The port industry asserts that its wine has never been better. Private and European Union money has gone into modernizing the vineyards with new technology and machinery, including automated treading machines, although some human treading is still done.
These efforts might be paying off. Symington reports that revenues have increased 19 percent since 1992, and that premium ports (reserve ports, late bottled vintage ports, 10- and 20-year-old tawny ports and vintage ports) sold even more successfully, accounting for nearly 20 percent of all port sales.
Last year, however, world sales declined 2.2 percent. The United States is now the number two consumer of premium varieties and sixth of all ports. The biggest port drinkers are the French, who prefer white port as aperitifs, while the British are still first in vintage port consumption but rank fourth overall.
The irony in these figures is that port owes its existence to the historical conflicts between Britain and France. In the late 17th century, after yet another war cut the British off from their French claret, they turned to Portugal, and in 1703 were given preferential trade status. Brandy was added to red wine to stabilize it during shipment. Thus, port was born, and with it singularly British customs like the passing of port.
The host first serves the gentleman to his right, then himself and then passes the bottle to the man to his left, who does likewise until it returns to the host. Anyone failing to pass the bottle is asked by the host, "Do you know the Bishop of Norwich?" If the guest is clueless, the host says, "He's an awfully nice fellow, but he never remembers to pass the port."
But to port devotees, it isn't the tradition that matters, it's the wine.
"The sheer variety of flavors in, say, a 1927 vintage port, are only revealed after years of aging," says Tom Cave of the venerable London wine merchants Berry Bros & Rudd. "This is when the sum of all the components combine and the wine becomes more like a gas than a liquid, an ethereal experience, but one worth waiting for."
Dina Modianot-Fox is a regular Smithsonian.com contributor.