Maybe it was time for Len Evans to depart. The wine industry that he did so much to transform from a purveyor of plonk to the producer of some of the world’s top table wines (and from a minor player in world markets into the world’s fourth largest wine exporter) died aged 75 last week as the bulk of his beloved industry marched off to the tune of a different drummer.
If “quality” was the rock on which he built his obeisance to Bacchus, there was little for him to worship in the alternative God of volume that the beer barons, who own so much of the wine industry, are now imposing on a business dominated by their accountants and salesmen rather than by the traditional winemakers who find more to venerate in the grape than in the bottom line.
Takeovers have brought an inexorable slide of leading wine companies into the hands of those with less regard for the quality of what is contained behind the label than they have for its marketability: along with less understanding of the reality that the volume of sales of a good label made from top quality grapes cannot simply be doubled or trebled to suit a marketing strategy if the necessary grapes to do so are not there.
Leonard Paul Evans, OBE, AO, had a Canute-like stance against this tide. He remained fixated, as do his many friends of like mind, on the primacy of quality above all else.
It is a fixation that has served him well, rewarding him not only with one of the greatest lives anyone could wish for, but also bringing him the financial benefits that, when I first met him more than 46 years ago, he could not have dreamed of.
A wonderful family of a loyal wife and three loving children, a spectacular self-designed home (Loggerheads) in the Hunter Valley overlooking his own vineyard and the Tower Estate of which he is chairman, with a more distant view of what had been his creation, the Rothbury Estate Winery (with its renowned cask hall where for years he was the grandest of hosts).He lost it in a hostile takeover by Fosters Beer; and cried all the way to the bank with his substantial payout.
But the number-crunchers got it wrong and Fosters has now sold off what had been Evans’ Rothbury empire which he had dedicated to the concept of quality but which is now just another label.
Like Rothbury, circumstances robbed him of another joy, his ground-breaking food and wine centre of excellence, the Bulletin Place tasting room/restaurant/wine merchant where he, accompanied by whichever of the world’s top wine people were in town, presided for years over an island of quality in a sea of mediocrity. Lunch in the Tasting Room on Mondays or Fridays was an experience both pleasurable and lengthy.
Those of us fortunate enough to be members of the Rothbury/Bulletin Place family under Len’s chairmanship witnessed at first hand the revolutionary changes he brought to the Australian wine industry - and enjoyed the fun as he spread the gospel of wine as a bringer of joy - and brilliantly told bawdy jokes.
I first met L.P. Evans in 1960 after he and his wife Trish had come to Sydney from Mt Isa (where this London-Welsh immigrant had arrived after a spell as a forestry labourer in New Zealand to be the assistant golf professional).
He was washing glasses and doing the accounts at a Circular Quay pub while writing “humorous items” for some radio personalities when he submitted some short whimsical pieces to the Observer magazine that was edited (part time) by the late Donald Horne and staffed by Peter Coleman (later to be NSW State Opposition leader and then federal MP for Wentworth) and me.
After some months, an emergency meant that one of these items by the unknown L.P. Evans was needed to fill an unexpected hole. He was rewarded with the very modest payment that Sir Frank Packer, who owned the magazine, reluctantly allowed us to disburse. Much to my delight, this resulted in a grateful and exuberant Evans phoning to invite Coleman and me to lunch. On the appointed day he appeared in our cell-like office with two parcels which he deposited on the desk (with one typewriter) that Coleman and I shared. One parcel contained fish and chips; the other a bottle of French champagne. We became instant friends.
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