The morning after a Single Bottle Club dinner enjoyed last night with a few close friends of the late Len Evans (what? - you didn’t think he was going to go quietly, did you?) seems an appropriate time to publish this speech given on Friday night by his protegé Brian Croser to the Adelaide University Wine Club just before hopping on a plane to London.
I might have realised when Rachel Triggs persuaded me a year ago to attend a function of the Adelaide University Wine Club that it wouldn’t be just an informal tasting and chat.
Try as I might I couldn’t rearrange my flights to leave for the UK and US on Friday the 13th which would have spared you and me the next 15 minutes. The booking clerk was adamant that most people wanted to get off flights on Friday the 13th not on but then as she noted, “your Qantas Chairman’s Lounge number is really low. All of those with a lower number must be dead so I guess when you are that old it doesn’t matter if the plane goes down because it’s Friday the 13th.” She still couldn’t get me on a flight and I leave tomorrow morning at 6 am as originally planned which means I am here as Rachel planned.
You beautiful and handsome young people are all here to have a great night, drink too much good wine, laugh and dance until the sunrise. I have no need to remind you that tomorrow is going to be a difficult day to do needle work, tie fishing lines or forge horse shoes.
What can I possibly add to the evening to increase your enjoyment? In the words of my mentor, the recently departed Len Evans who had a view of my speech making, “Croser” he would say, “brevity is your only hope for redemption.”
Thinking of the great man he would have loved to be here. Young people from all over the wine-producing world, having a great time, but all aspiring to grow better grapes and make better wine and he would add, “to drink better wine.”
Len made his contribution to the academic understanding of wine through the 10 points of his Theory of Capacity which I will enunciate in his memory,
- There is an awful lot of wine in the world, but there is also a lot of awful wine.
- No sensible person drinks to excess, therefore any one person can only drink a certain amount in a lifetime.
- There are countless flavours, nuances, shades of wine; endless varieties, regions, styles. You have neither the time nor the capacity to try them all.
- To make the most of the time left to you, you must start by calculating your future capacity. One bottle a day is 365 bottles a year. If your life expectancy is another 30 years there are only 10,000-odd bottles ahead of you.
- People who say “You can’t drink the good stuff all of the time” are talking rubbish. You must drink good stuff all the time. Every time you drink a bottle of inferior wine, it’s like smashing a superior bottle against the wall. The pleasure is lost forever - you can’t get that bottle back.
- There are people who build up huge cellars, most of which they have no hope of drinking. They are foolish in overestimating their capacity but they err on the right side and their friends love them.
- There are also people who don’t want to drink good wine and are happy with the cheapies. I forgive them. There are others who are content with beer and spirits. I can’t worry about everybody.
- Wine is not meant to be enjoyed for its own sake; it is the key to love and laughter with friends, to the enjoyment of food, beauty and humour and art and music. Its rewards are far beyond its cost.
- What part is wine of your life? Ten percent? Ergo, 10 percent of your income should be spent on wine.
- These principles should be applied to other phases of life. A disciple kissed a beautiful young lady and she demurred. He was aghast and said, “Don’t get the wrong idea. I’ve worked out I can only make love another 1343 times. I’m bloody sure I’m not wasting one on you.”
Len was never good at maths but he did his best to practise what he preached.
Len understood wine quality better than anyone else. He was the best blind taster of all and could unerringly pick vintage, commune and Cru up and down Burgundy’s Côte d’Or and equally the vintages, communes and great growths of Bordeaux. And this knowledge and ability extended to the great wines and vintages of more than a century, from the late 19th century to today. For him the concept of terroir was implicit in the consistent style differences between adjacent communes and vineyards, the differences in aroma, flavour and most importantly for him, the structure, line and length of the wines which allowed his acute wine GPS to hone in on their origins.
This knowledge of the best of Europe (he was equally at home with the great wines of the Mosel and Rhine) framed his ambitions for Australia to be recognised as a producer of some of the world’s great wines.
