Len Evans

Writer and promoter who put Australian wine on the map

Monday 21 August 2006 00:00

Leonard Paul Evans, wine writer, judge and promoter, and vineyard owner: born Felixstowe, Suffolk 31 August 1930; OBE 1982; AO 1999; married (one son, two daughters); died Newcastle, New South Wales 17 August 2006.

One of the founding fathers of the modern Australian wine industry, Len Evans was perhaps the greatest wine talent of his generation, a man remarkable equally for his robust personality and his substantial achievements. A natural raconteur and extravagant bon viveur, Evans brought his prodigious energy to bear in raising wine quality standards and communicating its pleasures. As a champion of Australian wine first at home and then through the export drive of the 1980s, he deserves much of the credit for its success at home and abroad.

When Evans joined the Australian Wine Bureau as its first director in 1965, it was an era in which Australians drank just over five bottles of wine per head per annum, of which four were fortified, and wine was still regarded as something of an élitist product. Yet "John Bull's Vineyard" had long shown its potential for fine wine and with the advent of new technology in the 1960s, Evans saw the opportunities for a renascent Australian wine industry. He pursued his vision in a single-minded mission to put Australian wine not just on the domestic map, but into uncharted overseas markets. He was too direct ever to be a diplomat, but his unbridled enthusiasm, authority and charisma would convince businessmen and investors that his vision was sound.

An architect and builder by nature, Len Evans was able to create in his imagination a clear model of the future for the Australian wine industry. In the 1960s he wrote Australia's first regular wine column, in The Bulletin, and thanks to a brilliant palate and a passion for the subject, he was able to articulate what it was he was aiming to achieve. "Wine is sold worldwide in four categories," he said: "Fancy, Realistic, Ordinary and Very Ordinary." Deriding the Very Ordinary, he said "it is in the realm of the Realistic section that we will do best, both nationally and internationally". He was proved right. Australians today drink 36 bottles per head and Australia has forged ahead of France as the best-seller in the UK.

Len Evans was born in 1930 in Felixstowe, of Welsh parents. After turning down a place at Cambridge to study Architecture, he worked for the New Zealand Forest Service before heading for Australia in 1955 with aspirations, short-lived as it turned out, to become a professional golfer. While erecting dingo fences at Mount Isa in Queensland he met, and married, a local beauty queen, his "darling Trish".

His first job in wine was with the gallery owner Rudy Komon, who asked him what his favourite wine was. "I rather like Gewürztraminer", said Evans, to which Komon replied, "Not to worry, you'll grow out of it." And he did. Evans went on to work as assistant food and beverage manager at the Sydney Chevron Hilton. Here, he accidentally served a corked wine, a never-to-be-repeated faux pas, to the visiting French wine éminence André Simon, whose quip "there are no good wines, only good bottles" Evans liked to quote liberally.

His love of good food and wine led to the purchase of Bulletin Place in Sydney, his restaurant which opened in 1969 and soon became a melting pot of future wine merchants, writers and winemakers. As a waiter there, Michael Hill-Smith recalls the period as "one endless interesting wine party" with visiting actors, politicians and writers entertained with typical bravura by Evans holding court over great bottles of wine.

On one occasion, when the then Australian prime minister Malcolm Fraser held the Single Bottle Club (one of the many dining clubs established by Evans) at his residence at the Lodge in Canberra, Evans took along his waiting staff, including Hill-Smith, who recalls: "We turned and said to each other that if you came from another world and had to pick the leader of this country, it would have to be Len Evans."

The game of "wine options", now widely played, was invented at Bulletin Place, where the formidable "front row" of Len Evans, James Halliday, John Beeston and Tony Albert would bring a wine to be tasted "blind" and pose a series of questions for the others to guess the wine's identity. Seriously educational, often ferociously competitive, but always great fun, it was the quintessential Evans game, bringing out his delight in great wine, competition, camaraderie and influencing others to think about international standards of quality.

He bemoaned Australia's "cultural cringe", its inferiority complex in the face of the European classics. Yet his tastes were catholic and, in recognising the finest wines of the world as beacons of quality, the very act of opening a great bottle enabled him to communicate the standards to be aspired to.

He made a success of Hunter Valley's Rothbury Wines, which he took from a 10,000-case company in 1972 to one of 650,000 cases in 1996. In 1978, he and his partners bought Château Rahoul and Château Padouën in Bordeaux. He was also chairman of Petaluma in the Adelaide Hills from 1978 to 1992, where he established a lifelong association with his protégé Brian Croser, who in 2004 followed in Evans's footsteps to become a Decanter Man of the Year, seven years after his mentor. Evans subsequently became chairman of Evans Wine Company and Evans Family Wines from 1980 and was chairman of Tower Estate from 1998.

The Australian wine show judging system acts as a barometer of wine style and quality. Evans' unerring palate helped raise the standard of show judging to its present pre-eminence. He had an electrifying effect on young people, taking great interest in their careers and equal pride in their achievements. It was in his nature to share his knowledge and to nurture talent, but it was his style to berate the very brightest prospects. It took young wine judges time to get used to the idea that to be at the receiving end of the barbed Evans tongue was a compliment, but "Mr Chairman", as he was affectionately addressed, was respected and loved by his students.

Endowed with the gift of being able to turn any event, formal or otherwise, into a hilarious occasion, Evans was in demand as a speaker on the dinner party and wine-conference circuit. His weekend-long birthday parties at Loggerheads, the Hunter Valley home Evans constructed from architectural salvage, were legendary. He believed that it was a host's responsibility to look after his guests and a guest's responsibility to contribute to the fun. On his 70th birthday, he hosted a fancy dress birthday party of typically extravagant proportions at which each guest was given a character to portray. Evans came as Napoleon, and his wife, Trish, as Josephine.

Len Evans never lost his gargantuan appetite for a rollicking good time.

Anthony Rose

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