The ‘light bulb’ moment that piqued Pete Bissell’s interest in the wine sector was so subtle, it almost passed unnoticed.
‘It was 1974 and I was 14 years old. I was stuck indoors on a rainy day and was bored, so I turned on the television and started flicking through the channels. I stopped at a documentary about Chateau Mouton-Rothschild wine estate in Bordeaux and its elevation to first growth in 1973. Eric de Rothschild was discussing different vintages. He said 1945 was considered the best year, but he preferred 1949. It struck me as amazing that you could make something that was enjoyed by people for decades afterwards.’
Years later, Pete returned to that memory when he was soul searching about his future career direction.
Pete Bissell's contribution to the wine sector was recognised recently with the 2018 ASVO Winemaker of the Year Award
‘I had started a PhD in Immunology and I loved science and the adrenalin-filled world of medical research. But I had already put in 2.5 years of study and had another 2.5 years to go, and in the back of my mind, I still thought winemaking sounded interesting. So I told my supervisor that I wanted to take a year off and go to Bordeaux to experience a vintage.’
There was no turning back for Pete.
‘I loved everything about that vintage in Bordeaux – from the history, to the science and creativity of the wine sector. I knew I wanted to become a winemaker.’
And so began an illustrious career that has taken Pete from Bordeaux, to the south of France, Moldova and back to Australia’s iconic Coonawarra.
Pete’s journey recently culminated with him being named ASVO Winemaker of the Year.
A stalwart of the wine sector, Pete wears many hats – including that of winemaker, author, researcher, innovator and wine show judge.
He has endured – and enjoyed – 38 vintages. ‘Every vintage is different and I like the intellectual and physical challenge of adapting to each vintage to make the best wines you can, especially now, with the challenge of ameliorating the effects of climate change.’
Thirty of Pete’s vintages have been in the Coonawarra region, where he is chief winemaker at Balnaves of Coonawarra; foundation member of the Limestone Coast Wine Show; Chair of the Limestone Coast Grape and Wine Council; and a member of the Limestone Coast Technical Committee, which coordinates the delivery of research and extension activities in the region. Pete is also the lead author of the Red Winemaking chapter of Australian Winemaking.
Pete’s talent for innovation was particularly noted by the ASVO judges.
‘Pete has been a keen innovator both in the winery and the vineyard and is eager to share his knowledge. He has also been involved with the development and commercialisation of berry sorting equipment that provides considerable cost advantages. These qualities encapsulate the ASVO Winemaker of the Year Award’, said Wendy Cameron, Chair of the award selection committee.
As for Pete, he says he’s chuffed with the award.
‘I love the fact that winemaking is science and art combined. It weaves the skills of engineering, microbiology, chemistry and aesthetics with those of structure, poise, balance and shape. In some ways, it is like creating music, each wine is unique and reflects a time and place.’
‘I feel honoured to receive this award at the later stage of my career, because it is not for one wine or one thing, but recognises my contribution as a whole. And that makes me very proud.’