Bill Christophersen: Tribute and Memory

Written by Graham Scott
Sunday, 31 January 2010 06:11

The award was introduced at the 2008 Show to commemorate Bill Christophersen, one of the Guild longest serving supporters. As a Judge and educator, Bill has had a huge influence in shaping the direction and the development of the Guild and its social and wine making culture. Bill is one of a handful of personalities to whom the Guild will forever be indebted.

This fine Memory and tribute was written by Graham Scott (FM, LM), a founding and a life member of EDWG

Gather round all you young whippersnapper winemakers. I'm going to tell you about the guy who gave the Eltham Wine Guild its first real taste of standards. I'm talking about Bill Christophersen, vigneron, professional winemaker, top wine judge, great artisan of wine and life long loyal supporter and educator of Eltham home winemakers
Bill established his vineyard and winery - Strathewan Hills – at Strathewan in the Diamond Valley north of Melbourne Victoria in the 60's or 70's. He succeeded in making his vineyard and his wines – especially his Tribal Elder Shiraz - known across the globe.

Right from the inception of the Eltham Guild in 1969, Bill became a loyal mentor to its members and a judge at its annual shows. .

Bill's influence has been profound but it was a cultural shock to us of the old bucolic school of winemaking. Bill would have none of our 'bucket chemistry' or 'dash of that' in our winemaking. Why the man even wanted us to WRITE DOWN what we did! I tell you, oh liquor loving latecomers, we were shocked when Bill descended on us.

I was growing grapes in the back yard in Eltham and happy to work with Joe Ilian in our slovenly ways. We were artists. No. We were artistes and here was Bill muttering about the amount of what we added. He didn't seem to cotton on to our idea of flair.

But he made good wine. Bloody good wine. So we began listening to him and that led us into another world.

Where I was growing backyard grapes, so was Bill, but his backyard seemed to be half of Strathewan at that time. And where we simply went 'Shoo Shoo' to birds and ran around flapping our arms, Bill quietly went about enclosing his whole vineyard in netting. It looked impressive and what is more it did what he wanted – saving his grapes for him. And that let us to another of his secrets; he didn't have many grapes on each vine. Where we pruned for quantity – lots of grapes pleeese! – Bill savaged his vines to keep the crop down. We thought he was crazy, but he made bloody good wine from those grapes.

We held some memorable meetings and we even ran the Wine Show up there at Bill's vineyard. They were happy gatherings and family events and Bill and Joan were so caring for everyone who came. The happy inclusiveness of the Eltham Wine Guild owes a lot to those gatherings. Bill and Joan helped set the tone of the Guild and we thank them for that. And so should you, oh keepers of the EDWG flame. Guard that tenderly.

I remember watching him make a batch of sparkling base wine one day from a crop of Semillon. First the crushing was little more than scratching as far as I could see, and the pressing was simple twist of the lever. One drop of the piston and it was done. Where was the juice? Well most of it remained in the berries and they were slopping around like so many green sheep's eyes on the floor of the basket, not squeezed so tight they were embedded into each other like I did it. But that base wine was a pure drop of elixir and he made good wine from it. Bloody good wine.

We learnt a lot from Bill, mostly that less is more and always better and that it all started in the vineyard. But getting such information was a tad difficult because Bill was such a nice quiet guy. He kind of slips under the radar, always ready with a smile and a droll quip. Bill is one of the people whose judgements on wine were clear, direct and supportive. Whatever you did wrong – and in his eyes I'm sure I was a retard – he had a way of using that to build on. If you had the privilege of getting Bill as a wine judge you will know how carefully he responded to the good things in your wine and led you to understand what you could do to improve it.

The best way to find out what Bill was doing was to get hold of a bottle of his Tribal Elder. The wine is just as you would expect from such a perfectionist, concentrated, redolent of the grape and with layer upon layer of flavours and aromas that sing like sirens in the mind.

Did I tell you, thou of the new tribe, that he makes bloody good wine?

The night after we learned that he had died Shirley and I opened a bottle of Bill’s Shiraz 2005. It seemed the right thing to do. And it was. It followed one of the rules of life of an old sage, see Rule 5 below, and it made us happy to be with Bill for a while. Let’s have a look at how Bill lived some of those rules.

Rule 1. Find a place you trust and then try trusting it for a while.

Roaming over the Strathewan Hills with him on that cruddy old tractor fixed him in his place. He was happy to be part of the ongoing change in the land. He could talk for hours about his ideas for changing the vineyard. There were always new ideas to try.

Rule 2: Consider everything is an experiment.

There are few closures in life; mostly it is like looking at the end of a wild coaxial cable and trying to see where any of the bits go or where they came from. And then you get Bill, who saw life as seamless. Bill could awaken you to a new experience, such as trying a new grape wine. Look at the way he introduced us to Red Veltliner. It is really a bit of a shock for an Ocker drinker to have a glass of white wine in his hand named Red Veltliner. And it wasn’t only the newness of the wine, it was the way he could change your thinking of what a wine might be like. Bill could make you rejig your fondest principles and change the way you looked at the world. Bill made us all feel that what we did and who we were was important. He made you feel good about what you were trying.

Rule 3: Nothing is a mistake. There is no win and no fail.

There is only make. And didn’t he make! The Shiraz 2005 is a heightened experience. Forget about fruitiness; Bills seems to have distilled the essence of the grape, it is so intense. Bill taught us to respect the grape and it will respond generously. And in his life he showed how that worked for humans too.

Rule 4: If you work it will lead to something. It’s the people who do the work who eventually catch on to things.

Bill was tireless. Thin as an underfed weasel he still had all the go of steroid laden puppy. And so enthusiastic, he could draw you into the discussion or the action without you being aware that you were being swept up. Ask Joan. Times without number she was out there pruning – under direction of course – and when she complained of a sore arm he threatened to give her a miner’s light so she could catch up.

I once found myself helping him bottle and cork a barrel of Shiraz one day. Stuck in that shed of his he had the barrel up on the forks on his tractor gravity feeding to his bottler on a table and with me beside him on the corker. He had me going flat out, so much so that I only realized half way through that things weren’t going to Occupational Health and Safety procedures. Firstly we were working under the barrel. Secondly, it was only on the forks of the front of the tractor. Thirdly, this was the same cruddy tractor that roamed the Strathewan Hills and as I recall it had leaking hydraulic lines. You know that stuff which is supposed to keep the forks up? Yes I did learn a lot from Bill, and one of them was to check before starting anything with him. You never knew where it would all lead.

Rule 5: Be happy when you can manage it. Enjoy yourself. It’s later than you think.

You could catch happiness from Bill. He had that infectious enthusiasm which made all his work, all his life a fun time. Even when his Pinot didn’t work out the way he wanted it to he could look at it as a work in progress, an experiment. See rule 4 above. Above all Bill loved a life that involved his family and while his focus was on the work he did the purpose was to make the home a safe haven for them all.

Bill was dealt a bad hand at the end and I am sure that he felt there was more that he could do. But he could look back on his life and point to happiness as he did in his last poem:

Green grass stubble

An old corner post

Life, loves and rivers are for crossing

Peace. At last.

Last Updated on Saturday, 20 February 2010 10:36

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