Symington Family Estates, owner of Warre’s, Dow’s and Graham’s, announced the death of James Symington this week.
He was part of the third generation of the Symington family to make Port and was a leading figure in Portugal’s famous Douro Valley for more than 40 years, the family-owned group said in a tribute.
From overseeing the making of legendary vintages like 1966 and 1970 to expanding the reach of Port overseas – especially in the US – James Symington is credited with helping the region recover from a precarious financial position following the Second World War.
Born in 1934, Symington moved to Canada with his mother and siblings for two years during World War Two, but the family returned to Portugal in 1943.
Having been educated in Lisbon and at Ampleforth school in Yorkshire, England, Symington was unable to take up a place at the University of Oxford in 1952 due to ‘financial limitations’ amid a difficult era for Port producers.
He joined the British Army in 1954 and served as second lieutenant in the King’s African Rifles in Kenya, where he became fluent in Swahili.
However, in 1960, he married his wife, Penny, and joined the family firm, initially working as a taster and blender.
He would be responsible for Dow’s and Warre’s 1966 and 1970, two top Port vintages of the 20th century, as well as the lauded 1970 vintage Port at Graham’s, the historic producer house acquired by the Symington family that year.
After 1973, he switched to the commercial side of the business and to finding new markets, a move that notably led to the creation of distribution firm Premium Port Wines in San Francisco, US, in 1985.
‘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,’ Symington Family Estates said.
In 1987, Symington and his wife, Penny, bought the semi-abandoned Quinta do Vila Velha and renovated it into a 145-hectare (ha) property with 55ha of vineyards, the group said.
It added that James Symington’s friendship with other leading wine world figures, such as Miguel Torres, Piero Antinori and Robert Drouhin, was instrumental the firm becoming a founding member of Premium Familiae Vini group of prestigious, family-owned wine producers in 1992.
‘James and Penny had a son, Rupert, and two daughters, Clare and Miranda, and six grandchildren,’ said the group.
Rupert is currently CEO of Symington Family Estates, while Rupert’s son, Hugh, has been working at Premium Port Wines since 2018. ‘Clare also works in the family business and is based in the UK,’ the group said.