This book, in my view, will appeal to British readers and to those on either side of the Atlantic who have acquired a taste for British humor and literary style. It would also be helpful to understand the rules of cricket, since it is referenced in the text here and there. It can be enjoyed by port neophytes and initiates alike.
The narrative offers quick overviews of the history of the Upper Douro valley and how the making of port began; the congenial relationship between England and Portugal; the history of some of the region’s major port producers, institutions and culture; the wine’s pioneers and advocates, past and present (including our friend Roy Hersh and the FTLOP website); the development of different styles of port; places to visit and preferably imbibe; and, a survey of many of the vintages of the last 100 years.
The author makes an excellent case for Single Quinta Vintage Port as a fine bargain, and balm for the soul of budget conscious wine lovers. The text is a mixture of scholarly research delivered with a light hand, and personal, often funny anecdotes. The author seems to have equal affection for what he calls the Upper Douro Highlands and its devoted people, finding them both comparable in many respects to those of Scotland. It seems the excellence of the wine is the inevitable third force fruition of the amphitheatrical terrain and its people.
The author also uses the subject of port as a light hearted base for reflection on the ageless battle of the sexes. It appears both genders win at the end, but not without some casualties, almost always male.
I got the impression the author is promulgating the enjoyment of port as part of a lifestyle which finds a healthy balance between work, family and social life. Our modern lifestyle is becoming increasingly driven by hypercompetitive work schedules, and the use of electronic rather than direct personal interaction, combined with a loss of personal privacy and the inability to enjoy real leisure. Perhaps we do need to reconsider our priorities and, like the pioneers did and still do in the Douro, to make time for and support one another, with the wine being a catalyst for this form of bonding. Overall, I found the author’s subtle arguments to be very convincing. What works for the greater community also works at an individual level.
Many of the historical personalities are presented in an endearing manner – including those who had little regard for moderation in consumption. This does not imply the author is condoning irresponsible consumption of alcohol. This notion is confirmed by the many hilarious cartoons, where too much of a good thing suddenly does not become good any more. Mr. Preston employs irony with considerable skill. The use of animals is very clever. In a rendering of a pheasant shooting outing, the hunters appear to be less intelligent than the prey. Elsewhere, one middle-aged chap is following Shakespeare’s Falstaff where sexual morals are concerned. Suffice to say, the cartoons have to be seen to be believed. One of the very best is sandwiched in the bibliography, rewarding the thorough reader.
Quiller Publishing used satisfyingly fine materials, with better paper than one often sees. Hugh Johnson contributed an amiable, succinct foreword. Upon rereading it, I suspect this may not be Ben Howkins’ last book. I hope not, anyway.
Review © by Ray Barnes, November 2011