and they couldn’t all be right.

I’ve learned a lot by listening to people who know more than I do, but I have a strong mistrust of those who claim to know better than everyone else.


The following year, I started going once a week to draw the works of art in the Metropolitan Museum of Art for about three hours, and would usually stay in the afternoon to look some more. Over the course of four years, I drew Rembrandt’s Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer about a dozen times, and sat and stared at it many hours more, hoping to discover the meaning of art and life.

I left NY for Europe, spending countless days in museums and churches, drawing and looking, and a couple of years later went back to look at the Rembrandt in the Metropolitan. I saw so much more in it, understood so much more, that it was almost as if I had never laid my eyes on the painting before. You never know what you’re missing.


In 1989, two policemen approached me while I was staying in a youth hostel in Edinburgh, and asked me if I would be willing to participate in a police line-up. They were looking for a certain type, they said, and to my inquiry about what would happen if I were to be picked out, they answered that they already had the person they suspected of committing the crime.

The next day a police van came to pick me up, and made a few other stops to gather more males of the supposedly same type. We were then led into a hall with office-style partitions with one-way mirrors (rather than the separate room set-up seen on police shows), so while we couldn’t see who was talking, we could hear what was being said.

We looked vaguely similar, all with brownish and reddish hair and a fair complexion, but with several inches differences in height and noticably different builds, and I doubt if anyone would have remarked on a family resemblance. The suspect was brought in and was told to pick someone and take his place.

On the other side of the partition, a man was told that he had witnessed an assault on a certain date, and asked if he could identify the assailant. He picked the wrong person, although he said he was sure it was him. Then the victim himself was brought in and asked if he could identify his assailant, and in all certainty he identified yet another person who was not the suspect.

So much for eye-witnesses.


Between the two World Wars, Dutch painter Hans van Meegeren, unhappy with the way the art world had failed to give him the recognition he felt he deserved, decided to exact his revenge by creating “new” Vermeer paintings. He spent a lot of care making sure his new “masterpieces” looked old and crackled, and finally leading 17th century Dutch art expert Abraham Bredius confirmed Christ and the Disciples at Emmaus as a genuine Vermeer.

After World War II, van Meegeren was arrested for selling national art treasures to the Germans. No, they weren’t art treasures, they were my fakes, he said, and to prove it, he had to paint another in jail, where he died getting a different sort of recognition from that which he felt he deserved.

Today, it seems implausible that his paintings could have been considered genuine Vermeer’s, but it is hard to put ourselves in that time with less knowledge of Vermeer, and when, perhaps, Dutch art experts and others wished for more Vermeer’s to exist, and to be the ones to discover or own them.

I, of course, am pretty sure that I would have detected the van Meegeren paintings as being fakes, but as past experience has taught me, being sure you’re right isn’t all that different from being certainly wrong.

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What I’ve been doing lately

Over the last year or so, I have visited some 20 different wine regions in Spain, travelling over 15,000 kilometres (10,000 miles), accumulating 180+ hours of material, including many fascinating interviews on the history, evolution and culture of wine. Not only has the filming, travelling, wine and food been an incredible experience, but supportive professional relationships and solid friendships have arisen from it.

I didn’t have the opportunity to start editing until late in 2009, but am finally wrapping up the first documentary on the Dinastia Vivanco winery and top wine museum which will be screening at Anthology Film Archives, New York as part of their New Filmmakers series on June 30. More screenings in the USA, UK, Spain and elsewhere are being arranged.

Dinastia Vivanco at Anthology Film Archives, NYC invite

I originally visited Dinastia Vivanco to tape material for a series of documentaries on the wider topic of Spanish wine looking at grape varieties, wine making and marketing, but the museum and 100-year family history gave me the idea of also doing a half hour piece of the winery, which then quickly expanded into an hour.

It started off weaving the two interviews with the Rafael and Santiago Vivanco brothers, winemaker and Vivanco Museum and Foundation director, respectively, as well as others involved in the winery. I had originally asked for an interview with their father, who started out delivery family bulk wine on a bicycle about his beginnings, but when the Film Anthology screening came up, I gave up on the idea, and the film editing was close to being finished. But with news of the screening, they finally viewed a very rough, first cut that I had sent a couple of months previously, and agreed that including Pedro Vivanco would be a good idea. So back I went in late May, and started an editing marathon to fit in his interview with the rest of the material. Luckily, it fit in well with Santiago’s overview of the family history over four generations and Rafael’s interview about the evolution of Rioja wine, and luckily the re-editing went as smoothly as could be expected.

