WWC23 – Sarah Avery, by Richard Avery

Sarah Avery

In this entry to our 2023 wine writing competition, actor and wine merchant Richard Avery writes about his mother, Sarah Avery. See our competition guide for more.

Richard Avery writes Primarily I am an actor with the stage name Alex Avery but my family also has a wine merchant operation in the UK, Averys of Bristol. For two years I worked for a wine shop in Bordeaux. While there I also passed the wine tasting diploma at the University of Bordeaux. Occasionally, I still judge and conduct wine tastings. Shortly to launch a podcast called “Talking of Wine”. My sister and I represent the fifth generation of the family to have worked in the wine trade.

‘Behind every great man there is a great woman’ was certainly a common mantra of my parents’ generation and the wine world in which I grew up was, undoubtably, a very male dominated one. 

Without question, my introduction to this wine world came from a position of palpable privilege. Five generations of privilege to be precise. It is therefore not surprising that whittling “My Favourite Wine Person” down to one was never going to be easy. The obvious contenders would clearly be my father, John Avery pioneer of New World wines, or Grandfather Ronald who helped unlock the secrets of Burgundy. To be honest I didn’t really know the second very well but the stories and recollections I hear of him never fail to entertain. Dad was, unsurprisingly, a massive influence and would perhaps have been the bookies favourite but thanks to him I was introduced to many luminaries who help to make the field highly competitive. But then it dawned on me that there is someone else, not so prolific perhaps in the wine world but inspirational none the less. Without this person I would never have had the enormous pleasure of meeting so many of the others on such a personal level. Len Evans would never have taught me to wash my pots and pans while the meal is cooking, freeing up more time to enjoy dinners with one’s guests and the wines on offer. Wombat and Kiwi, who introduced me to the songs Waltzing Matilda and Po Kare Kare Ana on a very dodgy child’s guitar, would only ever have been known to me as Robert Hill-Smith and Terry Dunleavy. This person was very much the beavering stage-manager to my Dad’s illustrious, respected leading man. Without them my Dad’s entertaining of prominent world wine figures would have been restricted to the tables of restaurants around Bristol and London. Instead, so many of these encounters with the great and good of a massively expanding and pioneering trade took place at our family home, around a dinner table serving up not just carefully selected wines but also beautiful home cooked meals. In order for Dad to engage, entertain fully and, well … eat, he needed someone to cook for him. That was if he wanted more than just scrambled eggs when making omelette or omelette when attempting scrambled eggs. Chez Avery it wasn’t simply about discussing wines and business, it was about providing these guests with a more personable experience, a home from home. Many of the visitors would stay the night, which of course enabled more wines to be compared and enjoyed. The cellar too was closer to hand, meaning that all the usual games could be revelled in: Carefully selected birth years could be presented; niche anniversaries celebrated; Cabernets from Australia could be flung at the unsuspecting Bordelais and old Burgundies could be offered to burgeoning New Zealand producers. Conversation and wine would flow but so too would wonderfully prepared courses of home cooked fare. Without my favourite wine person enabling this personal touch, our own reciprocal visits abroad wouldn’t have been nearly so special. Confinement within the walls of even the smartest of hotels doesn’t hold a candle to the hospitality of old, family friends. Some institutions were even more closed to ladies than others. Prestigious dining clubs such as the Bordeaux Club being an obvious example. Without my favourite person, Dad would never have been able to join this enviable group of peers during his last few years and astonish them with two epic flights of Cheval Blanc and Pétrus. Even more importantly, being at home, he was able to make sure that I could time a couple of particularly opportune visits. Under the pretence of helping my favourite person in the kitchen and my Dad with the service of the wines, I was subsequently able to enjoy some of the most remarkable wines I will ever taste in my life. For that reason alone, my favourite wine person is my Mum.

Sarah Midgley was born to another Bristol family who managed the successful leather business A W Midgley. Before meeting Dad, she had nothing to do with wine but she had taken some lessons in Cordon Bleu cookery, which was useful, and was always eager to exercise those skills, all be it without the garlic. Despite some early advice from her mother-in-law, reflecting the role of the wife at that time (“Sarah, darling, if you want any new dresses you’ll have to wait for the bad vintages!) Sarah was keen to learn about wine quickly. Something that I know Dad never took for granted and frequently he would exchange a business class seat for two in economy so that he could take Mum on trips with him whenever possible. From her focus, dedication, enthusiasm and example, I picked up as much about tasting wine as anyone else. How easy it would have been for her to just let her husband get on with his vocation without paying too much consideration herself. Instead I learnt from her that from simply listening to what others are saying you can easily develop a library/memory for wines drunk. Long before I went on to study at Bordeaux University, I learnt from her to trust ones first instincts. Only as dinners progressed, when she had had just enough to replenish her ‘Dutch Courage’ would she venture aloud some observations of her own. She was invariably close to the mark. She taught me very clearly that palates can be trained and developed and that they are not exclusive to those who operate within the business. Of course, there were some moments when gentlemen who knew best (my grandfather) would happily give contradicting advice to her, “Sarah, you really must learn to take notes” was his guidance in the early days of marriage. But, not long after, once again joining the men at table, he snapped, “Really Sarah, you must stop scribbling and listen to what people are saying.” To this day, Dad having passed away over ten years ago, Mum will still keep her thoughts in reserve, wait for others to cogitate, and then release her sharp pointers as to where the wines may come from or what vintage they may be. And when the four of us siblings are struggling to put together a story that he would once have regaled us with, Mum is there, gently correcting us, with the final little pieces.

Her situation was by no means unique. I am sure that Bella Spurrier, Judy Johnson and Daphne Broadbent all have similar stories to tell and then there was the famous Napa double act, Belle and Barney Rhodes. Times have certainly changed. With early pioneers such as Jancis Robinson, the flood gates of women in the wine world have been flung open. From producers like Gina Gallo, wine makers such as Jane Hunter and Samantha O’Keefe, multi award winning merchant Mel Brown of Specialist Cellars all the way to internet champions such as Madeline Puckett of Wine Folly fame. All of whom have picked up my favourite wine person’s baton and continue to teach and encourage me, and now my children, to learn more about this wonderful world of wine.

The photograph is the author's own.