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Thoughts and reflections on Len Evans

Published:  23 July, 2008

Len Evans AO, OBE, oenophile
Born 1 August 1930; died 17 August 2006, aged 75

Brian McGuigan, founder, McGuigan Simeon

Len was a genius when it came to understanding wine styles from all over the world and being able to identify their origin on almost every occasion. This capacity is a very rare one indeed. However, to couple that incredible capacity with the talent he had as an outstanding orator was the reason for him being such a potent force in the world of wine.

I had dinner with him at least three, maybe four, times over the past four or five weeks. This was much more frequent than is normally the case. My wife, however, had a feeling that we should be seeing more of Len and his lovely wife, Tricia, and therefore prepared a number of dinner parties recently which they both attended.

I was with him at dinner with Jancis Robinson and her husband, also James Halliday and Iain Riggs, the evening before we lost him. He was in great form, which is his normal form, and, indeed, I had told him during the evening that he looked very well. I helped him decant a range of old Hunter Valley Semillons as well as a range of very old Australian dry reds.

His wife Tricia was in hospital that evening having just undergone an operation. He made a telephone call during the evening and ascertained that Tricia was in good form, was asleep and would probably be allowed to leave hospital in the morning. He told us about this with great glee, as he had been worried about the operation. Everyone had a great night, and he tabled a 105-year-old Rutherglen Muscat, which was just fantastic - almost honeyed in its texture but very deep in colour. The following morning I called Len and ascertained that he was picking up Tricia and he expected to be home by 2pm. At about 1.30pm on Thursday, I received the terrible news that Len had died of a suspected heart attack.

We all knew that he was ill and that his heart was in poor shape, but he seemed to have battled through the worst of the treatment and he was really functioning very well.

He berated us, the members of the wine industry, from time to time; he applauded us from time to time; and he helped us whenever we asked for it. Australia's wine industry has lost its CEO. He led the Australian wine industry for 40 years through his capacity, his imagination and his determination. He was the author of the 2025 strategy, which set a target for the Australian wine industry to achieve.

I always worried what Len thought of a particular wine, action by my company or results achieved by my company. He was our father figure. No other member of the Australian, and I believe the world, wine industry has his unique mixture of talents.

Jancis Robinson MW, wine writer and broadcaster

Taken from a longer article, Len's last supper', available on the website

Wednesday night's dinner at Loggerheads, the rococo mud brick house Len Evans built in the Hunter Valley, was typical of Evans the host. Knowing his wife would be in hospital that day I tried to persuade him to cancel it, but anyone who has ever met him will know that I was wasting my breath. That morning at least one other dinner guest, Iain Riggs of Brokenwood and chairman of the Hunter Valley Wine Show, found his all-important trophy taste-off interrupted by calls from Evans. The mobile of another senior judge Ian McKenzie also registered an attempted call from Loggerheads. Once Riggsy and I were driving back after this climax of the wine show that Len had transformed into one of the finest regional wine shows anywhere, he returned the call, worried that perhaps there was some urgent development.

Depends what you call urgent. Evans was organising the wines for that night's dinner (having told me the night before that he intended to serve old Australians rather than the great French wines he also loved) and realised he didn't have any old Hunter reds. He wanted to make sure that Riggsy would fill the gap

He showed absolutely no sign of any weakness and had recently claimed that his recent triple-bypass operation had delivered him a whole new lease of life, and made him realise how crook he had been beforehand. He is already being missed.

Bruce Tyrell, managing director, Tyrell's

His timing was, as usual, spot on, as he died on the day of the awards dinner for the Hunter Valley Wine Show. For more than 10 years he had been a major driver in making it one of best regional wine shows in the country. It was a major thrill for me to win the Len Evans Trophy for the Best Named Vineyard wine.

Len taught me in the 1970s, like so many other young people throughout his life, the difference between good wine and great wine. It is that ability and his improvement of Australian wine through our show system, which he rebuilt, that will be his two great legacies. He leaves a bloody big hole in our industry.

Michael Cox, UK director, Wines of Chile

Len Evans almost single-handedly turned the image of Aussie wine from a drink for poofters' into the iconic world leader it is today. I first met Len at Bulletin Place, his bolt-hole in the heart of Sydney's business district, late in 1985 when I was living in Australia and learning about a growing phenomenon. For the next three years I tried to absorb just a fraction of his knowledge and wisdom on the subject of wine (women and song closely followed). The pearls of wisdom, bons mots, outrageous stories and good wine came

at a cost I was, after all, a youngish pom from the old-school English wine trade', so candid comments questioning my parentage were all too familiar. But despite his gruff, sometime pompous, exterior, Len had a veritable heart of gold, and his generosity, especially at his Hunter Valley home, was legendary. He remains one of the wine world's greatest characters, and a true communicator dedicated to the love of wine - especially Australian wine!

