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Remembering Len Evans

 Many moons ago, I ( Grant Dodd, partner and CEO of Haskell Vineyards) ran into a great Australian wine man called Len Evans on a golf course. It was a day that was to irrevocably change my life, immersing me into the world of wine, complete with all its possibilities and pitfalls. Len died in 2006, before he was able to complete an autobiography he started titled, ‘Not my Memoirs’. Len always held that he couldn’t write his memoirs as he was still living them, but fortunately he set the wheel in motion and his family were able to finish them off some six years later. ‘Not my Memoirs’ has recently been published; it’s a great read of a life lived well, and large. My memories of Len are captured, in abbreviated form, in the following story,


I was using the statue as a marker. When you’re practicing, beating golf balls, you need to focus on something, otherwise you just get lost in the habit; the sometimes meaningless, purposeless habit.

A car sneaks up the unsealed driveway, edging past the hand carved, Easter Island-like sculpture,a soft trail of dust wafting behind it, momentarily breaking my concentration.

I figured it must be him. The guy who wrote to me six months earlier, saying he had started his own wine newsletter and would I mind offering an introduction to Len Evans? No problem, let me call and see what sort of a response I get, was my reply.

‘Who is he?’ came the somewhat impatient query from Evans down the phone as I followed up on my promise. ‘Well, he’s a budding wine writer, I’ve read some of his stuff and it’s bloody good, he’d like to interview you for his newsletter.’

‘Tell him I’ll give him an hour’.

And so, in a six degrees of separation kind of way, Grant Dodd met Campbell Mattinson ( a future two time Australian wine writer of the year), on his way to meet Len Evans. Me, hitting golf balls off Evan’s custom made practice area whilst being exhorted (nay, verbally flaggelated) to greater heights by the ex-professional alter-ego in Len Evans; and Campbell, setting out on a new career path and making the pilgrimage to see the high priest of Australian wine.

I’m betting that Campbell remembers the day like yesterday. Visits to see Len were never less than memorable. Even the drive up to the house filled you with anticipation, the road lined with Len’s hand carved statues, peering quizzically, imperiously at you from behind trees and around corners, with eyes as analytical as their maker on introduction, the moment where you were sized up, evaluated and judged for future reference.

I bet he remembers the hand crafted, hacienda-like house with the panoramic view over the valley. He probably remembers the grove of trees at the front of the house, each planted by a legendary member of the wine fraternity and adorned with a stone plaque in celebration of the event. I know he will remember the interview – when Evans held court there was an intent and purpose to his words that left an indelible imprint on the brain. It was hard to forget.

I remember the day. I remember going to lunch after the interview had finished. I remember Campbell’s lunch offering (a bottle of Cristal 1990), and Len’s lambasting of one of the Hunter Valley’s leading winemakers for bringing a red burgundy of inferior quality ( ‘You’re always bringing rubbish like this, lift your game’), went his withering repost. I remember Len asking Campbell for his opinion on the Mugnier Musigny 2001, and his raised eyebrow when the reply came that he ‘didn’t like the tannins’.

The fact is, everyone remembered, and continues to remember, a Len Evans experience. Things just happened when Len was around. What is more, you always felt, knew, that something was going to happen. Be that sharing a great bottle of wine, a rollicking tale, a symbolic public caning, a great meal or just a moment in time, it was rarely less than memorable.

There are few people who have the capacity to profoundly imprint their persona on others in this way. Len Evans was such a person. The role that he played in championing the greater Australian wine industry was undoubtedly significant, but his greatest achievement may well be the inspiration that he provided to numerous people involved in the game today, people who defer to Len Evans as a motivating force in their professional life. And almost without exception, those people all remember something about him, or about an Evans moment in time that has stayed with them.

Rod Kempe remembers. Kempe is now the winemaker at the time honoured Hunter Valley producer, Lake’s Folly. He has his own Len Evans story that harks back to his early days at the Evans-inspired Rothbury Estate – before it was criminally hung, drawn and quartered by Mildara Blass in the mid 90s.

When Kempe first went to work at Rothbury, he had heard stories of the legendary palate memory and tasting acumen of Len Evans, but as with many urban myths, was a little sceptical of the hyperbole.

Early in the piece, the winemaking team were doing some Shiraz barrel tastings when Evans came across a wine he liked,

‘This reminds me of that barrel sample you showed me last week, Rod, can we have another look at that’? commanded the ‘Chairman’. A cellar hand was dispatched to source the wine, and came back with a glass.

‘This isn’t it’, came the immediate retort , ‘You’ve picked the wrong barrel’. Surprised, and even a little bemused, Rod then pulled out his cellar chart and went to the barrel room to find that surely enough, the barrel in question had indeed been moved. Eager to test out his new boss, and certain that it had been a lucky guess, he sourced four separate samples, including one from the correct barrel, and took them back to Evans.

