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Port figure James Symington dies

Well-known Port figure James Symington, a driving force behind the revival of the post-war Port industry, has died aged 86.

James was born in Porto in 1934, part of the third generation of the Symington family. His grandfather was Andrew Symington who came to the city in 1882 and married into an Anglo-Portuguese family with established roots in the Port trade and his father was Ron Symington a famed Port blender.

The family left Portugal for Canada for a brief period in 1941 with uncertainty over Spain and Portugal’s role in the Second World War at its height but they returned in 1943.

When six-year-old James and his family arrived in New York en route to Canada he was holding a tree frog he’d taken from the garden, which merited a mention in the next day’s New York Times.

Educated at Ampleforth, James served in the King’s African Rifles for two years from 1954-56 and retained a deep affinity for the country and his former soldiers for the rest of his life.

A fluent Swahili speaker he returned often and supported various social and wildlife projects in local communities.

But it was of course the family trade that occupied the rest of his life. In 1960 he joined the business as a taster and blender and was the man behind some of the company’s most enduring vintage’s such as Dow’s and Warre’s 1966 and 1970 and Graham’s 1970.

He moved to the commercial side in 1973, developing new markets in the US, Canada and Scandinavia, founding Premium Port Wines in San Francisco which was the first dedicated wine distribution company founded in the US by a Port company and which is responsible for a large amount of US Port sales today.

This work, along with that of his cousins, ensured the Symington company stayed afloat during a particularly difficult time for the Port industry in the mid-1980s when many historic houses went under.

He built up a number of important friendships with other winemaking figureheads, such as Miguel Torres, Piero Antinori and Robert Drouhin and together they founded Primum Familiae Vini in 1992, which has since grown to 12 members worldwide.

He and his wife Penny bought and restored a small property called Quinta da Vila Velha in 1987, its 55 hectares of vines producing excellent wines to this day.

James and Penny had a son, Rupert, CEO of Symington Family Estates today, and two daughters, Clare and Miranda.

Clare works for the family business in the UK, while Rupert’s son Hugh has been working for Premium Port Wines in the US since 2018.

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