At the world’s most exclusive wine school, scholars arrive each morning for assembly in a bright, airy room in the Hunter Valley, the light from the large windows penetrating the colours of the wines set out before them.
Any further illumination, well, that has to come from deep within each taster, as they work through 30 glasses of masked wines and attempt to pluck out the vintage year of each wine together with the grape variety, region and, with luck, the maker’s name.
The school, held annually, is not for the faint of heart, nor the wealthy, despite the fact that up to AU$90,000 ($65,827) worth of the world’s greatest wines will be tasted and forensically dissected by the scholars and their tutors over five days.
Seeing wine with new eyes
The Len Evans Tutorial (LET) is free to each year’s intake of 12 scholars. All costs, from luxury accommodation in the Hunter Valley, wine dinners and every wine tasted —including the last morning’s extraordinary dip into a bracket of seven vineyards of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti from a single vintage —are gratis. To get a seat at the table you just have to be a wine judge with the right stuff.
“On one level, it is truly astonishing,” says Melbourne wine writer and judge, Jane Faulkner, who was accepted into LET in 2008. “I remember speaking to someone who said, ‘Oh, this will change your life.’ Well, it didn’t, but it did expose me to some great wines and I am forever grateful for that.”
Exposure to the great wines of the world has traditionally been lacking in the coterie of judges who move around the Australian wine show system. Australia’s geographical isolation is one reason. So, too, the fact that up until the 1990s the majority of wine judges were male winemakers, many employed by big wine companies, who were among the few employers willing to give wine judges paid time off. Bonuses were also paid by some companies to their winemakers who judged and had company wines take out medals and trophies. House styles ruled.
Wine writer Len Evans, a great champion of Australian wine with a European sensibility — he was once co-owner of Château Rahoul in Graves – who also chaired many a wine show across the nation, saw a problem. With seed money from a philanthropist friend, Basil Sellers and sponsors, the concept of a week of tastings and discussions between emerging wine judges or ‘scholars’ and knowledgeable ‘tutors’ headed by Evans, grew.
The Len Evans Tutorial was born at the turn of the century to improve the breed of Australian wine judges and through them Australian wines, to not only broaden palates but minds, to taste the great wines of the world and celebrate place and beauty and context.
Twenty years later, has it succeeded?
Technical versus emotional
“No, that’s what the Australian Wine Assessment Course has done,” argues a LET scholar and experienced winemaker and wine judge who now sits on the committee of a major capital city wine show.
The AWAC program is conducted over four days by wine show judges, winemakers and specialists at the Australian Wine Research Institute in Adelaide. It costs AU$4900 to attend.
“AWAC gives you the technical skills, what the Len Evans Tutorial gives you is the perspective,” he adds, preferring to remain anonymous. “AWAC measures your technical skills, measures your repeatability. All that LET does is measure whether you agree with the head panel.”
The Len Evans Tutorial is wine judging on steroids. The morning session focuses on an individual grape variety, 30 Chardonnays, Pinot Noirs or Cabernets from up to five countries and spanning 30 years. Each afternoon it’s a masterclass taking in the great wines of France, Italy, Spain and Germany. Scores are given out loud to the panel of tutors which usually comprises Iain Riggs, organiser and chief winemaker at Brokenwood Wines (newly retired), Australia’s best-known wine writer and critic, James Halliday and Ian McKenzie, former chief winemaker at Seppelt Wines, Barossa Valley.
Each night the scholars climb the vinous equivalent of Everest over the space of dinner with five or more brackets of great aged wines. It might be a tranche of 1982 Premier Crus Bordeaux, Penfolds Grange, Paul Jaboulet La Chapelle or Conterno Barolo. There’s also a wine options game, a seemingly simple but immensely nerve-wracking game invented by Len Evans.
At the end of each tutorial the scholar whose scores come closest to the panel of tutors and who has passed a written paper is named Dux, landing judging roles at two major wine shows, along with business class tickets to Europe with introductions to some of the world’s great wine houses.
