Frank Margan 1931–2016
Journalist, author, winemaker and restaurateur Frank Margan was a pioneering hero of modern Australian food and wine: a tireless rebel from an age when wine meant sherry and anything else was plonk or strangely foreign.
Margan was born in Sydney's south-west on November 26, 1931. His mother, Madelaine, urged him to try something safe and join the water board as a clerk. Margan lasted until lunch, when he took off, never to return.
He went instead to work in a pawn shop, where he learnt more about the hard end of life and the worth of things. But what he really wanted was to play jazz trombone and become a journalist. He wrote to nearly every newspaper, and every one rejected him except the Daily Mirror, which had published a story he wrote at the age of 15.
By 20, Margan was running the United Press International bureau in London, covering events such as the British Open and Wimbledon. It was there that he fell in love – with his first wife Lois Sharp and with wine.
He came home to the Mirror then moved to the Weekend Magazine. As news editor of the Daily Telegraph, he wrote the column Ray Castle, a play on the name of Castlereagh Street where the newspapers' offices were located. As editor of The Sunday Telegraph he penned the weekly wine column "Bacchus the Younger", with stories of food wine and life to entertain his readers. He edited Gourmet magazine and wrote numerous freelance wine columns, receiving five quid an article – the first highly regarded general journalist to do this.
Margan then went into advertising, where his mate John Singleton made him creative director at his SPASM agency. Margan came up with stuff such as "Lolly Gobble Bliss Bombs" – a blistering commercial success.
With his brother Don, Margan bought the abandoned DeBeyers vineyard in the Hunter Valley. They planted semillon vines, built a shed and famously dubbed it Chateau Lysaght after the galvo manufacturer. It was the scene of enormous Bacchanalian parties, under a huge print of Botticelli's Birth of Venus over the fireplace. Kids slept in cars outside and friends bunked down for the night in sleeping bags after a day of picking grapes and a night of drinking and eating new foods and wines.
"I was just thrilled by it," he recalled of those nights – and days. "Four o'clock in the afternoon, not a soul around, I'd strip off all my clothes and jump on the tractor and go and yodel down the vine rows, just for no other reason than to feel the freedom of this wonderful life."
The new vineyard's wine promptly won a special recommendation at the Royal Sydney Wine Show.
It was Margan's love of wine that changed his life. It led to his association with the Hunter Valley's vineyards, culture and characters, including Len Evans, Max Lake, John Stanford, Murray Tyrrell, Graham Gregory, Jim Hardy, Douglas Lamb of the infamous "Blackberry Nip" and the daughter who became his second wife, Jenny Lamb. He was also involved in planting the first vines at Dr Max Lake's Lake's Folly in the Hunter.
This experience led to a stint at the Australian Wine Bureau, which had been established by Evans. Before Frank and Len there was only fortified wine – plonk.
In 1969, Margan wrote his memoir, The Grape and I.
It was a very modern work. It was unabashedly, confrontingly out there. The dust cover shows a Margan not much remembered: posh, suave, french-cuffed, coiffed, immaculately suit-and-tied.
In his opening chapter, Margan denied the "official fictions" of the day: the notion that Australia's waves of postwar immigrants changed Australia's deadly boring cuisine and drinking habits. He wrote of how each year 25,000 young Australians returned from jaunts abroad, where they had discovered European table habits.
"We were quite a bit pretentious and often crashing bores about our Trip," he dared to declare. "We spent our time looking for the cheap joints that had a touch of the European atmosphere and scorning the steak-and-eggs eaters and the tiled pubs swilling out beer. We wanted decent food and we wanted to have wine with it, and that created a demand that started today's jet climb in the wine consumption charts.
"It wasn't the migrants – if you care to keep your eyes open, you'll find they have switched to beer, or flagon red wine mixed with lemonade or soda. No, it wasn't them, it was us."
Margan wrote six other books, My Baby Was Blasted, Sweetheart You're A'Luring, A Pictorial History Of Surfing, A Guide to the Hunter Valley, The Pictorial History of Australians at War, and The Hunter Valley: Its Wines, People and History.
His life was never predictable. With Jenny Lamb he left Australia for Bali, where they reinvigorated and ran Bali's famous Hotel Tjampuhan in Ubud.
Returning to Australia in the mid '70s, they bought an old milk bar in West Cessnock – not known for fine food in those days – which they turned into a restaurant, The Cottage. It was there Margan taught himself to cook, even doing an "apprenticeship" at La Rive Gauche in Nice, where he met his third wife, Simone. He went on to open Le Cabanon in Angel Place, Sydney, where he perfected his deadly lobster bisque.
This breathless progress eventually took him back to the Hunter with his partner Barbra. Until his health failed him, he worked at the Margan winery/restaurant complex his son Andrew had established.
No average wine ever carried the Margan family brand.
Like all good print journalists Margan had a love and reverence for words and the disciplined pattern of their use.
He lamented the death of journalism way before its analogue cremation, yet remained loyal to print, reading the Sydney Morning Herald every day until his death.
On the day he died, his daughter Sally discovered that an unrolled copy of that day's Herald near his bed. It was placed on his coffin to be cremated with him.
Many shall never forget this hungry, thirsty, bright mate that his son Andrew best described as "belligerent, obstinate, self-effacingly proud, compassionate, honest and understanding".
Knowing literary gourmands and gluttons will forever thank Frank Margan for helping Australia come such a long way in those fast decades since the wine boom got going in the sherry-sodden '50s.
"Don't worry about the trombone, Frank. You were a beauty."
Frank Margan is survived by his partner Barbra; wives Lois, Jenny and Simone; children Anthony, Sally, Andrew and Mimi; eight grandchildren; sisters Shirley and Adrienne; and brothers Victor and David.