The wine world lost one of its great characters when Len Evans, Australia's first regular wine columnist, died of a heart attack on Aug. 17 at the age of 75. He was in his car in a hospital parking lot in Newcastle, not far from his home in Hunter Valley, where he'd gone to visit his wife, Patricia, who was recovering from surgery. Evans himself had been in ill health for several years, having recently undergone surgery to install a third pacemaker.
Evans began writing a wine column in 1962. He was always quick with a quip or, when required, a verbal jab. He used the force of his personality and indefatigable energy to light a fire under Australian winemakers to improve quality, and urged the Australian public to drink and enjoy wine. He founded the Australian Wine Bureau in 1965 to promote Australian wine, wrote books about Australian wine in the 1970s and was also an ambassador for Australian wine in America. For several years he emceed Wine Spectator's Wine Experience in New York and San Francisco.
"No one had more spirit or love for wine," said Marvin R. Shanken, editor and publisher of Wine Spectator. "A five-star general in the wine world."
Evans was not born into the wine industry, but hailed from England. He served as a physical fitness instructor in the Royal Air Force before arriving in Sydney in 1955, where he worked at odd jobs. He tried professional golf, built dingo fences and wrote television scripts before he began writing about wine.
He eventually made the transition from commentator to producer: In 1969 he founded Rothbury Estate in Hunter Valley, which produced a full range of wines, and opened a restaurant in downtown Sydney called Bulletin Place, which became a mecca for the brightest lights in Australian wine. He served Australian wines, but when Aussie winemakers dined there, he insisted they drink French wine. Over the years, Evans led partnerships that owned Petaluma Wines in Australia and Châteaus Rahoul and Padouen in Bordeaux. He also owned Evans Wine Co., which specialized in Chardonnay and Shiraz grown at his Hunter Valley estate, and Tower Wines, which sells exclusively to a paid membership. He chaired or judged in every Australian wine competition. But his greatest contribution was his unflagging insistence that Australian wines could compete with the best in the world.
In the 1970s Australia still made more fortified wine than table wine, its annual per capita consumption only about six bottles per person back then (today, it's 36 bottles, the most of any English-speaking nation). Evans urged winemakers and critics to taste the great wines of the world and to aspire to that level. It was a theme that he championed throughout his life.
"He had an international palate and he was merciless on Australian winemakers," recalls John Gay, retired chairman of Southcorp's American arm, and one of the first to introduce Australian wine in the United States. "He was extraordinarily frank, not at all disinclined to criticize where he thought criticism was due. Many a winemaker cringed at some of his commentary, but all of them benefited by it."
They weren't the only ones to gain from Evans' interest and attention. Evans, who earned the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1982 and was made an Officer of the Order of Australia in 1999, both for his efforts in wine, also did extensive charity work. Evans loved to run wine auctions and golf tournaments at luxury resorts that raised millions for charities.
"Back in the 1960s, Australian wine needed an inspiration, a protagonist, a visionary, a communicator and a global wine identity," said Evans' biographer, Jeremy Oliver, who wrote Evans on Earth. "It didn't realize it at the time, but in Len Evans, it found all of the above, and plenty more, in a single person. I have been asked on several occasions how on earth Australia will find a person to replace him. The answer is simple: it won't. Such was Len Evans' contribution that it will take at least a dozen people to carry on the different aspects of his work and vision."
He is survived by his wife, Patricia, daughters, Sally and Jodie, and son, Toby.