The Unique Len Evans

The night before Len Evans died, he’d had the kind of dinner that he probably would have liked as his last on this earth. The company of close friends and plenty of great bottles. Those friends included wine writer James Halliday, Brokenwood winemaker Iain Riggs and his partner Sally Margan, English wine writer Jancis Robinson and her husband Nick Lander, Hunter winemaker Brian McGuigan and UK friends the Hendersons, at his Hunter Valley home Loggerheads.

His daughter Jodie cooked, as Len’s wife Trish was in hospital having a biopsy. Halliday and Robinson were in the region for the Hunter Valley Wine Show, which they and Riggs had judged on the preceding three days. For once, and somewhat unusually, Evans served only old Australian wines with dinner, finishing with an 1890 Chambers Rutherglen Muscat.

Evans died the following morning, August 17. He was aged 75. He had just arrived at the John Hunter Hospital in Newcastle to pick up Trish and take her home. But he died of a heart attack in his car in the car park.

Evans was born on August 31, 1930, in Felixstowe, England, and arrived in Australia via New Zealand in 1955. The 1930 vintage was not an auspicious one for wine, so last year, suspecting that the ailing Evans did not have many birthdays left, his friends organised a “conception year” wine theme for his 75th birthday dinner in the Hunter – the ‘29s being from a great vintage, at least in France. By all accounts, the wines were extraordinary and Evans was thrilled.

Evans earned the epithets Australia’s Mr Wine, and the Godfather of Australian Wine—both thoroughly deserved. For it was he who almost single-handedly persuaded Australians to forsake sweet fortified wines in the 1960s (when he ran the Australian Wine Bureau) and start enjoying dry red and white table wines. This kick-started what became known as the ‘wine boom’ and Aussie wine never looked back.

I last saw him on June 29 at a dinner hosted by Piedmont’s Mr Wine, Angelo Gaja. Evans looked pale and frail. He’d had major heart trouble for the last few years and it took a big event to get him down to Sydney from the Hunter. A car would be sent: Evans had ceased to drive himself such distances. But the word more recently had been good: Evans had had a new pacemaker fitted and was looking well again. Hence his sudden death carried an extra shock factor for his friends.

Most of these friends, however, would secretly admit to being amazed that Evans had lived so long, such was his pace of life, his neglect for his health, and his capacity for great wine and food. Regular indulgent trips to France would result in a weight gain and resultant talking-to from his GP which, I suspect, would be cheerfully ignored by the patient. When I came to Sydney in 1982 Evans had already had his first heart attack and his health was an open subject. That he lived his full-tilt life for another 24 years is testament to the will and spirit of this phenomenal man.

I will remember Len Evans as a charismatic man, a great talker, a raconteur, singer and joke-teller; an entertainer, who hated pomposity in wine-talk and much preferred to chat about golf or art, antiques or collectables – he was an antique dealer and pewter collector among other things.

A man of many parts, Evans was an expert golfer and one-time pro; a sculptor (traditional hammer and chisel on stone), an inveterate builder (think of the award-winning design of The Rothbury Estate, aka ‘the Pokolbin Opera House’; Tower Estate; Tower Lodge, and Loggerheads—his own wonderfully eccentric rammed-earth house on a hill overlooking Pokolbin). And, like all Welshmen, he had a great voice and loved to sing.

He was an extraordinarily generous host and provider of great bottles of wine, who believed in educating the younger generations. Judges and associates at the Sydney Royal Wine Show were astonished at the staggering array of great wines he opened (and inspired or bullied others into bringing) at judging week dinners, during his long tenure as chairman.

I well remember those dinners in the tower at Bilson’s (later Quay): once, ten red wines were laid out in two rows of five before each person, and he asked a single question – what is the theme? After much educated and not-so-educated guessing, they turned out to be all five of the Bordeaux first growths, from two great vintages: 1982 and 1970. Our task was to pick the chateaux and then match them to the vintages.

He enthused and inspired many, earned untold sums of money for charities, and communicated the pleasure of wine to us all.

Evans’s great mission to train up younger wine professionals culminated in his annual Len Evans Tutorial—a keenly-sought scholarship for 12 hand-picked people in the Hunter every year. It will continue even without the man himself.

For many of us, our intro to Evans was when he ran Len Evans Wines at Bulletin Place, which was a heritage building filled with winey bric-a-brac and memorabilia: two restaurants on separate floors and a basement wine shop. It was, simply, a paradise for wine lovers. The number of lay drinkers who were converted to wine, lovers who began their affairs, and future wine professionals who cut their teeth at Bulletin Place is legion. It closed in 1990 and Sydney has never succeeded in filling the void.

From the ‘60s to the ‘80s Evans was also a prolific writer, whose Indulgence column in The Australian (and before that, Cellarmaster in ‘The Bulletin’) was full of fun and did not always have a lot to do with wine. I will always cherish The Evans Theory of Capacity, in which he stated that at least 10% of your income must be spent on wine, and also, that you should never drink bad wine because you only have the capacity to drink so many bottles in a lifetime, and therefore every bad bottle you drink is like smashing a good bottle against a brick wall.

For all his down-to-earth claims that “wine is just a drink”, Evans was always focused on quality. He never tired of exhorting the wine industry to do better, to shake off its complacency, to produce more great wines, and never be satisfied with itself.

In the late ‘70s, Evans attempted to create the first-ever multi-national fine wine company. He had started Rothbury with Murray Tyrrell in the late ‘60s, and with his backer Peter Fox began the Evans Wine Company.

For a short time, it owned Château Rahoul in Bordeaux’s Graves region, Château Padouen in Sauternes, and was aiming to buy properties in the Napa Valley and elsewhere. But Fox died in a car smash in 1981 and the dream fell apart. Nevertheless, with Brian Croser and others, Evans was involved in creating Petaluma and chaired its board from foundation. Rothbury itself fell victim to a hostile takeover by Mildara Blass in 1996.

Evans’s genius was that he attracted wealthy backers to finance his wonderful, ambitious, inspired fantasies. It was a time when wealthy people were happy to finance projects that they believed in, with no expectation of dividends (expectations which were usually fulfilled!). They were thrilled to be involved with anything that held them in Evans’ magnetic orbit. Some marvellous things were achieved. At the very minimum, a great deal of fun was had. Sadly, it seems to be an era that has passed.

The memory of Len Evans, though, is unlikely to ever pass. He enthused and inspired many, earned untold sums of money for charities, and communicated the pleasure of wine to us all. A great man and a great life, lived to the limit.


Huon Hooke

Published with permission from The Real Review