The proof of Australia’s great potential already existed for him in the wines of a previous generation of Australian winemakers from the 1940’s through the 60’s, including the revered names O’Shea, Preece, Haselgrove, Warren, Schubert, Redman and others. He sought these rare bottles of wine up until the day he died and delighted in sharing them with young wine people, not talking about their power or opulence - ripe as they are they are also wines of finesse - but about their style and line and length which are the essential qualities by which he remembered and recognised them and the great wines of Europe. Len abhorred the cult of dimension particularly with Shiraz, lamenting the replacement of intensity, length and finesse by alcohol and tannin and over-ripe characters.
The fitting memorial to this unique international fine wine-man is the Len Evans Memorial Tutorial, held in November of each year, when 12 lucky young scholars including winemakers, sommeliers and employees of wineshops and distributors, garnished with a wine-writer or two, travel to the Hunter to receive tuition in the skills of wine judging and exposure to the truly great wines of the world most of which are outrageously expensive and out of reach for most individuals. I can only advise you to make maximum effort to become involved as associates at wine-shows of any dimension or place, a prerequisite to selection and apply for the opportunity of a lifetime.
Implicit in his Theory of Capacity is the existence of two types of wine, the commodity wine of standardised quality and cost which never passed his lips and fine wine of which he was a passionate consumer and advocate.
Of commodity wine everything that is important to the consumer, who remember he was at pains to forgive, is measurable and reproducible, including the purity, colour, alcohol, sugar, acid and flavours and most importantly the cost.
For fine wine the consumer has a much different set of expectations. The nuances of hue, aroma, flavour, texture, line and length that differentiate between varieties, regions and vintages are much less measurable and the linkage of cause and effect and the role of terroir in wine style and quality is much harder to prove. The inability to rigorously prove the role of terroir does not disprove the observed effect as tasters like Len Evans consistently prove.
For fine wine cost is far less relevant than for commodity wine; in economic jargon the price elasticity is much greater for fine wine.
Some of you will be involved in the production of commodity wine, an honourable, satisfying and technically demanding vocation.
Others of you will get caught up in the pursuit of fine wine, an obsessive vocation.
Some of you will seek out the heritage left by others, the hundred year-old vineyards that were planted on valley floors to produce volumes of fortified wine but which have diminished in vigour and yield through the ravages of time to become vestigial treasures to be mined for fine wine.
Some of you will try to establish a new heritage, find new areas for the classic varieties and spend a lifetime honing the viticultural methods and winemaking nuances to make a new terroir sing the tune of greatness. That’s been my gig.
Whatever your gig, you are destined for an intellectually challenging career and the satisfaction of working with nature as an unpredictable partner on a year-by-year contract.
Some advice from a low number holder in the Chairman’s Lounge.
Don’t become victims of the winemakers’ cult, the marketer’s puppet; strive to grow grapes that reflect your terroir and that don’t need chemical manipulation in the winery.
Be aware that the two great changes with which you will have to deal are,
· The fine wine consumer’s increasing demands for authenticity and naturalness as well as quality and
· A temperature increase in your vineyards which is likely to cause you to seek other areas for your chosen varieties, to seek other varieties for your chosen vineyards and to adopt new practices to ameliorate the effects of drought and heat.
Before he died Len Evans identified this passage by one of our mutual friends, Andrew Jefford. Len said that it reflected his view of wine and the world and he wished he had written it,
“Wine is one of the loveliest and most intricate of nature’s gifts to us, since its creation is unlocked by human interaction and it enables us to taste the landscapes and seasons of the natural world with extraordinary precision. To drink wine is to drink nature. This is why most of us love wine; it is also a kind of love for the world itself, for being alive and for being here.”
I hope you forgive me the indulgence of talking about my great friend at your party and I hope the brevity was sufficient to appease him and gain my redemption.