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Part 1: The Allens – How We Came to Know a Living Part of Port Wine History

I’ve wanted to write this post for 8 years now. In the beginning, my hesitation stemmed from a lack of platform to share the story on; and in the recent past, I’ve simply wondered how I could do it justice. I’ve wanted to tell it correctly, ensuring that I didn’t leave anything out or inadvertently confuse you, no small task. I guess it’s silly in some ways, but the truth is that this story is unique in the world of wine. It’s a story of Port wine and family history that began both in the 1600′s, and for me and my family, about 35 years ago today. So with a little help, I intend to share this dramatic wine tale as to how my family, the Raths, and the Allen family came to share a common friendship.

But first, I need to preface this story by stating my inability to be purely objective. Today, the Allen’s feel like an extension of our family; and more to the point, Gabriella and I are currently helping the Allen’s to create a new chapter in their wine history. For the first time in over a century, they are relaunching their family brand of port wine; a wine that has a long and impressive history behind it. We are honored to be part of this relaunch, and hope you will accept my bias as I unravel this very personal and hopefully heartwarming tale to you. It make take some time but we’ll get there soon.

When considering how to tell this story, I asked both my grandparents and my aunt Rebbie, whose roles will be clarified shortly, to share their memories of meeting the Allens at the Villar d’Allen Estate. Hence, what follows is a combined rendition of their stories and my attempt to give context and clarity to the tale. Over the coming week(s), I will share other stories, including our first encounter with the Allens, in a hope to make this more relevant to a wider audience.

1979 – A Meetings of Hams

It was in 1979 that my aunt Rebecca found herself as an exchange student in Portugal:

Being an exchange student in 1979 was quite different than it is today. We didn’t have e-mail, Facebook, blogs or Skype. In fact, we didn’t have computers at all. Overseas phone calls were very expensive and I only spoke to Mom and Dad on the phone once or twice the whole year while I was in Lisbon. But Dad was a ham radio operator and was convinced that he could find a nice ham in the Lisbon area that would put us in contact.

For weeks after my arrival in Portugal, he CQ’ed [General radio call to anyone listening] in the Lisbon area, night after night, hoping someone nearby would answer him. I believe he did get in touch with one or two, but since it wasn’t legal to let anyone without a license talk on the radio anyway, he found no one in Lisbon who would contact me.

Then one evening a voice came through the air waves from Porto. This man had heard W0IIM (Dad’s call sign) calling relentlessly for weeks on end and wondered what was up. Dad explained that I was in Lisbon and that he and Mom would love to have some contact with me. The voice turned out to be Jose Allen and although Porto was far away (remember the drive to Porto was a whole day affair in those days before the highway) he was soon heading to Lisbon on business and would consider bringing me to Porto for a weekend.

To hear it from my grandparents side, they were quite scared and very concerned. My Grandpa explains that after reaching Jose Allen, they exchanged information and Jose was able to figure out that the phone number Rebbie had given them was wrong by one digit. At this point too, it should be clear that all my Grandpa and Jose Allen knew nothing of each other than what was discussed via several ham radio conversations.

It was not easy convincing my host parents [Portuguese family living in Lisbon] to let a total stranger drive from Porto, pick me up and whisk me away for a weekend. But Mom and Dad gave their full consent, so my poor host family had no choice.

One fine day, a car arrived outside out house in Lisbon and I hopped in wondering what was in store for me. Jose seemed like a nice enough guy, and we chatted nicely the entire day while driving up. He was full of questions and had lots of things to tell as well. The main topic of conversation was, of course, ham radio and he told me that while he was stationed in Africa, his wife Isaura got her ham license in order to talk to him. So both of them were rather avid ham operators.

What Ze [Jose] didn’t tell me about was the history of his family. Even as we neared Porto, and drove to the outskirts of town, I had no idea what was in store for me. Then, he nonchalantly turned the car up a driveway that reminded me of the entrance to a palace. As he pulled up in front of the “house” my eyes were bulging from my head. I couldn’t believe the castle in front of me. But I didn’t get more than 5 seconds to catch my breath before a lovely woman came running out of the house. She threw open the car door and literally pulled me out of the car saying in her beautiful accent that my dad was on the radio!

She dragged me inside the house and I felt like I was being pulled through a museum. Up the steps, past the suit of armor and the pyramid of cannon balls, past the mosaic tile work on the walls, down the long hallway and into a tiny little closet sized room where I finally saw something familiar: a room filled with radio equipment! There I spoke to Mom and Dad, “Just use my name when talking” Isa [Isaura] told me. I talked to Mom and Dad, laughed and cried with homesickness while Isa patted my back and smiled.

Over the course of the year, Rebbie was able to visit the Allen Estate on several occasions. However, it was because of this first meeting that the Allen’s first became part of the Rath [my mothers maiden name] family history. I emphasize this fact because if Jose didn’t answer that first desperate call over the ham radio from a distressed father searching for his daughter half-way around the world, the next segment of the story would never have come to fruition.

What happens next in the Rath/Allen saga needs a short explanation as to why my grandparents decided to explore the world by boat.

In March 1981, my Grandma and Grandpa, along with two of my aunts and uncles, set off on a five year tour of the high seas. The original plan was to circle the globe, but in the end, they spent most of their time in the Mediterranean and North Atlantic. It wasn’t until the summer of 1985 that they arrived at their final port of call, Duluth, Minnesota. I’m happy to say that I was ten years old at the time and was able to share the last few weeks of their journey on board, as we cruised the Great Lakes.

It was shortly after they launched from Florida in 1981 that they they crossed the Atlantic and eventually sailed to Porto to finally meet the Allen family after years of conversing with them by ham radio. The result of their journey across the Atlantic and into Porto was a friendship for life. This past Christmas, I sat down with my grandparents and a videocamera in hand to hear their side of the story. What follows is a rough edit of my “interview” with my Grandpa Ray and Grandma Ceci.

I hope you enjoyed the first part of this story, and in the coming weeks, I’ll be sharing our story of finally meeting the Allens in 2003, when Gabriella and I honeymooned through Portugal. In addition, my Grandpa was able to find the story[mentioned in the video] he wrote about the Allens and has agreed to allow me to publish it here. It’s an interesting take on the history of Port wine from a non-wine expert, and I hope you will find it interesting too.

Till soon,
Ryan Opaz

  • http://www.prgrisley.com Michael Grisley

    Wow, what a great post Ryan! This story is amazing and I can’t wait to see how the whole thing comes together- I’ll be following this one closely!

  • http://twitter.com/alexsommelier Alex

    Great story Ryan, I can’t wait to read the rest

  • http://twitter.com/reddishSonia Sonia Nolasco

    Ryan, this post brought tears to my eyes, because it’s an enchanting story and you’re doing an excellent job of recapturing it. I know what it’s like to put off writing something because you love it too much and are afraid of not doing it justice. But fear not, so far it’s really good, can’t wait to read the rest. The tears are likely due to the fact that I’m homesick for Portugal, my family, everything there… Love the post!

  • Bill

    Ryan, Fantastic. I’ve heard parts of this story over the past few years but to hear it from your Grandparents is puts things into perspective. I am looking forward to future installments, as well as sampling the Allen brand, renewed.