Death Of The Week: Max Lake
Dearly Departed: Australian surgeon and wine pioneer Max Emory Lake, OAM, 1924-2009.
Cause Of Death: A head injury from a fall.
Greatest Achievement: Lake was pivotal in introducing boutique wine appreciation to Australia.
Next time you’re pontificating about the florals and raisin and hay and rubber tyre subtleties while scoffing a bottle of quality Australian plonk, tip a drop on the curb for your homie Max Lake.
Lake had an extraordinary life even before he stomped his first grape. Widely known as a larger-than-life character, he was born in the US to parents who worked in the film industry. His father brought the family to Sydney to take up a position running the Australian division of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (of roaring lion fame). He studied at the University of Sydney, becoming a renowned surgeon and Australia’s first specialist hand surgeon. But soon turned his precision tools to winemaking.
He started up the Lake’s Folly vineyard in NSW’s Hunter Valley in 1963, a 1930 bottle of Dalwood cabernet inspiring him to grow cabernet sauvignon grapes. Try to remember a time before the Hunter Valley was synonymous with fine wine, when there were only five wineries there, when the idea of an Australian boutique winery was absurd. Lake changed all that.
Not content merely to make fine wine, he wrote many hugely influential books dedicated to the art of enjoying it. Campbell Mattison of the Wine Front writes that his 1964 book Hunter Wine and his 1966 book Classic Wines Of Australia are bonafide landmarks of Australian wine writing. Sadly, I wouldn’t know, since I still drink from casks.
Of course, almost anything you or I have learnt about wine in Australia has most likely been influenced by Lake’s drive and enthusiasm. He self-published 14 of his books (not all about wine; he wrote on food, surgery, and even compiled a cookbook based on the tastes of Marco Polo). The Bulletin called him “the man who started the wine boom”, The Observer said his theories “are offered with missionary zeal and the hope of improving our lives” and US Wine Enthusiast (no relation) said his book Food on the Plate, Wine in the Glass, was “Probably the best thing ever written on the subject.”
He became a feared and respected food and wine judge, sold the Lake’s Folly winery in 2000 and received an Order Of Australia medal in 2002. At 85, this true force of nature was in failing health and, while trying to switch on the fan for the air-conditioning, slipped and bruised his head. He died at his harbourside home in Sydney surrounded by his family. His son Stephen said that the last thing to pass Max’s lips was, fittingly, “a 2004 Vosne Romanee.”
He will be missed.
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