Monday 27 August 2012

Paul Symington, the family man

It was absolutely fascinating to have the opportunity recently to talk to Paul Symington, the chairman of Symington Family Estates in the Douro, Portugal. We discussed everything from the future of port and climate change to history and the Queen’s jubilee celebrations.

What struck me was Paul’s emphasis on family values. Symington has over 350 years of history in Portugal and Paul is the 13th generation. He runs the company together with his two cousins Johnny and Rupert. When he was informed that he had been voted Decanter's Man of the Year 2012, he told Decanter he would only accept the award if he could mention and extend the honour to the family. He may be the face of the company, but it is the joint effort of all family members that makes Symington what it is today.

Paul firmly believes in the synergy between wine and family. Wine is long term and fits well with the time horizons of a family, especially for port and other premium wines that can evolve for half a century. He is proud to be selling today wine that his father put in barrels some 20 years ago. Big corporations, notably the public ones, often focus on the short term with today’s profit outweighing long term investment and heritage. To preserve and promote the moral values that are the backbone of family businesses, Symington joined with eleven other top international family estates to establish Primum Familiae Vini (PFV), the First Families of Wine, in 1993. PFV membership is by invitation only and is limited to a maximum of 12 families.

Being a family estate with long traditions does not mean lack of vision. Paul knows that the future of port lies with the premium sector—tawnies and vintages where Symington has a 34% market share—and the new consumers in the UK, US and Asia, and that the traditional image of cigars, port, gentlemen's clubs and copa (small port glasses) does not fit the lifestyle of today’s customers. To modernise port’s image, the three port houses under Symington—Dow’s, Graham’s and Warre’s—partnered with Croft, Fonseca and Taylor’s (The Fladgate Partnership) to establish the Vintage Port Academy. Its purpose is to promote the appreciation and knowledge of vintage port among fine wine consumers, collectors and wine professionals around the world. Some outside-the-box appeal includes pairing hairy crab and Peking duck, both Chinese delicacies, with tawny ports. To reinforce tradition and evolution, Symington launched Graham’s 1952 Tawny Port to celebrate the Queen’s 60th anniversary jubilee. The wine was served to overseas dignitaries at Windsor House. Paul’s ideal port scene is Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie sitting in front of a big flat screen television in their posh Manhattan apartment, enjoying port from a Riedel wine glass!

The Douro is home for the Symingtons. Paul grew up there in the vineyards with his brothers and cousins, and joining the family business was a natural thing for him. Today, Symington is the biggest landowner in the Douro with over 974ha under vines. Each family member also has his own private vineyard. Sales of Port  may be declining but the Symington family believes in the Douro’s terroir. Rather than investing overseas like other families such as Mouton or Mondavi, Symington only focuses on the Douro, expanding its portfolio into Douro AOC still wines. In 2010 it bought Cockburn’s Port from US company Beam Global Spirits & Wine in order to rebuild this 200 year old brand. Climate change, however, is a challenge as the average temperature has increased1.3ºC in the last 50 years. New planted vineyards are at higher altitudes and mostly north-facing. Luckily Touriga Nacional, the flagship grape of the Douro, is heat resistant and its sugar level does not increase as fast as in other varieties in the soaring temperatures.

Of course there are cases of family disputes leading to the collapse of great family empires such as Gucci. Paul understands the importance of keeping the family unified. All Symingtons start by doing basic work on the estates, then gain experience outside the Douro before joining the company. He is not worried about not having enough successors. There are enough daughters and sons—14—in the next generation, but it is up to them whether they want to join the family business. If you have a chance to visit the estates, keep an eye out for the young lads cleaning the table or serving you port, they may well be the next Symington Chairman, or the next Decanter Man/Woman of the Year.

Abridged version was published in the South China Morning Post on 26th July 2012

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