Helen Mortensen Extract

“Mellowed with age and shaded by huge pine trees, with a pattern of interesting planes and angles in its galvanised iron roof, Pfeiffer’s winery sits on a high embankment above a sweeping bend in the Sunday Creek near Wahgunyah.

This romantic place has been the scene of human follies, tragedy and traditional winemaking. In modern times it represents a re-affirmation of faith in Rutherglen’s wine industry by two people, willing to stake their own future in the district they love.

A French community settled this area of Wahgunyah. The winery was built in 1895 by Monsieur Joseph Gassies, whose vineyards were on the opposite banks of Sunday Creek where Pfeiffer’s Sunday Creek vineyard now flourishes. Next door at the Tuileries vineyard lived Camille Reau, who is remembered as the last Rutherglen winemaker whose employees crushed grapes with their feet.  There was no Sunday Creek bridge in those days. In order to get to his vineyard Monsieur Joseph Gassies was obliged to pass through Camille Reau’s land, to use a safe crossing. This arrangement proved satisfactory until a serious rift between the two neighbours led to Camille Reau demanding that Gassies find his own way across the creek. Monsieur Joseph Gassies devised a flying fox, then a primitive punt using a row-boat and a pulley.  Almost inevitably there was an accident, and Gassies was believed to have drowned. There were no witnesses and surprisingly, no mention of an inquest appeared in the newspapers of the day.

Gassies’ winery was sold and during a period of strong demand for fortified wines it was enlarged by the noted Rutherglen partnership of Masterton and Dobbin, to become a distillery for the production of fortifying spirit. A brick house was built nearby for Charles Leonard Dobbin, and now serves as a comfortable home for the Pfeiffer family. The distillery was sold to B. Seppelt and Sons in 1942. Seppelt continued to distil fortifying spirit here until 1979.

In 1984, the sale of Seppelt interests at Rutherglen offered Chris and Robyn Pfeiffer an opportunity to return to the district.  Chris had worked as a winemaker for Lindemans at Corowa, and they both loved the area.  Chris first brought Robyn to see the Old Distillery on Good Friday, 1984.  He could not have chosen a worse day.  Rain cascaded through the distillery’s rust-damaged roof, and drenched an untidy mess below.  Loose sheets of iron flapped in the wind, making a din that echoed eerily through the empty cellars.  Even the ghost of Monsieur Joseph Gassies – which disturbs visitors from time to time – declined to appear on that uncharacteristic autumn day.

Right from the start, Chris could see past this terrible mess into a brighter future for this grand old establishment. He managed to enthuse Robyn and, on the second try, a bank manager.  Later, looking at Robyn’s “before and after” photographs, the bank manager admitted that had he personally inspected the property he may not have approved the loan!

April 26, 1984 is a day that Robyn Pfeiffer will never forget. She recalls a feeling of absolute unreality as driving past the distillery on her way to the auction, she saw nothing to reveal that within hours, a split-second decision may turn that peaceful scene into the focal point of her life.  Unaware and unconcerned, a team of pickers harvested Muscat grapes in the old Tuileries vineyards next door.  Backed only by bank finance and Robyn’s support Chris Pfeiffer was nevertheless well-qualified to start his own winery.  At the auction Chris cast the winning bids for the old distillery, the house and an area of vineyards and grazing land across the creek.  Robyn was immediately struck with a frightening uncertainty.  How would the old-established Rutherglen winemakers feel about newcomers?  Would they be welcomed, or rejected as interlopers?  Within minutes her fears turned to astonishment, then gratitude as one after the other the winemakers of Rutherglen pumped Chris’ hand, slapped his shoulders and welcomed him into their midst.  As the realisation that the distillery was now their own finally sunk in, offers of practical assistance in getting started rang in the Pfeiffer’s ears like joyous bells.

In true Rutherglen tradition, these were no empty gestures. Just as this close-knit community had so warmly welcomed and helped Reg and Jean Buller in the 1920’s, they also helped Chris and Robyn with vineyard equipment and winery facilities until the old distillery could be re-commissioned as a working winery.  Chris and Robyn started from scratch. The old buildings had to be cleared of rubbish, cleaned up and repaired. Equipment was purchased as soon as possible. Much of this came from Lindemans at Corowa – large oak casks, steel tanks, a press, a crusher and pumps; good quality equipment that was already very familiar to Chris.  Chris’s favourite item from Lindemans was a David Brown tractor. He was sweating on this at Lindemans’ clearing sale because – in Chris’ opinion – it was the best tractor there. Prospective buyers had been starting it all day without any trouble, and Chris’ stress levels soared as the auctioneer, in a grand statement, called to the Lindemans mechanic “Start the tractor up, Alf!” And, Chris recollects with delight, the tractor would not start. “C’mon on Alf, start the tractor up!”  Still, the tractor would not start. Bidding was far from brisk and shortly afterwards, a very pleased Chris Pfeiffer jump-started his favourite work-horse and drove it to Wahgunyah.  Not all the equipment could be purchased second-hand. New stainless steel storage tanks were bought from a Griffith manufacturer and each year, new oak barrels have been purchased for use in the production of table wines. Oak storage adds to the wine’s quality, and its cost. This is a significant expense for all winemakers but despite the added expense Chris still sees oak storage as important in maintaining a consistent product.  Chardonnay stays in new casks for about nine months, after which the barrels are used for maturing red wines.  After three years or so they become storage for fortified wines.

After a tremendous effort, the Pfeiffer’s opened their tasting room in 1985, and were fully operational at the distillery by 1986.  As chief fortified winemaker at Lindemans Chris became guardian of an historic legacy of old blending wines within that company, but in deciding to make his own way at Wahgunyah he had to start at the very beginning, developing a new legacy of base wines which have been continued at the old distillery ever since.

“A commitment to winemaking must be long-term – this is not something one can easily slide into and work hard at for three or four years”, says Chris. “The French have a saying that you plant grape-vines for your grand-children and I think this is especially true in this area. Although we make top quality table wines most of us still want to make fortified as well. So, not only do you plant vines for your grand-children, but you start laying down stocks of blending wines for your great-grand-children as well.”