Rob Symington shapes sustainability at Symington Family Estates – Interview with James Mayor
30 October 2019

The first fifth-generation member to join the family company, Symington Family Estates, Rob Symington faced a culture shift when he decided to move from the digital company he had co-founded in a trendy area of London. Before arriving in Portugal, he thought, “oh no, I’m going to be stepping back into the 1980s”.  However, Rob soon realised “the exciting thing about a company 137 years old is you don’t survive without constantly evolving and adapting to the challenges of your time”.

The location of our meeting could almost be a metaphor for the balancing act between tradition and innovation that benchmarks the Symingtons, owners of four historic Port brands and producers of a range of outstanding dry wines. We are in Vila Nova de Gaia and Rob leads me across the faultless front lawn at Barão James Forrester’s former quinta, now Symington’s head office. We head for the pristine white, totally cool Marketing Department.

Rob Symington is responsible for Sustainability. The Symington family recently announced they are the first wine producer in Portugal to achieve B Corporation certification, a rigorous process begun a year ago. B Corp companies are assessed for the highest standards of social and environmental performance and ethical business practices.

Rob Symington comments, “sustainability values underpin a lot of what we do, but we did not have an overarching strategy.” Asked by his cousins to review their sustainability actions, Rob encouraged the family to go for B Corp certification and develop a framework for the company’s environmental and social impact initiatives.

Rob leans into the table as he explains what this involves, his enthusiasm engaging. A sustainability strategy, Mission 2025, is being implemented, with ten flagship goals including renewable energy, water efficiency, low-impact packaging and local community initiatives.

The largest share of the company’s carbon emissions are present in their supply chain: 86%. And 55% of these emissions are accounted for by the production of glass bottles. Many bottle manufacturers have already begun their carbon reduction journey, sometimes encouraged by looming increases in carbon taxes. Consumer perceptions are changing, and just as we are seeing a reaction against plastic, there is also a backlash against excessive packaging. The Symington family have reduced the weight of some of the bottles in their core range and are studying further reductions.

In 2021, Symingtons will open the first LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) winery in Portugal, at their Quinta do Ataíde estate, the largest organic vineyard in northern Portugal. Rob is excited by this rare opportunity for the company to build a winery from scratch and hopes it will subsequently be possible to retrofit other company wineries. The Symingtons have been talking to Professor Roger Bolton of U.C. Davis, in California, a distinguished expert in the field. The Quinta do Ataíde low-impact winery will incorporate a ‘green’ roof to provide natural insulation and trap rainwater and, where possible, use gravity to avoid pumping; the winery will be powered by solar panels.

The Symingtons are deeply embedded in the Douro Valley, both physically through their vineyards and equally emotionally. It has long been part of company DNA to care for the local community, through numerous projects such as donating eleven ambulances to volunteer fire brigades. Mission 2025 will now permit employees to spend part of their working time in engaging with a volunteering scheme to provide support for local community initiatives, and particularly those which encourage young people to continue living and working in the Douro.

Family-run businesses could be particularly well-suited to addressing sustainability issues, as families tend to think in generations rather than quarterly results. For wine producers, a vineyard will only attain peak production after a decade, and this slowing down of processes no doubt has an impact on philosophies. “Family-run wine companies have their eyes open and a vested interest in protecting the environment,” says Rob.

The Symingtons are in discussions with Torres in Spain, and Jackson Family Wines in California who together recently founded ‘International Wineries for Climate Action,’ a forum to exchange and implement industry best practices in the field of climate adaptation. Rob notes, “the wine industry is often seen as the canary in the cage of climate change. We are well-placed to bring adaptation messages to the media and consumers.” He hopes that Symingtons will contribute “to a broader picking up of the baton.”

Sustainability is not the only area where the Symingtons are innovating. Port wine producers are being challenged to find new generations of drinkers, the current consumer typically being “north of 50”. One solution is White Port, delicious as a long drink with tonic. The company this year launched Graham’s Blend Nº 5, now available in the UK and the Algarve. The award-winning bottle has been designed by Antonio Soares, a Portuguese designer who has worked for Chanel and Lagerfeld. Out goes the Bishop of Norwich… in goes chilled Port?