When and Where to Drink Your Port

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.

James in the 1970s. Devotion to duty!

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 …

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7 thoughts on “When and Where to Drink Your Port

  1. “He, James Symington, has written a short memoir, with many amusing anecdotes about the port trade, both historical and from his personal experiences.”

    Please can you tell me if this memoir is available anywhere in print or on the internet?

    Best regards,


  2. It’s sad to so many people think Port is only an after dinner drink, to be accompanied by all the pomp and circumstances. I drink Port regularly and, like James states, I’ve enjoyed it in a wide variety of places. Enjoying a 1991 Quinta do Vesuvio VP on a plane at 33,000′ with some friends for our first “Port Mile High offline” was a blast. But one of my most cherished memories was sitting under the Dom Luis bridge (Oporto/Gaia) a few years ago until 4am with a bottle of Colheita being passed among friends as we talked the night away and watched people fishing in the Douro.

    Anytime is a great time for Port!

  3. Herman – a very fine hand printed and bound edition was produced – we are awaiting confirmation of it’s availability – will reply again as soon as I have details.
    Andy – Vesuvio at 33,000 feet seems appropriate! Two wonderful occasions, thank you for letting us know.

  4. Herman: The memoir, A Life in the Port Trade by James Symington, is available in two formats: a computer-generated print is for sale at the Graham’s Lodge for € 3, or alternatively, a very fine hand-printed edition has been produced by Isaac Oelgart, a specialist bookmaker based in New Hampshire, USA – please contact him directly at isaacoelgart at gmail dot com for more information.

  5. James was the first person in the Port trade to spend time with me and show me around and even invited me up to see Bomfim. I always attributed my visit there to the great Vintage Ports made that year (May 1994) … joking, of course. I met Rupert during my visit and the photos of young Rupert, (who was still fairly new to the Port trade at that point) are fun when looking back.

    James’ book is a brilliant read, but the inset photos are amazing and I strongly suggest folks to try to obtain a copy if possible. I have a great photo of James standing next to me on the lawn of the Graham’s Lodge. It was a very proud moment for me to have met and spent time with James and also meet Michael and Paul that same day. Great memories!

  6. For those inclined to purchase a copy of my finely printed limited to 88 copies and signed edition of James’ A LIFE IN THE PORT, I would be pleased to contribute $50.00 toward a bottle of Graham’s 20 year old tawny – a perfect match. And remember if you are going to drink and read – drink Port and read A LIFE…

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