Three different books present a comprehensive and vital picture of Australia's 20th-century wine industry.
It was a dinner involving many great old European wines, held at Len Evans's Bulletin Place restaurant in honour of the famous head of Christie's Auctions wine department, Michael Broadbent, and including then-prime minister Malcolm Fraser. The sommelier and noted eccentric, Anders Ousback, was acting as butler. ''As he decanted the 1727 Rudesheimer Apostelwein (a very rare German riesling), there was an expectant hush around the room. The hush deepened to silence after a fearful crash in his corner. Everyone stared agonisingly at Anders. He looked up, paused, and then said, 'I say, shall I decant the 1728?' Anders, maladroit as ever, had dropped an empty bottle to the floor but couldn't resist taking advantage of the moment.''
This is one of the stories in the final book from the pen of the late Hunter Valley-based wine legend Len Evans. It is one of three important new books by leading Australian wine authors, all enjoyable for different reasons.
Evans died six years ago, and it's taken that time for his family to edit and fine-tune his jottings into book form. As Evans spoke, he also wrote - with entertaining style, brevity and wit. I found myself wearing a permanent smile as I read, now and then emitting a loud guffaw. The book is essentially his life story, but he called it Not My Memoirs because he didn't see it as a real autobiography or memoir, just a collection of tales from his life.
It contains many vignettes about people of special interest whom Evans encountered during his 75 years - fellow Welshmen Bryn Terfel and Harry Secombe, Irish comedian Dave Allen, singers Eartha Kitt, Louis Armstrong and Nat King Cole, fishmonger Peter Doyle, American winemaking legend Andre Tchelistcheff, English wine men John Avery, Kit Stevens, Hugh Johnson and Broadbent, art dealer and mentor Rudy Komon, and many more. The book concludes with the colourful tributes of his friends at the ''bloody good send-off'' - the enormous wake in the Hunter Valley held a month after his death in August 2006.
The elder statesman of wine writers, James Halliday, has also written a highly entertaining memoir, A Life in Wine. There is similar wit and good humour, and whenever something serious is discussed, it's accompanied by wry observation, the joke often at the author's expense.
These tales include Halliday moving his personal cellar of 22 tonnes of wine from Sydney to Melbourne; mishaps involving the first vintage at his new winery, Coldstream Hills, including grapes spilt on a freeway; and confusion caused by misunderstood French accents. Then there are the financial disasters, none of which was terminal, such as Coldstream Hills going public just days before the sharemarket crash of 1987.
At 73, Halliday has mellowed to the extent that he's relaxed about publishing no fewer than nine photos of himself shirtless (in younger days), one dancing on fermenting grapeskins in budgie smugglers.
He also recounts amusing stories such as his great mate Len Evans inadvertently cooking a trout in washing-up detergent; more mischievous pranks of the late sommelier-cum-restaurateur Ousback, including the time he rigged up a hospital drip-line so he could sip a pre-phylloxera Morris liqueur muscat while reading in bed, and it malfunctioned, creating a sticky situation. And the infamous 1948 La Tache mystery: a case of this wine went missing, but individual bottles kept appearing over the following years, always served by Evans, who denied any knowledge of the theft.
The story of how Halliday, almost by chance, happened to buy - incredibly cheaply - the magnificent Yarra Valley land that he lives on, is repeated in Melbourne wine writer Max Allen's new book, The History of Australian Wine. But Allen's work is of an entirely different style to the first two. It's a history book with a colloquial tone, thanks to much of it being told in direct quotes from the people who made the history. Hence it's highly readable: a far cry from what could have been a stodgy, dry historical tract.
Subtitled ''Stories from the Vineyard to the Cellar Door 1900-2000'', it's not quite a complete history, but covers the 20th century.
Allen accessed an extraordinary resource: more than 200 interviews of winemakers, grapegrowers and others involved in wine, conducted by historian Rob Linn over 10 years, now held in the South Australian State Library.
