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Remembering a Wine Sensualist

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Apr 21, 2009 10:56am ET

Max Lake died last week at the age of 84. There are many reasons to fondly recall the Australian vintner, author and erstwhile hand surgeon. But for me, he should be remembered most for opening the door to a new era in Australian wine when, in 1963, he planted Hunter Valley's first new vineyard of the 20th century, and started the first new winery there.

No one used the term "boutique winery" back then, but Lake's Folly, as he called it, was the first in a wave of wineries started by professionals in other fields.

Lake would have downplayed his being the guy who invented boutique wineries. Having sold the winery in 2000, he ended his days much more invested in his third career, that of a food and wine philosopher, a passion that produced several books worth reading.

Wherever he is, I am certain he is eating and drinking well, and trying to persuade everyone around him to pay attention to the sensuality of what they were consuming. Whether it was a bottle of his own wine from Lake’s Folly, or one of the great Bordeaux reds he loved to pluck from his cellar, Max wanted it to wrap its flavors and textures around his soul.

And he wanted to talk about it. Of the resulting books, eight of which are still listed for sale on amazon.com, some were wine guides, and two were memoirs, but the ones nearest to his heart were those that explored the idea that our humanity could be defined as much by food and wine as by anything else. He explored the idea first in Scents and Sensuality: The Essence of Excitement (1991).

I first met Lake in San Francisco in the early 1990s when he was working on his magnum opus, Food on the Plate, Wine in the Glass: According to the Workings and Principles of Flavour, published in 1994. He looked me up because he wanted to compare notes with me on the series of wine menus I was doing on a regular basis in Wine Spectator. His questions struck me as sharp and perceptive, and the conversation went in a very different direction from any others I had on the topic. He was interested in how we perceived flavors, and the very sensuousness of it all, rather than any practical details of which foods made which wines better.

"He would call himself a sensualist," Chris Hancock said of Max over lunch Monday in San Francisco. Now a partner in Robert Oatley wines, Hancock knew Max well from his years in Hunter Valley, as winemaker of Rosemount in the early days and later an executive. "He wanted to relate everything about taste to sensuality, which is to say, sex. I don't think he ever got to second base with that idea, but he never gave up."

On my first trip to Australia in 1994, I made it a point to visit Lake at his home at the Lake's Folly vineyard and winery. He told me how he came to the Hunter Valley convinced that he could grow and make great wine there. Wine had almost disappeared from Hunter Valley in those days. "There were Tyrrell's and Lindemans," Hancock said, "Oakvale and Tulloch, and maybe I'm leaving out one or two others. But that's about it. He carved something out of nothing."

Hancock remembers when Lake was planting the vineyard, with the help of a few pals. "He would gather up his surgeon friends in Sydney, load up the shovels and the gear in his car—I think it was a Rolls-Royce—and they would all drive up to Hunter Valley for the weekend. They would dig post holes, plant vines, whatever, and then troop into the house for dinner, where they would eat and drink extremely well."

That was still true on my visit. I remember drinking Lake's Chardonnay and some fine Bordeaux from his cellar over a wonderfully simple dinner with him, and sipping a heady Australian Liqueur Muscat in the late-summer evening on his porch.

More than the quality of the wines, Lake's legacy is the idea that a professional in another field, not necessrily a wine industry veteran, could carve out a successful little vineyard for himself. Though his winemaking could be shaky, I can see why the results built a following in the 1960s, when winemaking standards were not as high as they are now. Besides, Lake could tell a ripping story to get buyers salivating over the bottles, and the romantic idea of the second-career winemaker took hold.

I asked Hancock if he thought Lake's persistence inspired the likes of Bailey Corrodus at Yarra Yering and Dr. John Middleton at Mount Mary, two legendary boutique wineries in Yarra Valley near Melbourne that started just a few years after Lake proved it could be done near Sydney. It wasn't long before another raconteur-slash-gourmet named Len Evans started Rothbury Wines (1969) just down the road from Lake's Folly.

"They may not have been inspired by him, but his notoriety and success certainly encouraged them," was Hancock’s response.

Some of Australia's most extraordinary wines have been made by outsiders who had the chutzpah to plant a vineyard and make wine in places where they were told they shouldn't. I’m thinking of Rick Kitzbrunner, who started Giaconda in remote northeastern Victoria in 1971, and Bill Pannell who founded Moss Wood in unheralded Margaret River in 1969. No one was talking about Heathcote, either, when Ron and Elva Laughton planted Jasper Hill there in 1975.

Without Max and his Folly as a precedent, they might not have done what they did. That's why the wine world is better off because of Max Lake.

Hoyt Hill Jr
Nashville, TN —  April 21, 2009 2:23pm ET
I have a few bottles remaining of 2006 Lake's Folly Chardonnay and it is a superb wine, as was the 1999 Lake's Folly Red, which is long gone!

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