James Symington, patriarch of the English Port houses, died this week, leaving an unfillable gap in the industry. Symington Family Estates released an obituary of the pioneering producer and exporter. The text follows…
James was born in Porto, Portugal in 1934. He was a member of the third generation of the Symington family to produce port. His grandfather, Andrew James Symington, first came to Portugal in 1882 and married Beatrice Leitão de Carvalhosa Atkinson, whose own family had long established roots in the port trade. Their son, Ron, (James’ father) was a famed port blender and worked with his brothers in the family port company.
James was first educated at the Oporto British School. With the outbreak of war in 1939, however, life in neutral Portugal became increasingly complicated. By 1941, The British Embassy had advised all its citizens to leave the country. Together with his mother and siblings, James travelled from Lisbon to Canada via New York on the Pan Am Clipper flying boat service. A then six-year-old James arrived in Manhattan holding a treefrog taken from his garden in Porto and the ‘transatlantic frog’ was featured in the next day’s New York Times.
After two years living in Canada, the family returned to Portugal in July 1943. James attended St Julian’s school in Lisbon until 1946 when he went to Ampleforth in England. In 1952, he was awarded a place at St. Edmund Hall, Oxford but was unable to accept it due to financial limitations following a difficult few years for the port trade during and after the war.
In 1954, James was commissioned in the British Army and served as a Second Lieutenant in the King’s African Rifles in Kenya for nearly two years. He became fluent in Swahili and developed a close friendship with the African askaris. In his retirement, James often returned to Kenya and met up with the old soldiers with whom he had served. Throughout his life, he supported social and wildlife projects in Kenya to help the communities he had grown to know so well.
Following a long depression in port sales from the early thirties onwards, 1960 brought the first signs of a revival. It was in this year that James married his wife Penny and joined his father and cousins in the family company. He began working as a taster and blender – a highly skilled role that is crucial to making excellent port. James was responsible for making Dow’s and Warre’s 1966 and 1970 Vintage Ports as well as Graham’s 1970. These are some of the most highly regarded wines from the twentieth century and have aged magnificently.
After handing over his tasting and blending responsibilities to his cousin Peter in 1973, James began working on the commercial side, developing new markets in the US, Canada and Scandinavia. James, together with his cousins Michael and Ian, formed a strong partnership that steered the family business through several turbulent decades, when many of the historic family port companies were sold or simply closed. In 1985, James founded Premium Port Wines in San Francisco, the first wine distribution company established in the US by any port company. Today, the business is responsible for a significant proportion of all US port sales.
With constant good humour and an indefatigable optimism, James built many close relationships throughout the world of wine. It was his friendship with Miguel Torres, Piero Antinori and Robert Drouhin that led to the Symington family becoming one of the founding members of the Primum Familiae Vini in 1992. The PFV has since developed into a strong association of twelve wine-producing families committed to championing the values of family-owned wine companies and ensuring that they continue into the next generation.
Like his ancestors before him, James had an overwhelming love of the Douro. In 1987, he acquired a small semi-abandoned property called Quinta da Vila Velha. Together with his wife Penny, they restored the quinta into a well-tended 145-hectare riverside property with 55 hectares under vine. The estate now produces some of the best wines in the region.
James and Penny had a son, Rupert, and two daughters, Clare and Miranda, and six grandchildren. Rupert is now the CEO of Symington Family Estates and his oldest son, Hugh, has been working in Premium Port Wines in the USA promoting the family’s wines since 2018. Clare also works in the family business and is based in the UK.