Monday 15 December 2014

A watermelon salute to celebrate Yvonne May's life

‘You’ve now got a good two hours hard drinking ahead of you,’ Matthew Jukes said, winding up a series of addresses, and occasionally hilarious video tributes, in memory of Yvonne May, the late head of Wine Australia in London, who died of cancer earlier this year.

There’s something moving about laughter at a memorial service, a spontaneous often surprised burst of shared feeling. ‘We can’t give you a 21-gun salute,’ Wirra Wirra boss Andrew Kay, by video from McLaren Vale, announced to the packed hall at Aussie House in the Strand. ‘So we’re going to do a one-watermelon salute instead.’ He was standing in a field, and behind him could be discerned a sort of Roman catapult, a huge spring-loaded wooden contraption, with various busy blokes pulling ropes. The thing worked, sending the fat melon in a high curving arc, and there was a cheer.

Yvonne would have loved that affectionate slapstick. I didn't know her that well but had enjoyed her company at some boozy dinners – one particularly festive bash in Dublin with the McGuigans – and some lunches. I was at the Savour conference in Adelaide last year, where she efficiently and with a nice sense of humour handled the multiple hassles of a big affair like that

She was a calm, friendly and generous individual, and good at her job. After the doldrum years of the mid-decade when Wine Australia here suffered under a hiatus of leadership and, rudderless, alienated some sections of the wine press, she was a reassuring presence. When she was appointed in 2010 I rang her up for a comment – I think it was just before Christmas – and she was happy to chat, had a few plans up her sleeve, and gave some well-turned and diplomatic comments. In six months she’d transformed the trade’s relationship with Australia House.

‘The group was her thinktank,’ Simon Thorpe (of Negociants UK) said, suggesting someone inclusive and democratic, but with a clear sense of who was in charge. It worked. The clever young people she recruited loved her, and were devastated when she became ill.

And not just the staff – the wider trade as well. Thorpe went on, ‘She was someone who thought business should be honest, collaborative, professional and fun.’ That pretty much sums up a type of Australian attitude to work. She was made for the country, knew it backwards, and between her and the wine community there was healthy respect and affection.

The video tributes were straightforward and cumulatively very touching: a series of winemakers (in elastic-sided boots) saluting someone they liked, respected and will miss. One by one, from Andrew Wigan to Neil McGuigan, they expressed their condolences. Some chose to sit in front of a barrel and raise a glass, others to chuck a watermelon two hundred yards – the sentiment was the same.

‘I expected serried ranks of chairs, a sit-down service,’ Charles Metcalfe said (before taking to the stage for a rendition of You're the Cream in my Coffee with Oz Clarke, whose baritone made the glasses hum). ‘But what’s this? It’s a party.’

A party it was, with copious amounts of fizz (Jansz Premium Cuvée), fine canapés, and a dozen good reds and whites to try. The 300-strong crowd was a distillation of the London wine trade, sprinkled with friends and colleagues like Angela Slade, Wine Australia's US chief, who had flown over from Washington DC. David Lindsay, Yvonne’s husband, was his usual upright self, if slightly drawn. He was one of the first people I met when I joined Decanter in 1999, and he’s always been as generous with his time as she was.

Jukes was an efficient MC who knew his audience (he later told me it was the most difficult thing he'd ever done). Halfway through the tributes – from Thorpe, Neil Hadley (of Wakefield Wines) by video, and the Clarke-Metcalfe duet – he announced there’d be a break ‘to top up glasses’. Then, just in case we were slacking, he gave us that reminder about getting down to some hard drinking. We didn’t need much prompting. Yvonne would have expected no less.

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