‘I think it is one of these, but I’m not sure’, Kempe offered, the implied challenge surely not lost on all who were present. Len sniffed and tasted all four, and then pointed to the third sample. ‘That’s the one – that’s the one we tasted last week’.

He was right. Rod Kempe laughs and shakes his head when he tells the story – the ability to remember a young wine from a single barrel in a Rothbury Estate barrel hall that probably numbered in the hundreds in its heyday is an extra-ordinary skill. The significance of that skill, and the lesson learned, has never been lost on Kempe. He still remembers.

Andrew Caillard MW, renowned of Langtons Wine Auctions, remembers Len Evans. I know that is likely because I sat behind him at the NSW Wine Press Club’s ‘Legends of the Vine’ lecture at the start of Wine Australia 2006. He’d remember that the keynote speakers were Sir James Hardy, Chris Hancock (a late inclusion for Peter Lehmann) and Len Evans. It was a storied triumvirate, but there was little doubt who the star attraction was.

With consummate self assurance in an entertaining romp through the past, present and future of the wine industry, Evans ritually slaughtered a herd of sacred cows in quick procession.

The subjects were varied and diverse. On the importance of marketing, and selling a story of Australian wine quality, ‘Well, Angelo Gaja is a friend of mine, he planted his own tree in my garden and is a tremendous marketer, but for goodness sake, his wines aren’t worth $500 a bottle, are they?’

On Robert Parker, the role of the Australian wine show system and the benefit of blind tasting, ‘They say that Robert Parker can remember a wine he has tasted five years after trying it – that’s not too bloody hard when you’ve got the label sitting in front of you, is it’!

However, what Andrew Caillard would probably remember the most is shaking his head in vigorous disagreement as Len Evans took to the Langton’s Classification of Australian Wine with fervour, proclaiming that a quality classification based purely on price alone was unjustifiable. There was of course, no right of reply, and experience had probably taught Caillard that discretion was the better part of valour. Nonetheless, he, like most of the people in the room for one reason or the other, will remember Len Evans.

I remember lessons. A favourite was during the days when the old Schweppes Coolum Classic was still on the schedule of the PGA Tour. Maurice Holland, the GM of the Hyatt Regency where the tournament was held had invited Len to play, and as it was a pro-am format Len and I played together for the first three rounds.

The week before, Len had entertained at the Hamilton Island food and wine extravaganza that he had instituted. Left over from the festivities were two bottles of Bouchard Le Montrachet 1995. Len suggested to Maurice that such a wine would add a sense of sophistication to the wine list of the ‘Fish Tales’ restaurant at the Hyatt, and that he could buy them from the event organizers at cost price. Maurice jumped at the opportunity.

One evening he invited Len and I to dinner with some other guests to the same restaurant. Len sat down, picked up the wine list and with a glint in his eye said, ‘What an excellent idea Maurice, how about a couple of bottles of Le Montrachet for starters!’ Maurice, to his credit, didn’t flinch, and soon the great Burgundies were open and poured.

At the time, and to my great shame, I had little appreciation of what we were drinking. I enquired of Len why this wine should be so revered, not to mention expensive?

‘Put it in your mouth….swallow it’, he commanded.

‘Can you still taste it?’ he asked after a few seconds. I replied in the affirmative.

‘Can you still taste it now?’ he asked again, to which the answer was the same.

‘What about now…..and now….and now’, and on he went for the best part of a minute.

Finally, he stopped, and said, ‘That’s why it is such a great wine’, and said no more. The simplicity and acuity of the lesson has never been lost on me, and the clarity of the sensory experience seems, if anything, more heightened now than it was then.

There must come a point in time where all we have left are memories. Strip back your life of all possessions, of trappings of fame and wealth and at the basest state of our being, the cumulative memories of life become our most invaluable treasure. Life is essentially a journey in honour of their creation.

Great memories stay with you. It is because of them that I am able to still relish the strangely exhilarating experience of drinking vintage Champagne out of disposable plastic cups, in the middle of a vineyard, sitting on the bonnet of Len’s 4WD. Or, of sipping 100 year old Para Liqueur whilst playing Dallas Gin at 1am in the morning, knowing that I was being fleeced of every cent I had but caring not a damn.

Most of us will be forgotten in the fullness of time. Fewer will be able to say that we have left behind a legacy. Chances are Len Evans, and his legacy, won’t be forgotten in a hurry. I won’t forget because I’m often reminded that something intangible, be it energy or spirit, is missing, and that it can’t be replaced.

Memories – they’re hard to forget. Like that statue – I still use them as a marker.