Once a judge, now a Mentor
By Coral Cooksley
A love of wine as a hobby turned into a passionate career for Rutherglen wine-maker Chris Pfeiffer (OAM) who worked alongside wine industry buffs before venturing into his own wine making business thirty-six years ago when with his wife Robyn purchased the “Old Distillery” winery in Rutherglen.
Drawn to an agricultural degree at Sydney University after leaving high school, Chris discovered an interest in wine where he then chose to specialise in viticulture with further studies in winemaking while working at Lindeman Wines where he became the chief fortified winemaker.
“The rest is, as they say, history,” Chris said.
An impressive journey as a wine judge as well followed throughout his career.
Wine judging, which took the viticulturist and wine-maker around the country, began with an associate position at the prestigious Royal Melbourne Wine Show in 1980 and followed six years later with the appointment as a judge in the Rutherglen Wine Show – the longest running Wine Show in Australia which turns 132 this year.
Becoming chief judge three years later, Chris headed up the judging panel as chairman – a dedicated role which spanned more than three decades before he retired from the post last year.
At the time Chris joined the Rutherglen Wine Show as judge, the event included a fortified wine section under its umbrella.
With a move to split the two, he created the Australian Fortified Wine Show, helping to place the spotlight on the world famous fortified wines in their Australian spiritual home where the event has attracted the largest selection of entries of any wine shows around the nation.
“This important step was the foundation for taking this category into the marketplace and helped promote it,” Chris said.
A string of judging positions as well as chair of other judging panels have taken Chris around Australia.
“Being a wine judge in any wine show is a great honour let alone to be asked to be Chair of judging panels,” he said.
For Chris, among judging highlights for wines shown in the Australian Fortified Wine Show have always been the outstanding fortified Muscats and Topaques. “Where else in the world will you see such a magnificent range of wines with nearly all of them from our own backyard? “It has been a privilege to be trusted with the judging of these wines, I never tire of them and they are living history.”
Helping to improve winemaking in the country, Chris began a seminar program as part of the Rutherglen Wine Show offering valuable topics for the industry which took off with great interest. “I brought specialist international wine judges to the show so they could contribute to the program which is extremely popular and drew attendees from around Australia.”
Chris also started a judge training program as part of both Rutherglen Wine Shows. “Each year we invite people with potential to act as associate judges and we nurture them where positions are offered to some of the brightest students from Charles Sturt and Adelaide Universities who excel in the tasting program.
“I have also invited judges who have little experience with fortified wine so we can expose them to a world class range of these wines.
“As part of the show, I also initiated a masterclass on how to judge these wines which continues.”
With a belief of how important it is to give back to the industry because it gives so much to its members, Chris chaired the Victorian Wine Industry Association (VWIA) on two separate occasions and sat on the Board for a number of years. His commitment and dedication for years of voluntary work was recognised with a Distinguished Service Award from the VWIA in 2007. “If you wish to have a say on industry direction then you need to be involved and I was involved in the development of two strategic plans for the Victorian Wine Industry which was a great privilege,” Chris said.
A member of Australian Grape and Wine – a national association of producers which supports the industry with leadership, strategy and advocacy, Chris is on a committee which represents Victorian small winemakers. “It is the same, if you want to have a say in industry direction you need to take an active part.”
Devoting his time to the industry where he has seen significant growth during his tenure, Chris has sat on boards and committees of a number of other Australian wine organisations as well as being chairman. “Hopefully my contribution will be seen as a good part of my legacy to the industry where I’ve helped with education about fortified wines so we develop a better appreciation for them in the wine world. “Wine is a great beverage with lots of interest offering a smorgasbord of flavours, is sociable and best enjoyed in company. “And when you make wine, no two vintages are the same – it is both challenging and rewarding.
Awarded an Order of Australia Medal (OAM) for service to the Australian Wine Industry eight years ago, Chris said it was a privilege to give back to his industry which has been so kind to him.