Max Lake AO 1924 - 2009

Max Lake reckoned Descartes got it wrong. It isn't that "I think therefore I am", but that "we are because we smell". In his book, Food On The Plate, Wine In The Glass, he wrote: "There is some merit in the idea that the thinking cortex developed from the olfactory input of our evolutionary past."

Lake, who began his professional career as a hand surgeon, spent many of his waking hours with his nose in a glass or a plate, before sipping the liquid or eating the food. The New York Times, reviewing another Lake book, Scents And Sensuality , said that he "regards life as one long taste test, an endearing point of view". The wine writer Tim White called him "the rascal of the senses".

Max Lake, who died on Tuesday at 84, was born in Albany, upstate New York, to David Lake, an Australian of Russian extraction, and an American mother, Hannah. His father was the Australian sales manager for Metro Goldwyn Mayer.

The family grew up in Sydney's eastern suburbs and Max went Bellevue Hill Public School. "My father was the ultimate democrat," he said. "All his friends went to private schools and he said they stank." He had a sister, Jan, and three brothers - Bernard, a Quiz Kid in the radio program, Jeff, and Trevor, who died of meningitis. His mother told Max that he would find the cause of meningitis and save the world.

His four Bs in the Leaving Certificate at Sydney Boys' High made his chances of fulfilling his mother's wishes unlikely but he recovered from what must have been a blow to his self-esteem to study medicine at Sydney University and become Australia's first hand surgeon. Lake met Joy Townsend, also a medical student, and they were engaged on graduating in 1946.

They married in 1948, and their first children, the twins David and Paula, were born in Brisbane in 1950. In 1953 they sailed to England, where Max worked towards his admission to the Royal College of Surgeons while Joy looked after the twins. Stephen was born back in Sydney in 1955.

Lake's interest in wine, he claimed, developed only because he couldn't get beer during the war. His first wines were bulk. He would take big bottles to Fiorelli's or Gavini's and have them filled with good wine for two shillings. Then, in 1960, he tasted a "perfectly balanced wine with such elegance of fragrance and flavour". It was a 1930 Dalwood Hunter River cabernet.

Later he discovered that the vines had been ripped out. That was the genesis of the idea of Lake's Folly, which he built on a 25 hectare block. Told that the enterprise was fraught and likely to sink in debt, he planted cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay, two grapes not then planted in the Hunter. A folly, yes, but one that led to his being dubbed the father of the Australian boutique wine industry.

Rupert Rosenblum, rugby international, wine lover and solicitor, visited Lakes Folly when it was well-established with Peter Sichel, the English owner of Chateau Palmer in Bordeaux. Sichel said: "This is one of the great wineries of the world. Max Lake is a revolutionary."

Lake would have apportioned equal credit to Joy and Stephen. Of the creation of Lake's Folly, Stephen said: "Dad was the boss, Mum was the brains and I was the brawn." Stephen became the winemaker from 1980 until its sale in 2000.

By 1979, Lake had published several books on wine, and the weekend winery was beginning to take over. Something had to give. When people phoned the surgery, the receptionist would ask whether they wanted an appointment, a book or some wine. Lake shut up shop as a surgeon and became an international wine judge, writer, taster and, eventually, cartographer of the evolution of the senses.

Yet he always had time for pleasure. "People who deny themselves pleasure aren't part of the human race," he said. "It's pointlessly stupid - verging on masochism."

Bill Pannell, founder of Moss Wood Wines, now at Picardy Wines, says Lake gave him the courage to start a vineyard in what was virgin territory for wine. Pannell went to a champagne celebration with Lake, who stood at the door from where the waiter would bring the full glasses in on a tray. Every time the glasses went past, he would take one and replace the empty. After a while, a waitress gave the pair a strange look. "We're not drunks, my dear," Lake said. "We're connoisseurs."

Lake's third career, as what he called a "flavourologist", was an attempt to understand how taste, smell and flavour shaped humanity. He said he had recast the whole idea of flavour from the point of view of evolution. How well he succeeded is now up for discussion. But to the very end, he was up for flavour - and pleasure.

Getting out of bed on Sunday he went to turn off a fan, fell and bumped his head. The bleeding didn't stop because he was on blood-thinners. The next day, his voice was slurred and it took family members a while to discover what he wanted. A shipment of 2004 Chambolle Musigny, a French burgundy, had been delivered, and he wanted to try it. Stephen and his wife, Babette, propped him up on a pillow and gave him a glass. He was happy. He died the next day.

Max Lake is survived by his sister, Jan Biber, his children David, Paula and Stephen, eight grandchildren and one great-grandchild. Joy Lake died two years ago.

John Newton
By permission of the Sydney Morning Herald