John Avery MW, one of the country's most renowned wine merchants and a towering figure in the UK wine industry, has died aged 70.
The Bristol merchant suffered a heart attack at the beginning of the week and died in hospital on Friday.
One of the best-known figures in the international wine world, Avery was distinguished by what Jancis Robinson MW called his ‘insatiable curiosity’, leading him to explore and champion New World wines many years before they became commonplace in the northern hemisphere.
Avery was born into wine, a fourth-generation member of Bristol’s oldest wine business. Avery’s of Bristol was established in 1793, ‘An unfortunate date for our Bordeaux suppliers,’ the website drily notes, ‘as it marks the murder of the Girondins and the establishment of the Terreur in revolutionary France.’
Starting in the business in 1966, becoming a director in 1967, managing director in 1975 and chairman in 2003, Avery inherited the pioneering spirit of his father Ronald.
One of the first wine merchants to regularly visit producers on their home turf rather than rely on agents, Ronald introduced wines from St Emilion and Pomerol to an uninitiated British public – and imported some of the first bottles of Petrus.
Wine writer Anthony Rose remembered an episode that highlighted John Avery’s attitude: in the 1990s he (Rose) had recommended a Penfolds RWT Barossa Shiraz in his column for the Independent, and bumped into Avery a few days later.
‘He said, “I hope you’re right, Rose, because I’ve just bought a lot of cases”.’
In keeping with that entrepreneurial spirit, Avery travelled even further than his father; he was one of the first to import Penfolds Grange, Tyrells and McWilliams of Australia and Matawhero of New Zealand, and to the end of his life was a staple of the international wine circuit.
In his wine-spattered white overalls, Avery was a much-respected figure at the annual Decanter World Wine Awards tastings. He was chair of the South Africa panel (in the Awards issue of Decanter magazine he compared the country to a swan: ‘From a host of ugly ducklings there are now many beautiful wines’), which was only one of a host of judging and chairing obligations.
These included judging more than 10 times in Australia, at Canberra, Perth, Melbourne, Sydney and Hobart, chief judge at the Winpac show in Hong Kong for 20 years and five years in Japan. He judged the New Zealand natural show in November 2010, judged the Veritas and Diners Club winemaker of the year in South Africa and was on the panel to select wines for South African Airlines.
He was also advisor to the Grocers’ Company and a member of the government hospitality wine advisory committee.
Avery was admired and respected – and much loved, despite (or because of) the fact that his wine knowledge and generosity did not add up to acute commercial sense. Avery’s was sold in 1987 to direct sellers Pieroth, and is now part of the Laithwaites empire.
There have been dozens of tributes from the most senior members of the British wine trade.
‘For me, John epitomised the English wine trade,’ Steven Spurrier told Decanter.com. ‘He was a John Bull of a man in the best sense, bred into wine and enthusiastic about every good glass, simple or complex. Travelling to the New World before anyone else in the late 1960s and early 1970s, he bought these unknown wines because he liked them, liked the people who made them, and believed in both. His contribution to wine in all its aspects was enormous and this, and he, will be remembered for a very long time.’
Michael Broadbent said, ‘He was a tremendous innovator, and just an ebullient, warm character. What I liked about him was that he never said an unkind word about anybody, and he never blew his own trumpet. He was just terribly likeable – a big man in every sense of the word.’
John Avery is survived by his wife Sarah and four children. His daughter Mimi joined the business in 1999, the fifth generation of the family to do so.
Written by Adam Lechmere