James Halliday: A Life in Wine

The autobiography of an Australian wine icon

By Robyn Lewis
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James Halliday: A Life in Wine

James Halliday: A Life in Wine [©Hardie Grant Books]

 

There will be few serious Australian wine lovers – especially those ‘of a certain age’ – who don't know the name James Halliday, AM. Former lawyer, who famously “divorced his wife (the law) and married his mistress (wine)” in 1988, he is undisputedly the emperor of the Australian wine scene.

His word, if not law, can make or break wine producers. Cause sellouts at retail outlets. Send prices stratospheric, or see wines consigned to the oddments bin. His wine points scores are quoted everywhere: ‘Halliday 96 points’ is sure to set pulses racing, and hands to credit cards.

Every country of wine lovers needs at least one expert like him (or her, in the UK’s case of Jancis Robinson, MW OBE). It helps if they are also great characters, as Halliday certainly is.

He can also write, and to me A Life in Wine flows as if poured from an elegant decanter. At the outset, he dedicates his autobiography to lifelong friend and partner in wine, the late Len Evans AO OBE. Theirs was truly a rich, deep, and often hilarious friendship, which shines forth on almost every page.

I was fortunate to meet Evans several times before his death, and Halliday captures him extremely well. Between their homes and vineyards in the Hunter Valley in NSW and the Yarra Valley in Victoria, they had the wine bases of south-eastern Australia covered. And man, did they drink and party across them, and more.

Few would recognise the rather crusty figure on the cover, with trademark eyebrows raised, from the pencil portrait of a young boy in Chapter 1. James Halliday was born in 1938 in Sydney, to a prosperous family – which in the day would have been described as upper-middle class – his father was a heart specialist, and they lived at Bellevue Hill, with a second house in Moss Vale, to which they moved for safety during World War II.

His grandmother lived at Palm Beach, and one can picture a relatively idyllic Sydney childhood, spent between private school and body surfing, although he does not recall it as being easy. Halliday admits he was not cut out to follow his father into medicine, which along with his father’s wartime absence seems to have created a distancing. Instead he chose the law.

In those days, Australians drank beer, fortified wine (notably cream ‘sherry’) and brandy. Halliday’s family however had travelled to England, and he was fortunate to taste French wines at a young age. Back him, his father was a regular customer of Lindemans, and – a rarity in Australian homes of the era – the Hallidays had a wine cellar. This was full of their rieslings, hocks, Chablis, red and white burgundies and clarets, all made in the Hunter Valley and often not the varieties described on the labels, but enticing to a young man, nevertheless.

Unusual for the era, Halliday grew up with wine, and looking back, when the lure of the law paled, it was not surprising that he rose to fill the void as chief wine critic for an increasingly sophisticated Australian wine palate, hungry for more information. As they say, someone had to do it, and he was perfectly positioned. His legal friends were all into wines, they were well connected, and they certainly drank the best they could afford. Why not translate your passion into something more?

Halliday prides himself on the fact that since he finally departed the law in 1988, all his books, columns and articles have been commissioned: “not once did I initiate a book or write a column off my own bat”. It’s a very different world in wine writing today.

Friend Len Evans initiated him into wine show judging, and he frequently travelled overseas for would-be Australian importers. He admits he’s had some lucky breaks.

The rest of the book is woven about his passions: wine, vineyards, and writing. His vineyards, first at Brokenwood in the Hunter, then Coldstream Hills in the Yarra Valley, have played a large part in his life. As has tasting as many good wines as perhaps is humanly possible.

Halliday is a famous workaholic – he has written more than 65 books on wine since 1979, including his annual Australian Wine Companion – and one assumes that this trait (obsession?) may have played a part in the breakdown of his first marriage. I didn’t know until I read A Life in Wine that Halliday had children (a daughter Caroline and son Angus by first wife Liz, who was involved in the early days of the Brokenwood venture, from 1970-83).

From there the book covers tastings and party after party – all seemingly fuelled with some of the best, most expensive wines in the world, with friend Len Evans playing a large part in many of them. If there’s a Who’s Who of the Australian wine world of the day, the characters are nearly all here, along with many a rare and precious bottle of wine they shared. The stories are frequently amusing in a blokey way – clearly they loved practical jokes, and ‘taking the piss’ out of each other at any opportunity.

There were Wine Options games, the birth of the so-called Single Bottle Club in 1977 – members of whom bring bottles of the best, rarest and/or most expensive wines they can find to an annual dinner. (The oldest they have drunk a 1646 Tokaji.) The exceptional wine list goes on, and on. In fact it may well surprise readers from Europe that such wines are (or were) to be found in Australia at all.

Halliday manages to weave all these names together in a way that is entertaining and interesting, although if you have deep pinot envy (especially for the likes of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti) you might find it all a bit much to swallow, vicariously at least.

To break it up, the book is interspersed with vignettes of life in the evolving Australian wine scene from the 70s through to the present day, making it as much a history of the industry as it is of one wine critic’s remarkable life.

Fittingly, towards the end there is a chapter on the Len Evans Memorial Tutorials. These were established as a trust by Evans with the assistance of various sponsors to provide twelve wine scholars annually with the opportunity to taste some of the wines that Halliday and Evans were exposed to: the best of France, Australia, Spain, Italy, California and New Zealand, plus a few others on occasion. Halliday is one of the tutors. It is deemed ‘the most exclusive wine school in the world’.

Serious wine lovers and fans of James Halliday will no doubt love this book; others might find all the (unavoidable) name-dropping of wines they are unlikely to ever see, let alone taste, somewhat galling. But this has been his life – a combination of privilege, sheer hard work, luck and perseverance – that combined with the support of his second wife Suzanne, his two loyal PAs and team of tasters and assistants, has made the Australian wine scene far richer than it would otherwise have been. Long may he reign.

 

A Life in Wine by James Halliday is published by Hardie Grant Books (Melbourne, Australia, 2012; hc 264 pp) and retails in Australia for RRP A$45.

 

A Life in Wine by James Halliday can be purchased online via Booko here »

 

Regions

  • Yarra Valley (Wine) (VIC)

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October 08th, 2012
 
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