Vale Jim Whittle
Jim Whittle was a larger-than-life character, six feet four inches tall, with an imposing build, and a booming voice that commanded attention. He was a colourful character on the Sydney wine scene for less than a decade in the late-1970s-early-1980s, but he left an indelible impression.
As manager of Halvorsen Cellars in South Dowling Street, Paddington, he made a big impression as a fine wine merchant, who refused to stock ordinary wines that other shops stocked, even if customers wanted them. The shop’s previous clientele had been largely drunks and down-and-outs, and he figured the best way to keep them out of his shop was to stop keeping the booze they used. The shelves of 4-litre casks and cheap fortified wine were replaced by wooded boxes of Bordeaux and Burgundy. Whittle passed away in July at the age of 57 after fighting a brain tumour since 2008.
Edward James Monteith Whittle was a precocious chap. I first met him in 1980 while we were both studying wine at Roseworthy Agricultural College. Even then, Jim was full of bluster and big talk, and many fellow students distrusted him because they didn’t believe the stories he told, that he’d already lived in Europe, could speak French, had cooked in a major Sydney hotel restaurant, and studied hotel management in Switzerland. His Citroen was the only one in the college carpark, alongside the mud-spattered Holden utes. And they couldn’t quite believe his claim that by 23 he’d already drunk many of the great wines of the world. But it was mostly true. At tastings, he produced a never-ending succession of amazing wines which no-one at college had ever seen before, let alone tasted.
Jim was born in England and raised by a very international family. After postings in London, his father was boss of the Rank Organisation in Australia and later managed wine and drinks companies. From an early age, Jim had been exposed to life in other cultures.
Jim was a big man with a voice and personality to match, and when he spoke, people listened. He carried authority. This helped him as a salesman – and he was one of the best. Wine was his great passion.
After impressing the then owner of Camperdown Cellars, Andrew Simon, with his sales prowess, and turning down an offer of a permanent job, Jim opened Halvorsen Cellars with two friends. I worked for them for three years between 1982 and ’85.
By his own admission, Jim did not feel compelled to live life by the rules that applied to other people. He often pushed the boundaries, which caused friction now and then. During the Halvorsen years Whittle befriended the elite of the wine world, including Len Evans, James Halliday, John Beeston and Tony Albert and was a regular at their Monday Table at Evans’s restaurant in Bulletin Place. Whittle had an importing business called World Wine Warehouse with Halliday until a spectacular parting of the ways.
During the 1982 Bordeaux primeur campaign Whittle, spurred on by the glowing reviews of the then emerging US wine writer Robert Parker, decided to go long on these great wines, and made quite a name for himself.
Jim left Sydney for Vanuatu in 1985 and never really returned to Australia. He often came back to visit but never to live – although late in his life he lived in Perth for a time while having treatment. Jim married twice, his first marriage producing two sons and his second produced two daughters. After Vanuatu, he lived mostly in Indonesia, with his wife Robin and family.
After Jim’s brain tumour was discovered, he and his family lived with friends in Perth while he had treatment. Friends say the tumour – or the surgery – changed his personality and behaviour. His customary lack of restraint in most things became more exaggerated. He put on weight and became wheelchair bound. It was a sad ending for such an energetic, charismatic man.
During our time together in Sydney retailing we staged many memorable tastings and wine events. I will always remember the two-night dinner tasting of 50 vintages of Chateau Latour at Le Café; the tastings of great Maurice O’Shea Mount Pleasant and Colin Preece Great Western reds that we bought from the cellar of the late Henri Renault; the Chateau d’Yquem events, the collections of old Sandeman sherries and old Moulin Touchais Anjou wines, not to mention the many old Burgundies and rare old German rieslings that World Wine Warehouse imported.
Jim was one of the first important supporters of Margaret River wines, and Halvorsen Cellars was the sole agent for Moss Wood (tastings) in those days. We also sold a lot of Cullen (tastings), Vasse Felix (tastings) and other emerging Margaret River wines. The fact that Moss Wood founder Bill Pannell couldn’t be bothered with marketing, and preferred to despatch his entire vintage to one destination in Sydney rankled with other retailers, who had to buy their Moss Wood from us!
And there was much more. I wasn’t paid handsomely, but almost every night I was shouted a fine meal with great wines by the Halvorsen owners. It was a time of formative experiences and intensive learning for me, and I will always remember Jim gratefully for that.
Jim is survived buy his wife Robin McClellan, two daughters Serena and Rachael of Perth, two sons Dominic and Alexander of Sydney, and brother, David, of London.