John Avery MW
Became an MW 1975, died 2012
Wine Merchant Who Brought New World Vintages to Britain and Proved a Canny Investor in the Theatre
John Avery, who had died aged 70, played a key role in introducing New World wines to British drinkers. Francis John Avery was born on December 27th 1941 in Bristol where his father Ronald ran the family vintners. At prep school John soon started to reveal his interest in wine, regularly returning there with a cigar box full of tiny tasting bottles for his friends to sniff. From there he went on to Clifton College and Oxford where he won a ski-ing Blue and studied Agricultural Economics at Lincoln College. He was also cellarer to the Junior Common Room.
In 1963 he took an extended tour to America with his father and Andre Simon, founder of the International Wine and Food Society. The intention was to increase Avery’s sales to America. The lasting effect on John Avery was that he made friends with two influential figures – the wine academic Professor Maynard Amerine (head of the wine faculty at University of California Davis) – who taught him much about clones and varietals, and the winemaker Andre Tchelistcheff.
With their help, Avery would go on to discover that producers such as Beaulieu vineyards (BV) were making wines of a very decent quality, albeit in small quantities. He decided to import some and conduct tastings to compare the Californian “pretenders” with their European counterparts. John billed the match as “Old World vs New World” in what is thought to be the first time that wines from outside Europe were so described.
By that time he was already a well-established expert on Australian wines. He had made his first trip to the Antipodes in 1964, the year after his American excursion. On arrival at the airport in Sydney, he was greeted by a couple of journalists excited by the opportunity of getting international approval for Australian wines. Asked for his opinion, he undiplomatically replied “I haven’t had a good one yet”.
Producers rushed to change his mind, and he bought the NSW producer’ Murray Tyrell’s VAT 47, as well as reds from McWilliam’s winery. In 1966 he was the first to introduce Penfolds Grange (arguably Australia’s greatest wine) to the English market. A decade later, he made his first trip to New Zealand and became the first to champion and import wines from there.
Over the years he continued to travel. He thrived on making new discoveries, and his talents as a judge made him a feature on the panels of wine competitions from Hong Kong to Tasmania. He even judged English wines on these shores.
Avery loved wine itself, however, more than the business and over the years the family’s hold on the firm diminished. Partly due to fluctuating wine prices and various recessions, Averys was gradually sold off. After a brief, amiable partnership with Clarke Swanson of Swanson Vineyards, the company was eventually sold to the Pieroth group. But in 2001 Direct Wines acquired Averys, and John was again encouraged to roam the vinous wilds of the world, uncorking new wonders.
He became a Master of Wine in 1975 and was Chairman of the Institute of Masters of Wine in 2000. He was also chairman of the International Wine and Food Society, and Master of the Vintners Company in 2005.
John was passionate about the theatre; an interest which saw him recruited as a financial “angel” for various productions. Approached by a loyal customer, he was once asked to invest in a musical about cats and then one featuring roller skates. He obliged. Those investments, he said, proved more successful than any he had made in the wine trade, and the customer, Lord Lloyd Webber, became a lifelong friend.
A keen member of the MCC and Somerset County Cricket Club, he also loved watching racing and rugby.
John Avery married, in 1967, Sarah Midgley, who survives him with their four children, of whom the eldest, Michelle, follows him in the business.
– tribute published in Daily Telegraph on 29 May 2012, written by his son Richard Avery
John Avery, a boyish 70, who suffered a heart attack in his sleep and died in hospital on Friday, was a one-off. He was also one of the most family-minded wine merchants of my acquaintance and his wife Sarah and four children (one of them, Mimi, works for the family wine company) will miss him acutely. John and Sarah were a devoted couple and always seemed to me like young newly-weds who had met at the local tennis club. They were very much part of Bristol’s solidly mercantile society, John having inherited the famous Averys of Bristol wine merchant business on his famous father’s death in 1976. I reproduce below the article about Ronald Avery written for The Oxford Companion to Wine by his protégé and my FT predecessor Edmund Penning-Rowsell.
Ronald may have gone to Cambridge but ‘young Johnnie’ went to Oxford, and there was little doubt about his future career – although he cherished a lifelong interest in the theatre and acted as an ‘angel’ for all manner of West End productions. His son Richard is an actor and John often boasted of making more money from his theatrical investments than his wine business.
John was not a natural businessman. Like many in the wine trade, what he loved was the wine itself, and he was lucky enough to have been brought up with constant access to some of the world’s finest, including some legendary bottlings. The Averys were famous for blurring the line between the company’s stocks and their own personal cellars.
But what distinguished John, who passed the Master of Wine exams in 1975, was Chairman of the Institute of MWs in 2000 and had been Master of The Vintners’ Company, was his insatiable curiosity about the wines of what was then called the New World, and his openness to their qualities. Although Geoffrey Roberts was the pioneer British specialist importer of fine wines from outside Europe, it was John Avery who first brought wines from the likes of Tyrrell’s and McWilliams of Australia and Matawhero of New Zealand into the country. He was also a founder member, with the late Harry Waugh and Hugh Johnson, of the Zinfandel Club (through which I met my husband) which celebrated fine California wine in the 1970s and 1980s. Right up to the end he continued to travel throughout Australasia and South Africa and was particularly well known as an international wine judge.
Notoriously disorganised and congenitally late, he was also extremely generous. When we made one of our Vintners’ Tales 10-minute films for the BBC about him, he gave a dinner party at which he went to great lengths to serve me the Chambolle-Musigny, Les Amoureuses 1959, presumed de Vogüé, that first turned me on to wine in 1970.
