Joe Ilian: Reflections and Tribute

Written by Graham Scott (FM LM)
Saturday, 20 February 2010 10:27
Graham Scott (FM, LM) is a founding and a life member of EDWG

Joe Ilian was the founder of the Eltham & District Winemakers Guild. That makes him Big Cheese and we should all revere his name and influence. There will probably be learned theses written about him in the future detailing his Methuselah like qualities as he ruled the Guild for yonks. "More power to his elbow," we mere mortals muttered in those days. He ruled with a modest assurance that always seemed to end up with the so listed mere mortals doing the work. The man had talent.

Joe wandered into my life after running a Beer Show in Eltham in the old Fire Brigade Hall which, if my geography is correct, was on the Main Road somewhere near where the bus stop outside the Safeway plaza is now. This was in the days when it was verboten to brew beer at home. Can you imagine that, you young whipper snippers? We lived deprived and downtrodden lives in those days and Sergeant Trainor of the local Police wanted to know the names and addresses of all the entries, which Joe in a fit of strange forgetfulness had thrown out! Just the day before. All gone. No evidence. Since I had been one of the lost entries he remembered, he later came over, with a bottle, and suggested that as beer was still a touchy subject for the law how about we form a winemaking group?

We pondered on this for about two bottles (and just between you and me I think my plum was better than his blackberry) and arranged to have a meeting of other like minds, and a workshop to start things off. Joe called the meeting at his house and the workshop was to be held at mine because I had made a wine press. Joe sent out press notices. Don Pease from Research arranged for a load of pears from the Fruit market to be dropped off. Joe thought this was a great way to start the club off and in theory it was. Practicality, however, got in the way.

The pears were straight from the market and were green and hard. You couldn't get juice out of them. The engineers in the group – we seemed to have a surfeit of them in the club then: is it still like that now? – sneered at my press, reckoned that it wasn't putting out enough pressure and stuck a hydraulic car jack in to improve it. This merely smashed the red gum cross arm and the workshop degenerated into a drink fest.

I mention this because what happened then showed Joe at his best. He really wanted that first workshop to have a happy ending. He took the press away for repairs and came back with the beta 2 model, which proceeded to bend up rather than bear down on the pears. Joe was most distressed, waved his arms over his head, threatened to sack some apprentice and came back with beta 3 model, so carefully over-engineered that it could survive a nuclear blast. He was quietly smug about that and he had cause to be. The press still works as he made it. And we did make pear wine as a Guild.

Joe wasn't so interested in make 'pure' wine. His attitude was that the winemaking was the basis for having social fun and the first years of the Guild were fun times. Joe would arrange for us to go on trips to get fruit. He seemed to have 'contacts' all over the country and he could sniff out an isolated winery 20 miles away. He made some good wines himself but it was the sharing of the experience and the wines themselves that gave him most satisfaction. He would always ring to say he had a good supply of fruit and we would all turn up at somebody's back yard to pick plums or the blackberries coming through the back fence. Generous to a fault both of time and produce Joe established the framework for the Guild: Give and you'll get back heaps. We have him to thank for the tone and spirit of the Guild.

Joe had the personality of an avuncular imp. You could always trust him to look after everyone, but he had that gleam in his eye and a soft line in cryptic comments which kept you wondering when he would break out and be really mischievous.

Over the years, changes in thinking and the circumstances of members meant changes in the way we worked and we started to specialize in grape wine and fruit wine focused groups. It was Joe's simple ideal that it was all supposed to be fun that kept us all together. That there was never any suggestion of splitting apart is due to Joe's ability to run the Guild so that every one felt they had a place.

I think the moment that encapsulated Joe's role in the Guild came at our 21st Birthday dinner. Joe was being given an award and he stood there while his citation was read out. He was beaming but he really wasn't looking or listening to the citation. He was looking at us. It was the fact that what he had started had developed in the way he had wanted and had come to the point where the camaraderie of the Guild was not only there for all to see, but was the mainstay of why we were there.

Joe was our muse, our mentor and our guide and the Guild is made in his image.

Last Updated on Saturday, 20 February 2010 10:37

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