Mother Vine, A Few Remarks

Ξ May 13th, 2011 | → 2 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, International Terroirs, PORTUGAL, Wine History |

In a passage from one of my favorite books, Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes, the author writes of playing ‘prisoner’s base’ when he was young, what we might better know as the children’s game of ‘tag’. There are regional variations, but one general rule of the game is a constant. There are pursuers and those who flee. Armed with a miraculous power, when a pursuer tags you, you become frozen. You may only be freed, put back into circulation, if you are touched by a fellow team member. Roland Barthes, always one to choose freedom, relates this children’s game to larger questions of social subjection and domination. “No last word.” So it is with wine, its regional cultures and history.
 
In Wines of the World, the third printing, 1968, H. Warner Allen, a very good writer, has this to say in his chapter The Wines of Portugal.
 
“Portugal, allowance being made for its size, produces a greater variety of wines than any other country in the world and is unique among wine-growing lands in its self-sufficiency…. Throughout Portugal the supremacy of the sun wrestles with two opponents, the ozone of the Atlantic and the more rarefied atmosphere of high mountains. The country is tightly enclosed on the west by the barrier of the ocean and on the east by the wall of mountains of the Spanish frontier. Not one Portuguese vineyard is entirely out of reach of this double influence, and the vine is as susceptible to atmospheric conditions as to the imponderable stimuli of the constituents of the soil in which it grows. Obdurate granite predominates as the basis of Portuguese vineyard soil, giving its wines a kinship with those of the Rhône, and its unyielding firmness of character brings most Portuguese wines into Virgil’s category of firmissima vina, wines of thews and sinews, which can stand up against time and rough handling.”
 
Is that not a lovely summation, a marvel of narrative economy? I think so. And I repeat it here — I strongly recommend reading his entire 100 page chapter — in order play my own game of ‘prisoner’s base’; to put back into circulation a frozen though praiseworthy text. And so it is with my documentary, Mother Vine, which enjoyed its premier May 6th at the Instituto Superior de Agronomia in Lisbon, Portugal; the aim of the film is to free the souls it has recorded from potential obscurity and oblivion. “No last word…”
 
I shall limit the balance of this post to a very slightly modified version of my introductory remarks given before the lights came down in the Auditório da Lagoa Branca.
 
Introductory Remarks
 
Make no mistake, I am an American; what is worse, a Californian. I have asked to become an honorary citizen of Portugal but there is an awful lot of paperwork involved. So I made a film, Mother Vine, to speed up the process.
 
I originally came to Portugal, to Lisbon, for the European Wine Bloggers Conference back in 2009, with the generous assistance of ViniPortugal. But I don’t care for conferences, especially when they are hosted in countries I know very little about. And of Portugal I had no practical experience, no real knowledge. I am proud to announce that after much travel and filming in your beautiful country — with the help of Virgilio Loureiro — I can now confidently report that I now know something! Which is better than nothing.
 
So what is it I now know? What is it I am eager to tell my English-speaking friends? That Portugal offers the visitor the rare and the unique; intellectual adventure and startling insights into the life of deep wine culture. But everybody says that about a country, a culture, to which I say, “So what”. All that tells me is that there are multiple dimensions to our ignorance of the world.
 
But how can we be ignorant? After all, we have the internet! And as a Californian, surely we know everything worth knowing. But this is not true. Mother Vine is an effort to confront my ignorance, our ignorance, head on.
 
Let me tell you a story before the film begins. Exploring the Alentejo one brilliant September morning, we happened to see a man driving a tractor loaded with wine grapes. With an aggression characteristic of the Hollywood tribe, or a typical American impatience, I told Virgilio, “Stop! Go back! We’ve got to shoot that guy!” Virgilio put all of our lives at risk (quite thrilling, really) and executed a neat 180 degree turn in the middle of the narrow road. When we stopped alongside the road, I told my producer, Liliana Mascate, to stand in the tractor’s way, flag him down, while my cameraman, Nuno Sequeira, quickly set up the camera. The driver probably thought we were highway robbers, but he worked with us and we got the shot.
 
Later in the day, in a Vila Alva cafe/bar, a man approached me and said in perfectly accented English, “Remember me?” It was the tractor driver. Now, hearing only Portuguese in that bar, in a hundred bars, I racked my brain for the Portuguese phrase ‘remember me’. Then it dawned on me that he was speaking English!
 
But he needn’t have wondered. I remembered him. For without him and 100s of others we met and filmed, we would have no documentary to show this evening. So I ask all of you here tonight, remember these people you are about to meet; remember their words, the images of their dignified labors. And after the film you will have an opportunity to taste their wines. Rooted in difference and originality, their wines will tell you, forcefully, with clarity, just why we made Mother Vine. Thank you.
 
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2 Responses to ' Mother Vine, A Few Remarks '

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  1. Maciek Gontarz said,

    on May 15th, 2011 at 4:02 pm

    Ken,

    Great summary of your priceless experience – shooting documentary about wine, meeting incredible people, be part of the story…

    In fact, wine is a agricultural product. But… It’s very special because end product is nothing without story. Real story is a people’s lifes. In the bottle there is always more than just liquid and I hope your movie reveals this part.

    So good to hear your screening in Lisboa was successful! I hope to organize something in Poland to help spreading word about this wonderful country. Take care!

  2. Admin, Ken Payton said,

    on May 16th, 2011 at 8:34 am

    Thank you, Maciek. I will get details to you for a showing in Poland as soon as possible!

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