Monday, October 21, 2019

The Len Evans effect

Some of you will know who Len Evans was, but most of you will not. In a very practical sense, he almost single-handedly kick-started modern wine culture in Australia.

Wikipedia has this to say:
He became the first regular wine columnist in Australia (1962) [under the byline Cellarmaster], he was the founding director of the Australian Wine Bureau (1965), and he wrote the first major encyclopedia of Australian wine (1973) [Australia and New Zealand Complete Book of Wine]. He was one of the first leaders to recognise that the future of Australian wine lay in table wines rather than in the sweet fortified wines in which the country then specialized.

Len Evans (1930–2006) rose through the ranks of the hospitality industry in the early 1960s at the Chevron-Hilton hotel in Sydney, which at that time was the largest accommodation / dining complex in Australia. Having become the Chevron’s Executive Assistant Manager, on 1 January 1965 he moved over to work for what was then called the Australian Wine Board (in 1981 it became Wine Australia). This was (and is) the government authority over-seeing the Australian wine industry.

Evans was the first National Promotions Executive, tasked with making wine public relations a proactive affair. His response to his appointment was to establish the Wine Information Bureau, with himself as Director, which promoted Australian wine in all forms of the media, as well as conducting tastings and wine classes throughout the country.

The Bureau didn't just promote wine, it helped change the face of of the Australian wine industry, because the time was ripe. Wine was starting to rise in popularity elsewhere in the English-speaking world, in Europe and North America; and new immigrants brought their table-wine culture with them, as did locals taking part in the rise of international tourism. In mid-1960s Australia, fortified wines (locally called “sherry”) outsold table wines 6:1, and still out-sold wine even into the mid-1970s; but those days are now long gone. This was the Len Evans effect, which we can officially date from the beginning of 1965.

The following graph shows the annual consumption of alcohol in Australia per adult (the data are from the Annual Database of Global Wine Markets). Note that the data do not refer to the volume of the drinks themselves, since beer has much less alcohol than does wine, while spirits has much more.

Annual consumption of alcohol in Australia since 1950

Very little changed regarding Australian beer and wine consumption during the century before World War II (ie. 1845–1945). Wine alcohol consumption averaged c. 1.1 liters per adult across the century, with beer at c. 3.7 liters per adult. Spirits consumption, on the other hand, had a huge mid-1800s boom, followed by a steady decline all the way until the War, after dropping below beer at the turn of the century.

Immediately after the war-time disruption, Australia rapidly became a beer-drinking nation; and its international reputation probably still reflects that (eg. Crocodile Dundee). However, beer consumption has shown a steady decline since 1975, and it is now back to the pre-War levels.

Wine consumption, on the other hand, showed a steady rise from 1965, reaching its zenith in 2006 (rising from 1.5 to 5 liters of alcohol per adult). It is not a coincidence that Len Evans started his promotional work in 1965, but it presumably is a coincidence that he died in 2006 — he was spared seeing the following slump to the current level (c. 3.5 liters per adult).

Anyway, the Len Evans effect could not be clearer. He was the catalyst that turned a previously esoteric interest in wine into a national pastime.

Len Evans

If you want to know more about the man himself, then there is a published biography, Evans on Earth: the Story of Len Evans’ Affair with Wine (Jeremy Oliver, 1992), although the author calls it “a chronicle of stories told by Evans and others”. More stories are told in the posthumously published Not My Memoirs (Len Evans, 2012). As well as Wikipedia (linked above), Kim Bresach has also provided a neat summary of the various facets of Evans’ complex life (writer, retailer, restauranter, winery owner).

I never met the man, but he intersected with my own early personal experiences in the world of wine, which I will mention here.

His 1973 Australia and New Zealand Complete Book of Wine went through five editions, ending in 1990 as Len Evans’ Complete Book of Australian Wine. My first wine book was the 1984 edition, all 791 pages of it.

Inevitably, among many other things, Evans established a winery, called the Rothbury Estate (see Rothbury Estate: the Evans years) — the vineyards started in 1968 and the winery finished in 1971. Being Len Evans, this was not done by half measures — this was to be the major icon of the Hunter Valley wine region (now a couple of hours north of Sydney), and the winery is still spectacular. For example, the winery has a massive Great Cask Hall, where celebrations for 200 people could be held by candlelight. Indeed, my own cousins, the jazz musicians John and James Morrison, recorded an album at one of these winery events, way back in 1985.

There was a Rothbury Estate Society, which attracted thousands of members (including myself), many of whom attended these riotous events (not myself), always led by Evans himself. There were ribbons issued for attaining various levels of vinous expertise, the fourth (and highest) being notoriously hard to achieve. Annual wine-tasting packs were also available for mail order, along with a cassette-tape of comments from The Master — indeed, the first tasting I ever organized was based around one of these packs. Why do not more wineries try this educational marketing ploy?

The white wines, in particular, were excellent; but, sadly, like many Evans schemes, this one was simply too grand. The winery was massively over-capitalized; the vineyards were principally planted to red varieties just when Australian wine tastes were changing strongly to white; many of the vines were planted in the wrong places; the Estate was too big to be boutique but not big enough to be a major winery; and the Hunter Valley had a series of drought years. After many attempts to salvage something from the scheme, the public company was eventually bought by one of the wine conglomerates, and the label eventually disappeared. The winery is still a major icon within the Hunter Valley, however, now part of Hope Estate (and, yes, Elton John will play there next January, as part of his final tour).

Indeed, I have always considered the Hunter Valley to be Evans’ major blind spot. Yes, the region produces some excellent wines, in certain styles and in certain years, and it is probably the world’s premier region for Sémillon (certain parts of France notwithstanding). But is was never going to be The Major Grape-Growing Region of Australia, because it is simply too warm and too erratically dry. In Evans' old age, the up-and-coming regions were all in much cooler locations, either way down south or up in the hills; and this trend has continued unabated since then. The Hunter Valley remains as a major tourist destination from Sydney, but it is not a major wine-making region (and climate change is only making the dryness worse, and the future more bleak).

Finally, those people who do know of Len Evans often know him through his Theory of Consumption:
You have only so many bottles in your life, never drink a bad one.
There are a number of copies reprinted from the original 1979 explanatory text, scattered around the web (eg. here and here). It is worth reading.

Also, Evans is widely credited with inventing the Options Game. This is a (dinner-party) entertainment in which the assembled guests are confronted by the host with a series of multiple-choice questions about a mystery glass of wine. If they give a wrong answer, the guests are progressively eliminated, to yield a winner. At the end of the game, the wine’s identity is, of course, revealed.

1 comment:

  1. Let me supplement David's embedded links on Len Evans's "Theory of Capacity," courtesy of The New York Times and its wine columnist Frank Prial.

    In 1993:

    In 2006: