Established in 1980, Chrismont is the culmination of two generations of grape growing and winemaking in Victoria’s beautiful King Valley, whose wines today celebrate the traditions and way of life of the family’s home and Italian heritage.
The Chrismont story began with the immigration of young farmer Arnold Pizzini to Australia in 1953. His home in the mountainous Trentino region of Northern Italy was idyllic agricultural land, which he worked with his father and nine siblings, farming mixed crops including grapes.
Following the Second World War, Arnaldo migrated to Australia and later settled in King Valley, where the real opportunity of the time lay in its booming tobacco industry. Arnold worked the fields with a goal of securing his own land, which he found in the upper reaches of King Valley.
Winemaking in those days was limited to small backyard production satisfying the thirst of the vibrant Italian community forged during post-war immigration.
Son Arnie inherited his father’s work ethic at a young age, helping out on the farms. It was a successful family unit that at one stage was the largest tobacco producer in the Southern Hemisphere.
After hard fought success in the 1960s, new government legislation saw the collapse of the Victorian tobacco industry, rendering Arnold’s farms virtually worthless.
With an uncertain future, it was Arnie – embarking on his own path after leaving school – who suggested growing grapes, just as his father and grandfather had done in Italy.
One of the region’s leading winemakers at the time deemed the Cheshunt property ideal vineyard land and a ten-year supply contract was sealed, with the first plantings of Barbera, Riesling and Chardonnay in 1984.
The vineyards expanded gradually, based on growing demand. That security allowed experimental plantings of vines that had never been grown locally, yet were mainstays of popular Mediterranean wines.
With growing regional production, Arnie ventured one step further, taking the grapes he grew to make his own table wines that he believed honest to the Mediterranean varieties they were contracted to grow and market them under the family label, Chrismont.
The first vintage was an experiment made by contract winemaker, Warren Proft. It was a critical and commercial success that led to Warren becoming custodian of Chrismont’s estate fruit and winery built at the Cheshunt property in 2004.
In late 2015 Chrismont opened the doors on a new state-of-the-art wine, food and events complex at its Cheshunt vineyard property.
Named the Chrismont Cellar Door, Restaurant and Larder, this architecturally-designed space brings all-day dining and a modern face to a region fondly known for its tobacco kilns, rustic cellar doors and weekend lunches.
For Arnie and wife Jo, it’s the realisation of a 20-year dream to develop a natural plateau on the estate into a destination that brings together Chrismont’s contemporary winemaking and individual style of King Valley hospitality, built on flavour, generosity and personality from Arnie’s northern (Trentino) and Jo’s southern (Sicilian) Italian heritage.
It’s ultimately a centerpiece taking Chrismont and the upper King Valley to a whole new level.
And with the endorsement of the Victorian Government through a $150,000 Grant from its $1billion Regional Growth Fund into the enterprise, Arnie and Jo’s dream will provide a significant injection into the economy of northeast Victoria through the creation of new hospitality and service jobs and its ongoing commitment to work with local services and tradesmen.
Arnie and wife Jo live on the estate property with daughter Sofia, sharing their hospitality with visitors, family and vineyard workers alike.
Growing up on the family’s tobacco farms, Arnie learnt the intricacies of horticulture from a young age. He never entertained the idea following his father Arnaldo into the tobacco industry, not least because the industry was drying up by the time he left school.
He enrolled to study horticulture at university, and gave himself a gap year in Melbourne to sow his own wild oats. It was the late 1970s, and the Australian wine industry was growing apace, which sparked Arnie’s interest in viticulture.
After considerable research into the prospect of grape growing in the Upper King Valley, Arnie set his focus on growing grapes on the family’s Cheshunt and Whitfield properties.
He contacted the region’s largest winery, Brown Brothers, with a proposal that resulted in a 10-year growing contract. He never did start his Horticultural Science degree, and went on to live his father’s motto: “you learn best from your back pocket.”
He started planting on a block of land at Whitfield, and continued to work on the tobacco farms for another six years to pay for the vines, trellising and additional labour.
Without formal experience, Arnie sought advice from experts in the field. He was tutored by Brown Brothers’ leading viticulturist, who had a vested interest in the quality of his fruit. He also travelled to established regions in Australia and Italy to gain hands-on experience, and undertook study visits with leading viticulturist Dr Richard Smart.
In 1984, Arnie planted Australia’s first commercial Barbera vineyard, which marked the introduction of the variety to the region that is today a mainstay of Chrismont.
Arnie and Arnold continued to grow tobacco until 1987, when they made the decision to focus solely on wine grape growing.
Regular travel to Italy to meet producers in regions with similar climate and soil types opened his eyes to new opportunities with experimental varieties.
Along the way, Arnie consulted experienced viticulturists to assist in the establishment of the vineyards with best practice techniques. It was a steep learning curve that now sees him respected as one of the region’s leading viticulturists in his own right, known for pushing boundaries.
With the establishment of King Valley Wines in 1994, Arnie worked at the front line of winemaking, guided by a talented contract winemaker, Warren Proft.
The combination of Arnie’s innovative approach to viticulture, and Warren’s insatiable appetite for new winemaking techniques from different parts of the world clicked, and remains a partnership at the forefront of Chrismont today.
Arnie’s spirit of adventure and commitment to exploring unchartered territory with wine has been instrumental in positioning King Valley as a leader in experimental varietals.