In 1960 James Symington formally joined the family port business, and until his retirement in 1998 was instrumental in expanding distribution throughout Europe and opening up the North American markets for Graham’s and other family-owned brands of port. He has written a short memoir, with many amusing anecdotes about the port trade, both historical and from his personal experiences.
When visiting the United States in the late 1970s he realised that the image of port was terribly intimidating to people – the use of port tongs to open bottles, the business of decanting, and the legendary formality of passing port correctly at British dinners all seemed to put people off. James travelled widely, speaking with distributors and meeting their customers, encouraging everyone to enjoy fine vintage and tawny ports any time, any place, and cited his own experiences as examples of the adaptability of port to all kinds of occasions and circumstances, not all of which were terribly elegant or traditional.
The following excerpt from James’s memoir makes clear that all styles of port can easily adapt to a variety of circumstances and still taste wonderful and refreshing:
I was frequently asked how often I myself drank port. I have to confess to being an avid port drinker and virtually not a day in my life goes by without my having a couple of glasses after dinner or during the day. Port tastes particularly good on a picnic. A robust vintage, decanted before leaving home, tastes delicious in the open air and I have downed many an enjoyable tot while shooting snipe on the marshes south of Oporto or after woodcock in the Hebridean islands of Scotland. Having done my military service in the King’s African Rifles in Kenya in the mid 1950s I have a great fondness for Africa as a whole and Kenya in particular. Safaris do not offer the most convenient environment for transporting bottles of port but I solved this problem by transferring the port into half litre plastic hip flasks usually to be found containing whisky in airport duty free shops. Refilled with 20 Year Old Tawny port these may be packed into soft bags and can withstand the jolts and rough treatment often encountered on safaris. On one memorable occasion a few years ago every evening we had 20 Year Old Tawny which had been thrown about all day on a camel’s back! Tawny port is particularly resilient in these circumstances and it can still taste delicious even after such apparent rough treatment. I was always at pains to point out the great versatility of port to our customers although I think they found the camel treatment rather extreme.
Whilst we love to see our fine vintage ports presented in a beautiful old decanter on a highly polished mahogany table, and always enjoy the effect of candlelight refracting off our crystal wine glasses, we think it would be a shame to save port only for those more formal occasions. The plastic hipflask via camel is perhaps a bit extreme, but port on a picnic is wonderful, and if the wine glasses are missing from your picnic hamper, don’t let that stop you …