I last tasted sustainedly with him at the Southwold 2008 tasting in late January 2012, to which he, as usual, brought the best bottles for our dinners. He was always a very unselfconscious taster, bold in his guesses. But our professional lives continued to criss cross. He most recently came to our house at the end of January in his capacity as an André Simon judge and trustee – and even though these short list deliberations take place two floors below my study, I was always well aware of when the booming but impish John had arrived.
Averys of Bristol was sold to Clark Swanson of California in 1987 who then sold it to Pieroth about five years later. It is now part of the Laithwaites empire. John remained as figurehead, but his real value to the world of wine was his enthusiasm and his enormous knowledge of fine wines produced throughout the world in the second half of the 20th century.
We will all miss him greatly.
– tribute by Jancis Robinson MW, March 2012, taken from her website
Wine Merchant and Raconteur with an Irrepressible Joie de Vivre Who Was in the Vanguard of Introducing New World Wines to Britain
If buying and selling wine is any longer a profession for romantics (and it should be, because inagination and strong feelings are what makes wine special), then all true professionals will have envied John Avery. He inherited the best wine business – it was the wine that was best, not the business – from his father, loved it, and nearly lost it. That’s how romantic it was.
Averys of Bristol was the wine lovers wine merchant. Avery’s father, Ronald, and John after him, dealt in taste, not names. They bought wines because their energy, originality, purity, harmony – the parts that the palate communicates to the cultivated mind – spoke to them and convinced them. They knew, or hoped they knew, people who would buy them. They united, or confused, business with personal life.
John Avery was the wine merchant whom Geoffrey Chaucer, a Vintner himself, would have taken to Canterbury. He was an unstoppable storyteller. Telling stories helped to sell wines. Without stories they are just drinks. But Avery was a man who was so interested in life, and so entertained by it, that everything he did, and everyone he met, became a story to tell the next time he had a glass in his hand. You need a good memory to do this, but first of all you have to pay attention, which he did, to everyone he met and everything he tasted. No, not everyone and everything, you need judgement too. And judge he did. His whole smiling, well nourished, noisy personality was on the side of the young, the small, the striving. He was no respecter of persons. He told stories, mostly benign ones, about everyone.
Francis John Avery was born in Bristol in 1941, went to Clifton College and Lincoln college, Oxford, where he read agricultural economics (not his strongest point), then went into the family business, where his early memories included driving down to Dartmoor to collect water good enough to dilute the distilled strength whisky they were bottling. He also recalled buying trips with his father to Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne. To Bordeaux they travelled by speedboat, tasting clarets with celebrated tasters, and to other destinations they motored in a Rolls-Royce.
But first Avery travelled the New World of Wine. In the early 1960’s it was very new: Australian wine in Britain meant Invalid Port; California’s wine was unknown (though the British drank South African sherry); South American wine was unheard of and New Zealand hardly grew grapes. Enter Avery. He was responsible for the first shipment to England of Grange Hermitage, Australia’s greatest wine. And Tyrrell’s Chardonnay, also via Averys, was the first of a flood from Australia to reach Britain. California’s best wines (notably BV – Beaulieu Vineyard) followed, and even a New Zealand Gewurztraminer from Matawhero. But then Ronald Avery had introduced the unknown Chateau Petrus to Britain. And perhaps Ronald’s friend Andre Simon had opened John’s mind. In 1963, at the age of 86, Simon went of a wine-hunt to Australia and New Zealand.
So small was the commercial demand, though, for such exotics that in the late 1970’s John Avery, with Harry Waugh of Harveys and Hugh Johnson founded the Zinfandel Club to ship Californian wines available only in America for the curious few in Britain to taste. Soon the eager wine-show judges of Australia and New Zealand had recognised Avery as one of their own. He was chief judge in New Zealand in 1978 and 1981 and judged at a score of Australian shows. In the past six months alone he was judging wine shows in Singapore, Hong Kong and Hobart, Tasmania, as well as skiing at Obergurgl in Austria. He was constantly between planes, as a bee between flowers,with the same cross fertilisation of ideas.
Avery took the lead instinctively in all his interests, including, notably, conversation. His combination of volume, content, style and sheer impact were inimitable, which made him a natural member of the Garrick Club. He became a Master of Wine in 1975 and chairman of the Institute of Masters of Wine in 2000. He was Master of the Bristol Merchant Venturers and the Vintners Company. He was on the board of the Wine and Spirit Trade Association and the Wine and Spirit Education Trust. He was chairman, (and the current president) of the International Wine and Food Society. He was also an enthusiastic theatre “angel” . His backing of Andrew Lloyd Webber, he claimed, made him more money than the wine trade.
Averys didn’t go well. The price of wine collapsed in the slump of the 1970’s. EU regulations, arriving in 1974, didn’t help wine merchants. In 1987 Avery reluctantly ceded control to Pieroth, which was not a good idea. To everyone’s delight, though, Averys was saved, and John Avery’s true role restored, by Laithwaites which bought the firm in 2001. Avery was back, tasting, travelling, judging, unearthing and enthusing for customers who always felt he was on their side.
He married Sarab Midgley in 1967. Their gothic home in Wrington in Somerset was the scene of many parties and the elevage (to use the vinous term) of their four children, the eldest of whom, Mimi, follows in the family business.
Avery was at the Bollinger party at Twickenham for the Six Nations rugby championship the day before he suffered a heart attack – a happy man.
John Avery, wine merchant, was born on December 27 1941. He died on March 23 2012, aged 70. He beguiled many a client with his exuberant, unstoppable storytelling.
– tribute published in the Times, written by Hugh Johnson