“For me it was very much an opportunity to listen to the way other people communicate about wine,” says Sarah Crowe, chief winemaker and general manager at Yarra Yering in the Yarra Valley. “Being a winemaker, my thoughts, my processes and my personal notes are always very technical, short and sharp. The thing I took away from LET was about the communication, the story, sharing a wine through words.”
In its 19 years – this year, what would have been the 20th tutorial has been cancelled due to Covid-19 – there have been 228 scholars. Winemakers represent the bulk of the group at 58%, followed by sommeliers (21%) and wine journalists (7%). The remaining 14% represent a mix of retailer, wine buyer, restaurateur, consultant, educator and viticulturist. Up to 110 scholars remain active in wine show judging and many now also have senior roles chairing shows or as panel chairs.
Iain Riggs who took over as “chair, chief organiser and bottle-washer” after Len Evans died in 2006 believes LET scholars have made an impact on the wine show system and progressed wine styles, notably Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Shiraz. He is particularly proud of the work of past scholars, winemakers Tom Carson (Yabby Lake) and Matt Harrop (Curly Flat) in their successive roles as chief judge at the Royal Melbourne Wine Awards, and changing the direction of its most lauded and at times derided Jimmy Watson Memorial Trophy winning red away from big oaky wines in favour of fresher and lighter styles.
Iain Riggs first met Len Evans in the late 1970s, but it wasn’t until he moved to the Hunter Valley in 1982 to the position of winemaker at Brokenwood, that the two became firm friends. “His generosity and love of living life large was a great way to learn about the world of wine,” he says. “He and I started the Hunter Options lunch in 1987. The concept of sharing great bottles and learning along the way is still top of order. I think the Tutorial continues that immersion in wine and Len’s belief that wine can be demystified.”
It is up to Riggs and a board of trustees which includes Evan’s daughter, Sally, to maintain the Tutorial. The breakdown of monies spent is considerable. It costs AU$75,000 to stage the five-day event, while another $75,000-$90,000 is spent each year on replenishing the extraordinary cellar of wines. Up to 15 sponsors pay between AU$6000-AU$11,000 each to assist with costs, and Basil Sellers continues to generously support it. Domaine de la Romanée-Conti supplies two bottles from seven vineyards at cost. One full set is used on the last day, known as DRC day. “When we need some extra cash one other bottle of the Romanee-Conti can be sold,” says Riggs, “which nowadays is AU$20,000 to AU$35,000 a bottle.”
It’s Riggs who trawls wine auction houses sourcing rare, old bottles, something he admits is getting harder and harder. Older Australian wines including the coveted Maurice O’Shea Hunter reds which are always a highlight of the nightly dinners are now almost gone.
Some past scholars have complained that the tutorial is too focussed on French wines. Maybe that was the case early on, says Riggs, but these days he strives to keep the sourcing diverse including wines from the Massandra Collection, across Europe and New Zealand, but admits it’s hard to source top US and South African wines. Australia continues to represent around 50% of all wines tasted.
Women consistently represent around 30-35% of each year’s intake. The problem here, says Riggs, is in the low number of submissions. “I think one year we only had two women apply,” he adds. “It really is (dependent on) the number of applications that come in and the quality of the applications.”
The inclusion of the odd Master of Wine and Master Sommelier into the group, who already possess a strong grounding in the wines of the world, has also been criticised. But there is a purpose. “They are really important to have in the mix,” argues Riggs, “and we don’t have them every year. The whole raison d’etre is to add to the style mix and they have a totally different approach to wine assessment than winemakers who come from a technical bent.”
In September, an agenda outlining succession plans and the future of LET was being drawn up by a working group. Fly-in fly-out tutors are becoming the norm, often taking over from the top panel, and while the philosophy of Len Evans remains strong, change is being embraced. “The tone was originally very much Evan’s voice but the tone of it now is almost more like a business,” says Sarah Crowe who is a LET trustee.
Samantha Connew, a former scholar and owner/winemaker at Stargazer Wines is now a regular guest tutor and she feels it too. “The tone is quite different to how it was when Evans was around, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing to be honest. That’s just how things have changed.”