Linn not only interviewed these people but transcribed and edited the tapes, so it is odd that he doesn't receive a credit on the cover. The book project was funded by donations, principally from the Wolf Blass Foundation, which showed forward thinking in commissioning Linn's work.
Allen skilfully knits these conversational snatches of interview together into a very effective narrative. With such a varied cast of characters, it couldn't fail to be a colourful and entertaining read, and the plentiful archival pictures add more interest.
We hear from the likes of the first trained winemaker in Coonawarra, Ian Hickinbotham; the first man to plant a commercial vineyard in Margaret River, Tom Cullity of Vasse Felix; the founder of Heemskerk in Tasmania, Graham Wiltshire; the creator of Penfolds Grange, Max Schubert; and the first man to use a pH meter in a winery, Ray Beckwith, alongside a comprehensive list of others.
The book touches on wine industry politics, education, research and technology, women's involvement, wine shows and exporting, as well as the more predictable subjects such as the changes in viticulture, winemaking and public taste over the span of 100 years.
It's a very digestible primer for anyone seeking a quick overview of a century in Australian wine.
Not My Memoirs by Len Evans, 57 Union, $29.99, firstname.lastname@example.org.
A Life in Wine by James Halliday, Hardie Grant Books, $45.
The History of Australian Wine by Max Allen, Victory Books, $49.99.
Sample the best in the state
The NSW Top 40 represents the cream of the 2012 NSW Wine Awards, a state-only wine show chaired by yours truly. This year's top 40 wines cover 16 grape varieties and nine of the state's 14 wine regions. Semillon and shiraz, being strong in NSW, tend to dominate but this year the line-up includes a vermentino, gewurztraminer, barbera, nebbiolo, pinot noir, petit verdot, durif and two sparkling wines. Twenty-two of the 40 wines are from the Hunter Valley. Other regions represented are Riverina (five wines), Orange (four), Southern Highlands (three), Tumbarumba (two), and Hilltops, Canberra, Mudgee and New England (one each). The competition's top wine and all trophy winners will be announced on October 22. The Top 40 wines can be tasted at a showcase exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Circular Quay, on October 25, 6-8.30pm, $35. For the full list of wines and to register to attend, see nswwine.com.au.
Vale's cup runneth over
McLaren Vale has won the Grenache Cup for the second successive year, beating its rival the Barossa Valley. Oliver's Taranga Cadenzia Grenache 2010 won the trophy for best wine, and Yangarra High Sands Grenache 2007 was the consumers' choice. Both are from McLaren Vale. The first Grenache Cup (won by d'Arenberg Cadenzia GSM '09) was held last year, in the wake of the first international grenache day, to attract attention to this widely enjoyed but little-recognised grape. This year, a top eight was decided: D'Arenberg The Derelict Vineyard Grenache 2009, Kalleske Clarry's GSM 2012, Maximus GSM 2011, Oliver's Taranga Cadenzia Grenache 2010, Rusden Christine's Vineyard Grenache 2010, S.C. Pannell Grenache 2010, Teusner Avatar 2011 and Yelland & Papps Divine Grenache 2009.
Death of a pioneer
Ron Potter, who invented the Potter wine fermenter, has died at the age of 83. After graduating in Roseworthy Agricultural College's class of 1951 (along with Mick Morris, of Morris Wines), Potter established A&G Engineering in Griffith, which manufactures stainless steel tanks and equipment for wineries. The Potter fermenter meant winery workers no longer had to shovel the skins out of fermenting tanks or vats - they could be emptied by gravity into a bin placed underneath - and the fermenters could be used as a storage vessel the rest of the year. Potter was also passionate about education and drove the establishment of Australia's second wine science course, at Riverina College of Advanced Education, now Charles Sturt University, in Wagga Wagga. The college's winery was named the Ron Potter Centre in his honour. Potter won the 1992 Maurice O'Shea Award for service to the wine industry.