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Halliday Magazine: Stairway to Evans

Publish Date: 04 Jan 2016

Authored by: Patrick Haddock

The Len Evans Tutorial is arguably the most exclusive wine school in the world. Wine writer Patrick Haddock attended last November’s session and reports from the inner sanctum.

Five wines are poured before us. Origin unknown. James Halliday commences the mind games:

“Country, region, vintage, maker, variety. How many of these things do the wines in front of you exhibit?” A minute or two passes as we sniff, swirl and pontificate. It’s a torturous process as we guess, then second guess, our vinous instincts, desperately trying to find a common thread, piecing the wines together like some cruel detective challenge.

This is the world of wine options held at dinner during the Len Evans Tutorial (or LET as it’s known in the industry). And this is merely the first of five brackets poured throughout a three-hour meal, where you are constantly being asked to question, scrutinise and deduce the juice in your glasses. It’s harsh, amusing, frustrating and enlightening all at once.

While my week was an unforgettable experience, I’m trying not to forget the minute details. You will have to excuse me for being hazy, as over the course of four and a half days I examined 275 of the world’s best wines. Consider it a week of wine tasting of sybaritic proportions, and you have an idea of just what the 12 scholars experienced at the 2015 LET.

Known as the world’s most exclusive wine school, LET was conceived by the godfather of Australian wine, the late Len Evans AO OBE. Len was wine. It was his desire to keep the fire burning bright for the future of Australian wine show judging, and for 15 years this has become the most eagerly anticipated week in the tasting calendar for a handful of lucky scholars. It’s no easy task being accepted. Each year more than 100 applicants try to convince the trust as to why they are worthy of a place; it helps if you have judged a few wine shows in the past or plan to in the future. I should know. This year was my fifth application. Others have applied as many as 10 times.

Though Len watches down in spirit, many of the original tutors still preside over proceedings, including his great companion James Halliday, as well as Iain Riggs, Ian McKenzie, Michael Hill Smith MW and Gary Steel. Not content with just benchmarking Australian varieties with their global counterparts by day, the dinners see a bacchanalian approach to indulgence, with more than 20 of the world’s rarest and, in some cases, most expensive wines presented in brackets to play Len’s favourite game: wine options.

It would be an understatement to say the assembled scholars are anything but nervous as we congregate before our first day’s judging; our collective countenance is one of tangible unease. Even our livers are quivering with fear. We are whisked to the Hunter Valley’s Tulloch winery where the first of the varietal judging sessions begins with 30 chardonnays from all over the world, served blind. We are given one hour to assess and score and hopefully find unanimity with the panel. Points are given for being on the same score, or within two points; points are lost for those who are off target.

Each bracket is assembled by a crew of mainly Hunter Valley-based ex-scholars or winemakers. The chardonnay session is put together by Nick Paterson, shiraz by Rhys Eather, cabernet by Sarah Crowe and pinot by Jim Chatto. And this is no ordinary set of wines: it is agonised over for weeks with just the right balance of New World and Old World, vintage variation, some cult, some more obscure, but always the best in the field. The curators keep their fingers on the pulse by watching show results throughout the year to see which Australian wines are worthy of inclusion. International wines are bought in the lead-up or are held in the LET museum. Much focus and concentration is necessary, but the hour shoots by and we’re soon being scrutinised. A place in the tutorial is rare, so it’s expected that you come loaded with opinions on the wines. You have to stand by your scores, so it is far better to have discourse and commentary to share rather than be beige in opinion.

After a morning of judging, we enjoy lunch back at Peppers Convent, cooked by Len’s daughter Jodie. These shared meals prove to be a highlight of the week, allowing us to refuel before the afternoon sessions. The first of these masterclasses is Champagne. Held on the suitably festive Melbourne Cup Day, this session is presided over by Ian McKenzie and assisted by Tyson Stelzer, who lends insights into the world of the Champenoise and the grand marque bottles we are lucky enough to taste. In a way, you become desensitised to the roll call of fabulousness laid before you: each glass holding an epiphany for the taking – it’s almost sensory overload and becomes like comparing apples with apples. It’s really apparent at dinner when the feast for the senses quickly ramps up from the sublime to the ridiculous. Across the four nights we are privy to brackets of wine that are simply breathtaking. We have minutes to assess them before they are whisked away, only to be replaced with something more impossibly brilliant. Kids in a candy shop? We are adults in the DRC trough.

While dinner options are meant to keep you on your toes, there’s no doubting it’s done with good humour. And it’s here that you get to hear and share the stories of Len, folklore of the Australian industry, and of all the great bottles that have been drunk by the tutors, giving context to their importance in terms of educating future judges. It sounded like options was an even tougher proposition when Len was around, and I think we get off lightly. But it’s a humbling experience to be stared down by one of these godfathers of the industry when you perhaps think the Rhone wines in front of you are in fact aged Aussies. That’s the beauty of the week: it’s a rollercoaster of tasting highs and lows. Just when you think you are on a roll and start feeling confident, you are quickly deflated by a seemingly innocent tasting error and have to start again.

Of course, nothing tops the culmination of the week, the Friday morning tasting of all six wines from the Domaine de la Romanee-Conti vineyards in Burgundy. A fixture since the very first LET, this is only possible thanks to James Halliday’s great friendship with Aubert De Villaine, who has been a staunch supporter since 2000. Talk to every scholar of the past 15 years and they all go a bit misty-eyed reminiscing about this once-in-a-lifetime tasting that would cost the same as a decent sports car. All we have to do is guess the vintage, then guess the order. Not as easy as it sounds.

And as with every competition there is a winner. Congratulations to Adam Cotterell of Melbourne’s City Wine Shop for being awarded Dux for 2015.

Adam says of the experience: “Lots of people have asked, ‘What’s the best thing you drank?’, and I really haven’t thought of the week that way. The sum total of experiencing all the bottles – great, good and average – was much more lasting than any one single glass that was put in front of us. All 12 of us were on the end of an extreme gesture of generosity from the tutors and the Len Evans Tutorial and I’ll always be thankful for that. Their time, experience and insight, and the access to those rare old bottles, was a massive gesture I’m still dumbstruck by.”

If the tutorial’s aim is to improve the show breed then they have done that well, with eight or nine past scholars now panel chairs at major city wine shows. I was lucky enough to finish as a runner-up on the winner’s podium, which means I get to judge the 2016 Sydney Wine Show and flex my newfound skills.

So what did I learn? Well, I learnt how to judge more objectively. I also became capable of spotting the slinky and ethereal wines of Burgundian winemaker Rousseau, but realised it will be a long time before I can afford them. Yes, my palate and my wallet have been ruined for life.

Photography: Chris Elfes

Next article: The inspiring life of Lak Quach has taken a series of dramatic turns… and all roads have led to the world of wine.

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