Life on the Douro – Done

Done! I came back home three weeks ago with plenty of new material, great interviews with Fladgate Partnership chairman Alistair Robertson, Paul Symington and Dirk Niepoort, and edited non-stop to get the finished film out to the Douro Film Harvest. The film’s narrative structure was already in place, but with some gaps, and I needed Alistair Roberston to give me a quick run-down on The Fladgate Partnership history, and Dirk Niepoort to give me an overview of the Douro Boys, an association of five producers, and their marketing effort. Instead, Alistair gave me about an hour and a half of material and Dirk’s interview was an hour long. Dirk was also the last of some 27 participants lending their viewpoints to Life on the Douro, fittingly, as he ends the film.

I had met Gustavo Devesas, who works for Symington’s, at Oscar Quevedo’s wedding, and he told me that an interview with Paul Symington was a must, that he would tell me some great stories. I hesitated as I already had far more material than could reasonably fit into the documentary, but decided that I shouldn’t miss the opportunity, and came away with an hour’s worth of stories and insights. As with so many of the interviews, it could almost serve as the basis for a film in itself.

Natasha Bridge, wine blender at Fladgate, gave an overview of the different styles of Port, and Antonio Agrellos, wine maker at Quinta do Noval, talked about their recent efforts to complement the winery’s previous three centuries as told by Cristiano Van Zeller and Jose Allen (see my previous post for that story).

I didn’t even have time to go through all the new material, just went straight to those parts I needed the most, basically Alistair on his company’s history, Dirk on the Douro Boys, how they function and what is needed to promote the region, and Paul about his childhood adventures in what was once a much wilder Douro valley.

I worked for 18 long days straight, got it out just in time for the deadline, and now the film will have its premiere at the Douro Film Harvest festival on September 6, and I’m thinking about what to do with all the extra material that I have. I could do a series of extras and/or an extended version and/or a video installation. When I go back for the screening, it’s tempting to film a few more things that I missed. There’s always a few more things to capture, especially in the Douro, so the film’s finished, but the story isn’t.


Alistair Robertson


Paul Symington


Natasha Bridge


Dirk Niepoort

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Life on the Douro, Trip no. 5, Day 5 The Noval Connection

I spent all day at the iconic Quinta do Noval on Thursday, July 21. I first heard about its history a year ago when I interviewed Jose Alberto Allen, whose family owned it in the 19th century, and then learned more about its history from Cristiano Van Zeller, whose family bought it from the Allen family in 1894, later producing what is considered to be one of the great wines of the 20th century in 1931, until it was sold  in 1993 to Axa, a multi-national insurance company. Christian Seely, the managing director was away, but their winemaker, Antonio Agrellos, showed me around and talked about Noval’s wine making in the 20th century and innovations over the last two decades.

Visiting Noval was one of the missing pieces that I needed for Life on the Douro, not only to show the estate that Jose Alberto and Cristiano talked about, not only because of its importance as a winery, but because all things in the Douro are interconnected. The Allen’s are related to Francisco Olazabal, ex-president of the Ferreira and direct descendant of Dona Antonia Ferreira, who also talked a bit about the Allen history. The Van Zeller family is related to the Symington’s, as are the Allen’s. I originally interviewed Dominic Symington at their estate Quinta do Vesuvio, which was bought from Ferreira. The Ferreira family asked Cristiano to help set up the Quinta do Vallado after the Ferreira company was sold to Sogrape, and Valllado began to operate under its own name, run by Francisco Olazabel and two cousins, all descendants of Antonia Ferreira. And on and on the story goes.

I have the basic structure of the film set up, and thought fine tuning it would be easier going. But now I’m painfully debating what to include and what to cut out, how long it should be, and a million other decisions as well, trying to balance the sense of history, the complicated issues, the visual richness of the Porto, Gaia and the Douro Valley, and the need for a well-structured, strong narrative. There is no way to include all the facts, better suited for a historical treatise, and I have to constantly remind myself that that is not my task, but rather it is to arrive at its essence. Right now, I’m not sure how I’m going to get there, but I always seem to get there in the end.


António Agrellos, wine maker at Noval


A 19th century Noval bottle at Villar d’Allen

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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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