The Pedro Vivanco interview gives the documentary an extra-special quality. I feel extremely fortunately to have interviewed many people on their long family histories and erudite and strong opinions about wine and winemaking, and I feel blessed to have had that experience, but no one else started off on a bicycle and ended up with possibly the best wine museum in the world as part of his philosophy of giving back to wine what wine has given to him and a need to share his passion for wine.

I have visited several places for material for my documentaries on broader subjects, but, on taking a closer look, saw that there were stories there waiting to be told, and now my biggest problem is time. It’s always tempting to go off to travel and film (and taste wine that I otherwise wouldn’t) but besides being with my family (and missing them and feeling guilty about being away too much), I have to edit the material to give it sense and meaning. A challenging process I thoroughly enjoy, but it’s just not as tempting and enticing.

In early 2009, I met Ryan and Gabriella Opaz, an American couple living in Barcelona and founders of Catavino ( that blogs about wine, develops on-line and social media strategies for wineries, and organises the EWBC (European Wine Bloggers Conference). (It was through them that I met Robert McIntosh, wine blogger and Dinastia Vivanco’s representative in the UK, who in turn introduced me to winery.)

I was interested in including social media in my documentary on marketing wine as it is changing the way wines can be promoted in giving a voice to producers and consumers and creating new, evolving relationships between them. This developed into an idea for a film on wine and social media itself, which then evolved using Catavino’s work during a year as they organise this year’s EWBC in Vienna as a narrative thread.

Through Ryan and Gabriella, I met Oscar Quevedo, responsible for marketing his family winery in the Douro, Portugal, who has used social media to great effect, including getting importers in the USA and UK. We thought it would be an interesting idea to do a short film on his winery, and see how Catavino and Oscar could use it in tandem with social media to promote the winery, all of which would be included in the final documentary on wine and social media.

Due to circumstances, timing and screening opportunities, we weren’t able to follow up on that particular idea, but it transmuted into an hour long documentary on the Quevedo winery in the context of the history of the Douro and Port wine which hopefully will be finished by the end of the year.

A new narrative thread was then needed for The Trans-Iberian Express, and I decided to shift the focus on to Ryan and Gabriella themselves, what it is like to live in a culture foreign to your own, work extremely hard for something you believe in, and coming up against resistance to new ideas and ways of doing things, and, through persistence and determination, build something and gain an increasing degree of recognition and success. They are solid, straight-forward, and sharp, both personally and professionally, and a film should emerge on exile and community building as much as on wine and social media.

I don’t know if I’m just lucky or if I chose well or a bit of both, but all three documentaries now have dynamic narratives on people that are great to work with. If all goes well, the Quevedo piece will be finished by the end of 2010, and The Trans-Iberian Express early next year.

I’m slowly but surely going through the rest of the 180 hours of tapes for the documentary on Spanish grape varieties, each representing a region, history and culture. I will interview two other people I have been lucky enough to meet that should give it an interesting overview. One is Norrel Robertson, a Master of Wine working out of Calatayud who makes wine in various Spanish using a dozen different grape varieties or more. I have already interviewed him on Garnacha in Calatayud, and on Monastrell in Bullas and Jumilla. The other is the leading Spanish wine writer Amaya Cervera, and the two should offer an interesting juxtaposition of points of view and experiences. Not to mention the few dozen winemakers talking about their own particular grapes, wines and regions. Warren Edwardes has asked me to write an article on Spanish grape varieties from my point of view for his GrapesTALK magazine, and I’ll talk more about the people I’ve interviewed.

Other documentaries, projects and ideas are simmering and bubbling in the back of my mind, it’s just a question of finding the time. My collaboration with Adrian Marshall has also been temporarily put on hold as has my painting, but both will be back in due time. The films on wine making and marketing wine should be released sometime in 2011.

I feel very fortunate to have had this experience, and would like say thanks, first to my wife  Albertina Torres for her help and support, and to all those who have generously invited me to their wineries, vineyards, and along their travels, and for the wine and food that has nourished me along the way.

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