Farewell Len Sorbello

Len Sorbello the day before he died. Photo: Melissa Ablitt

On 9 January, Canberra lost Len Sorbello – a wine-loving bloke, loved and respected across the wine industry and among former public service workmates.

Laughter lightened the farewell service as brother Sam, old wine mate, Lester Jesberg, and elder son, Stephen, recounted a very full, generous life infused with an infectious, passion for wine and food.

Stephen said, “If dad wasn’t eating, he was thinking of eating. If he wasn’t cooking, he was thinking of cooking”.  He recalled a monumentally littered kitchen and six o’clock dinners starting at nine.

Brother Sam remembered Len’s early food infatuation, indulged lavishly by a Sicilian mother. Black muscat juice accompanied meals, said, Sam. But this gave way to Barossa Pearl and Ben Ean during Len’s youth in north Queensland.

By the time Sorbello, by now a barrister, met Lester Jesberg in 1976, his wine tastes had moved up a notch. Recalls Jesberg, “Len was a year ahead of me in wine at the time and for a beginner that was a big gap. He was already into the great wines of Europe”.

It was at a Rothbury Estate ribbon dinner in Canberra”, Jesberg remembers. “I introduced myself to Len and his table and many of those people, including Mike and Maggie Bond, were there the other day [at the funeral]”.

We just clicked”, says Jesberg – and Sorbello offered to host a tasting for him. “I’ll show you some real wines”, he said, shortly thereafter treating Jesberg to an extraordinary line up of 1970 Bordeaux reds – all the first growths plus Chateau Cheval Blanc. Jesberg joined Sorbello’s tasting group, based initially on the Rothbury Estate ribbon tastings.

This dragged the two into the orbit of Murray Tyrrell, owner of Tyrrell’s Wines, and the legendary Len Evans, driving force behind Rothbury. Over many trips to the Hunter and endless tastings, Sorbello and Jesberg earned their prestigious purple ribbons – Rothbury’s highest accolade.

I met Len Sorbello during this period in the late seventies, for me a period of intense wine exploration with David Farmer of Farmer Brothers. We tasted largely separately from the Sorbello-Jesberg group, but knew them well, tasted together on occasion and sold them heaps of wine.

I recall early on Farmer saying, “Len’s got a great white palate”, something I came to appreciate over the next thirty years as we ate, drank and, eventually, judged together.

What I also saw in Len a great joy in drinking wine. He’d analyse, dissect, and discuss it endlessly, but finally it was a drink to be savoured to the hilt, with food. And that’s what he did.

Bruce Tyrrell, son of the late Murray Tyrrell, met Sorbello and Jesberg in the late seventies. He said, “We’d get on the drink in the Hunter and have a lot of fun”. He recalls the pair impressing Murray with their palates.

The Sorbello-Jesberg group maintained the passion and in 1985 founded “Winewise” magazine. Jesberg became the editor largely, he says, because Sorbello by now was married, had two sons and wanted to give them plenty of time.

Bruce Tyrrell believed that Winewise could become “Australia’s answer to Robert M. Parker [all-powerful American wine critic] if the industry would get behind it”.

Tyrrell said, “These guys were not full-time industry pros, but they had tremendous knowledge, they were completely independent and there was no bullshit in any of them”.

In 1990, the Winewise team, established the Small Vignerons Award, designed especially for boutique wineries unable or unwilling to enter larger shows. It’s now one of Australia’s most prestigious events, attracting our bests show judges and a broad representation from small makers.

Sorbello judged at the awards from the outset, building on an already formidable palate and winning tremendous respect among judges. He held strong views, argued his point but always listened and finally accepted any outcome with good humour.

Sorbello’s wine passion spilled into a successful public service legal career, culminating as head of legal services at Comcare. A colleague, Ken Whitcombe, said Len brought his enthusiasm for wine and food to work – a gusto that meant large wine bills whenever Len organised a staff lunch. This caused some nervousness among less well-paid staff.

Len was constitutionally incapable of ordering a bottle of wine that cost less than the rest of the meal put together”, says Whitcombe. But Whitcombe also observed in Len a similar gusto for family, friends and career. And he recalls Len hosting a dinner for work colleagues at his own home, cooking “one of the most delightful meals they’d ever had” and digging into his private cellar.

The ever-ebullient Len put wine at the centre of a generous life, sharing his knowledge, enthusiasm and precious bottles with work colleagues, family, friends and many contacts in the wine industry. He put wine and food where it belonged – on a shared table with family and friends.

Len Sorbello’s life ended in a tragic irony – he died suddenly while travelling to visit his terminally ill mother in Townsville. The day before he’d held court at Adrienne Jesberg’s 60th birthday celebrations in Sydney with 40 or so old wine friends. “Len loved an audience”, says Lester Jesberg. We’ll all miss you Len.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 20112
First published 1 February 2012 in The Canberra Times