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'When Malcolm met Len' - by Malcolm Gluck

Published:  18 January, 2007

Len Evans, the Australian wine guru, who popped his clogs just last month aged 76, duly (and rightly) received obits from many people, yet none got close to portraying the amateur sculptor, demagogue, furious male ego and actor that I met in 2002.

His persona, his Greek mask, was taken by many people to be the man. It was the man behind the man which fascinated me during our one and only meeting.

I was in the Hunter Valley scheduled to pay a call on Ian Riggs, whose Brokenwood Reserve Semillon, given time to reflect on life in a dark hole for a few years, has always gripped me. But not on this day. Ian is not, as my schedule promises, showing me the winery, the vineyards or his wine. Mr Evans, tribal chief, hearing of my tour, has requested my attendance and Ian must obey.

He drives me to the Evans's house, which is on a gentle knoll peppered with kitsch garden statuary which, I am given to understand, the great man created himself. He insists I come and admire his latest 'erection' (as he calls it, doubling the entendre by digging me in the ribs). In a shed out back there is a wooden sculpture, assembled not carved, and I thrill to a man so richly multi-talented. He warms to the praise I pour on the piece, which he echoes, to my astonishment, by remarking on the success of my Superplonk books. 'Of course,' he adds, 'my old mate Hugh is rather dismissive.'

'I'm flattered, sir. Mr Johnson sells 30,000 copies. I sell 200,000.' He eyes me steelily. I see the journalist in the man. He knows when he's being lied to.

Mr Evans is short and white-haired with the whippy demeanour of a Welsh bingo caller and he's just undergone double by-pass surgery a week before. His male hormones were untouched, however, and rage within, making him little different, I imagine, than when he was a 14-year-old schoolboy.

Mr Evans is entertaining two American wine nerds who succeeded in making the highest bid for a wine holiday in a New York charity auction. Meeting Len Evans is part of the prize, along with tasting a line of wines in the back garden. I sit down with the nerds and Len (it's got to Len by now - you reach the chummy level very quickly with a man so superficially open) pours out a '74 Hunter Shiraz, an '89 Rothbury Syrah, a 1990 Huntington Mudgee Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot, and a 1998 Penfolds Bin 389 Cab/Shiraz.

Len has conjured up this motley collection in an attempt to show the American couple that Australia has older reds, but only the Bin 389 has any life, though the tannins, to my mind, seems stuck on rather than integrated. Len strenously objects to this analysis and dazzlingly derides why I am hopelessly muddle-headed.

He tells the Americans that the Bin 389 will last for 20-30 years. I say that it would barely last 20 years with a screwcap. At this his eyebrows bristle like scimitars. 'I'm a consultant for Amorim [the large Portuguese cork manufacturer that had hired Len to espouse its cause in Australia],' he says. 'So I'm prejudiced in favour of cork. I'm a fan of cork.'

'I think screwcaps are an excellent seal,' he adds. 'But a great wine will never reach its peak under a screwcap.'

'What about bottle variation, Len? Don't you think the readers I write for are entitled to drink the same bottle that I rate 18 points out of 20? With a cork they can easily get a bottle that struggles to reach 12.'

He lets out a heavy expiration of breath. The eyebrows sigh, and fatten like white worms. 'Bottle variation is part of the charm of wine,' he insists.

His wife intrudes into the garden at this point, but no one introduces us to the saintly creature. Her husband has begun to tell us how, in a blind tasting, he almost correctly identified a Morey-St-Denis Clos Saint Denis 1911. He then demands to know whether I know the crucial difference between Le Montrachet and Montrachet.

'That's just what I came to the Hunter to find out, Len,' I remark. When Ian Riggs drags me away, I feel like I've been visiting a hoary old grand-uncle who will, if only I maintain my manners, leave me a fortune.

'I'm writing a novel,' he announces, as we reach Ian's car. 'It's a salacious story about a man who is searching for the perfect wine.'

There is a photo of Len in my latest book, Brave New World (Mitchell Beazley, 20). It catches the exterior of the man pretty well. But all my attempts, via my camera, on that day in 2002, to capture the inner Evans failed. Just like all those obits.