Australian fast bowler Dennis Lillee was a teetotaller for many years as a young man. Now, as MICHAEL ZEKULICH finds out, he is as passionate about his wine as he was about his cricket.
Former Australian cricket great Dennis Lillee can thank a bad back – a result of years of wicket-walloping fast bowling – for leading him towards the pleasures of good wine.
His unusual journey began in 1972, while the Aussie team were on tour in the UK. Spirits were high after a Test victory against England, and Lillee – at the time a teetotaller – decided to quell the pain of a stress fracture in his back with a rare alcoholic beverage – a bacardi and coke.
Up until then, Dennis Lillee and alcohol had not mixed. It was not that his parents were ‘wowsers’ (teetotallers), or that he was forbidden from drinking. ‘I just didn’t like the taste,’ he shrugs.
And Dennis Lillee didn’t progress to having a beer that night, despite pressure from famous team mates like captain Ian Chappell and wicketkeeper Rod Marsh, who told him, ‘There has never been a great fast bowler that didn’t drink beer.’
Relaxing in the morning sun at his Perth home, Dennis Lillee recalls how, slowly, he graduated to enjoy the completely new experience of an odd glass of wine.
At first, and usually only on special occasions, Dennis Lillee and wife Helen would share a bottle of Ben Ean Moselle or Mateus Rosé with friends.
Then other experiences made an impact, such as sharing a port with cricketing mate Dennis Baker while on tour, and learning from wine-industry legend Wyndham Hill Smith of Yalumba in South Australia’s Barossa Valley. Windy, as he was known, loved cricket and would invite visiting Test teams playing in Adelaide to Yalumba for some wine-tasting hospitality.
A formidable cricketer himself, Windy had played in the 1930s in the controversial Bodyline Series against an English team led by Douglas Jardine, so his anecdotes and his vast wine knowledge were great attractions.
Curiously, the creation of Lillee’s own cellar – now an impressive, self-designed, computer-controlled facility kept at 14C and boasting wines from 1978 to the present day – began during his teetotalling times.
He and his wife had been invited to the South Australian Bushing Festival, a major wine event at McLaren Vale. On the way to the airport for the journey home, the local police sergeant who was looking after the couple hooked up a trailer to the police car and proceeded to pick up cases of wine from various producers. As neither Dennis nor Helen drank at that time, they had no idea the wine (12 cases) was for them until, on arrival at Perth, they were told to come and pick up the boxes.
‘We stored them under the bed and in a wardrobe in the non-air-conditioned home we had at the time, and forgot about them,’ Lillee recalls. ‘Years later, I realised just how good the wine was. I look back now and can see why Windy’s hospitality based on wine made such a great impression.’
Another important influence for Lillee was wealthy former Gestetner owner Basil Sellers, who Lillee did some work for in the UK in the 1980s.
The duo became firm friends and have gone on to share tastings of the ‘amazing collections’ Sellers has at his homes in Sydney, London and France. Sellers introduced Lillee to a variety of French wines and his education was significantly broadened.
But, while acknowledging great respect for the wines of Champagne, (especially Billecart-Salmon), Burgundy and Bordeaux, Lillee explains that his adventuring palate is yet to identify the labels he wants to keep in his cellar. He reflects that his early preference was for Chardonnay and the occasional Riesling. Progress saw him turn to Cabernet and, later, to gutsy Shirazes at the urging of Rod Marsh.
As for Australian wines, Lillee admits to having a bit of a soft spot. His favourites include wines from Margaret River, such as Pierro and Leeuwin Estate Chardonnays and the Cullen range – especially its Cabernet Merlot. Then there’s the Swan Valley for its rich, old fortifieds, while from the Eastern States, he is impressed with the Penfolds stable of reds, including Grange – though he insists that there are many good wines not costing nearly as much. Coonawarra Cabernets from producers like Wynns, Hollicks and Zema Estate, d’Arenberg’s Dead Arm Shiraz from McLaren Vale and the De Bortoli wines from Victoria’s Yarra Valley also win favour.
These days, Lillee regularly takes part in blind tastings, his confidence boosted by the completion – with his family – of a course at the Western Australia Wine Education Centre.
‘The course was fun and it’s really helped me widen my horizons, so that now I get excited about other varieties, like Pinot Noir, as well,’ he enthuses.
Lillee admits to trying and testing new wines on a regular basis, and says that when he has a special birthday to celebrate, it is easy to tell friends of a wine he would like as a present.
‘It’s a bit like a bridal register,’ he says. ‘Wine is like having an international language. It is so easy to share.’
Dennis Lillee’s autobiography, Lillee (Headline, £7.99), is out now.
Written by Michael Zekulich