Farewell to hero of Tassie industry

TASMANIAN vineyards experienced a busy sales period during the recent festive season, but one face missing from the crowds this year was local wine identity Phil Laing.

A familiar cellar door visitor in his lurid shirts and broad-rimmed hats, the former teacher was Tasmanian wine’s unofficial ambassador for more than 40 years before being diagnosed with motor neurone disease in mid-2022.

Laing ended his life on December 28 with the support of registered health practitioners, acting in accordance with the Tasmanian Parliament’s End of Life Choices (Voluntary Assisted Dying) Act 2021.

He was 67. Born in Launceston, Laing moved south to study at the University of Tasmania in the early 1970s. In addition to gaining his Arts degree and diploma in teaching, the gregarious history buff went on to develop an enduring passion for fine food and beverage. Laing began writing about wine in the late 1980s.

As cellarmaster of a large and very active wine club based in Hobart, he received encouragement and friendship from pioneering producers including Graham Wiltshire (Heemskerk Wines), Dr Andrew Pirie (Pipers Brook Vineyard) and the Alcorso family (Moorilla Estate).

Laing observed first-hand the growth of an embryonic wine industry. Freycinet Vineyard winemaker Claudio Radenti was a close friend for over 30 years.

“Phil was the consummate educator,” Radenti recalls. “Entirely self-taught, he conveyed the joy of wine to countless hospitality and trade people, as well as the general public. Many Tasmanians started their journey into wine through Phil.”

In 1991, Laing enlisted the support of Derwent Valley winemaker Greg O’Keefe to conduct the state’s first annual regional wine show. Entry was restricted to exhibits produced entirely from Tasmanian wine grapes. Laing persuaded renowned international author, wine judge and Victorian winemaker James Halliday to chair the event. Its 43 wines from 16 exhibitors were assessed in short order but cast the die for a 1992 competition that added a further critic to the judging panel, Sydney-based Huon Hooke.

“Those early shows reflected Phil’s faith in the long-term future of the Tasmanian wine industry and his unorthodox and truly unique way of doing things,” Radenti adds. “Halliday and Hooke were lured here by the prospect of enjoying some good trout fishing after their tasting and judging.

Having Australia’s best known wine writers involved from the outset meant their expert judging would provide improvement of the breed, not to mention the incredible national publicity we would receive following each show. Producers would then sell more wine.

“It was an audacious move. You have to remember that barely five years before that 1991 event, Tasmania’s first official wine vintage report revealed the entire industry here produced just 154 tonnes of wine grapes from 47ha of vines.”

Insider knowledge that accumulated with Laing’s 33-year commitment to the Tasmanian Wine Show resulted in self-publication of three books on Tasmanian wine. He also became a regular contributor to Tasmanian lifestyle magazines and national publication GrapeGrowers & Vignerons. News of the island’s increasingly successful forays into cool climate viticulture encouraged international wine luminaries to visit Tasmania for show events.

Sparkling wine expert Tom Stevenson, noted German wine writer Jens Priewe and globe-trotting Californian winemaker and industry consultant Nick Goldschmidt figured among early participants.

“I had the pleasure of working with Phil for 28 years at the Tasmanian Wine Show,” Hooke says. “Phil made wine fun. His was the first and only wine guide I’ve ever seen which included an appraisal of the winery dog in its assessment of the establishment. That was long before the Wine Dogs books were thought of.”

Now beginning a new year without the support of their greatest cheerleader, Tasmanian wine producers are united in believing Laing left behind a remarkable legacy.

“Phil made sure word got about that Tasmania is an extraordinary place,” says Radenti. “That gave us a huge boost at our cellar doors. It’s also one of the reasons so many mainland wine producers have come to Tasmania in recent years to get in on the action here.

Tasmanian producers thank Phil for his lifetime of service to the industry.”

Laing is survived by his wife, Sally, and daughter, Rose.