Hugh Johnson, writer and broadcaster

An abridged extract from Wine: A Life Uncorked, published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 20

A few years ago, Christie's sold some of the property of the Duke of Wellington. The last items from the cellar were several lots of a dozen bottles of wine simply called Molina del Rey. They were those beguiling hand-made brown pints made at the end of the 18th century, with a big cavity, a kick-up' or punt' underneath. There were no labels, just a rather desultory wax seal. The bottles alone, I reasoned, were worth having

I opened the first bottle (and years later, the last) with the finest judge of wines I know, Len Evans. It was greeted with a good Australian oath. What on earth! The wine, well into its third half-century, was extraordinarily sweet and creamy with a smoky softness but a clear tang of oranges It reminded me of one of the last bottles of another legendary Muscat, Constantia from the Cape, I had drunk 30 years earlier

Len and I discussed the last bottle far into the summer in 2003. We had drunk Krug 1971, Puligny-Montrachet les Pucelles 1992, Les Forts de Latour 1982, Chteau Margaux 1982, Quinta do Noval 1960 and my 1830 Malmsey Madiera. The others had gone to bed when I went to fetch the mystery Molino. We were as dazzled as ever, Len pronounced orange rind; I said only fresh-squeezed juice has the liveliness. Honeyed heaven,' I wrote, for texture and softness. Touches of cloves and cinnamon and cream smoke. It simply defies age: there is no sign of oxidation, no creeping volatility. Len and I agree; our life's top wine!'

Johnson eventually discovered the wine came from the mountain above Malaga and was made by a Bordelais winemaker the Duke had sent to the region. Spanish wine consultant Telmo Rodriguez has since tried to recreate the wine with grapes from an ancient parcel of Moscatel vines in the same region. He named it Molina Real.

Matthew Jukes, wine writer and consultant

First the facts - Len established the Australian Wine Bureau, Petaluma Wines, Rothbury Wines and the Tower Group. He judged wines for over 40 years and was chairman of the Royal Sydney Show for 22 of these. He also chaired the Canberra and Adelaide Shows and adjudicated at all of the other major shows in Australia. He wrote

13 books, including The Complete Book of Australian Wine, which was a bestseller for 27 years. He wrote extensively for magazines and newspapers. He raised enormous sums of money for charity - the AAP Len Evans Day alone amassed A$10,000,000 in 14 years. He was also president of the Australian Wine Foundation and the inaugural chairman of Wine Australia.

I didn't know him during any of these remarkable achievements, because I only met him this year for the first time. I did, however, know a lot about this dynamic man, and his brilliant palate and incredible energy levels. His name carried so much weight I was almost sick with nerves on our first meeting, but I found in an instant that he was the most magnetic of characters, instantly welcoming me into the room and then giving up his knowledge unstintingly and without breath. I was in a whirlwind of fascinating wine facts, extraordinary tales of derring do, historic pronouncements and incredible tasting notes.

I met him four or five times (three of these were sitting next to him at dinner) and I found him the most knowledgeable person I have ever met on the subject of wine - both Australian wines and the panoply of wines from around the world. There are only a few whose knowledge of Bordeaux and Burgundy is so complete these days and he not only knew the wines, but he also knew all of the owners and winemakers behind them, too. This made him an utterly mesmerising raconteur. His speed of reply, devastating discussion (read argument) techniques, unimpeachably correct' palate (don't for goodness sake disagree with him) and mischievous, almost schoolboy-like naughtiness was engaging and, at times, shocking and always hysterically funny.

His influence on the young members of the trade cannot be fully measured today. His Len Evans Scholarship Tutorial Programme plucked the cream of the crop of young Aussie wine trade and showed them, via a series of awesome tastings (flights of DRC, etc) and lectures, all about the great wines of the world. This, for the very first time, armed young Australians with immense confidence and intelligence with regard to wine. This exceptional programme is bearing fruit already, but its impact will grow and grow as these disciples pass on their knowledge to others in the future. Its worth is immeasurable - it is shaping the entire Australian wine industry for the future and will never stop doing so.

I am so proud to have met him - I know I am very lucky. I will now continue doing what he encouraged me and thousands of other people to do and pass on his knowledge to as many people as I possibly can. Cheers Len.

Hazel Murphy, consultant, former head of the Australian Wine Bureau in London

Len opened my first Australian Roofgardens BBQ - when the London Wine Fair was still in Derry Street and before the Australian Wine Bureau, now Wine Australia, had been formed. He would throw wines at me and say, What's that?' when I knew nothing, but then he would always tell me about them.

I have stayed at Tower Lodge and he came in for breakfast of bacon and eggs, which he was forbidden at home. I arranged for Graham Boynton, travel editor of the Telegraph, to have lunch with him in the Hunter, and Graham could not understand why I didn't arrange any other appointments that day - he did after the trip! I stayed with Len and Trish and discovered the wonderful creative, artistic side to the man through his sculptures. It was Len who presented me with the O'Shea Award in 1996 - there are so many things

What did he do for the Australian wine industry? There are many in Australia who should comment on that rather than me, but he breathed life into it early on then slapped it around for many years to keep it moving in the right direction. Then there are the wine shows, the writing

For me he supported everything I did at the AWB and when I had problems in the early days getting things through, it was Len, among others, who would pick up the phone to the powers that be and usually get me what I wanted.

Words to describe Len have to include passionate, incredibly generous, driven, fiery, obstinate, charismatic, creative, artistic, loyal, a good friend, a mentor, a showman, of course, and - in the early days - just a little bit terrifying.