A ROOM WITH A VIEW
With an eye for clean design, functionality and attention to every detail, Jo and Arnie Pizzini have turned their long-held vision for a cellar door capturing views of the upper King Valley, into a reality.
Jo and Arnie Pizzini have turned their longheld vision for a cellar door capturing views of the upper King Valley, into a reality.
CLOUDS are rolling in over the hills into the Upper King Valley and from the balcony at the cellar door of Chrismont, it feels like you could just about reach out and touch them.
The striking horizontal structure with its expanse of windows can be seen clearly as you wind your way up the driveway past the patchwork rows of vines where grape varieties including prosecco, arneis and sangiovese grow.
It’s an almost monumental statement in this relatively rural wine region, which until recently had been home to more humble cellar doors; often simply extensions of the family home.
And that’s exactly how it began when Arnie Pizzini bought the Cheshunt cattle farm around 25 years ago where he established a new vineyard.
He didn’t start making wine until 1996 and the first cellar door opened for Easter in 2000 in an old garage below the house he still shares with wife Jo and their nine-year-old daughter, Sofia.
Jo said the couple always considered the garage cellar door a temporary arrangement – a way to get started – until the time was right to expand their operation.
They began by testing the waters and opening a cellar door in nearby Milawa, considering how they might include a restaurant space there, but Jo said there was no site that offered the spectacular views of their own property.
“It got to the stage where you are either content with where you are, put the whole place on the market and go and do something else, or invest to add on experiences to your core brand and get more people on site,” she said.
“After doing the exercise and weighing everything up, it made sense to do it here.”
The vision for the new cellar door had been brewing for some time in the imagination of both Jo and Arnie, who were on the same page right from the start.
The elevated site chosen could have been the location of a new home, but the couple decided they would rather be able to enjoy the spectacular views with their guests during their working day than retire to it in the dark of night.
The vision came to fruition after a chance meeting with a couple from Torquay staying in their on-site guest house accommodation five years ago, who turned out to be designers and builders of homes in the style they envisaged.
The materials would include polished concrete, timber, locally sourced stone and most importantly, lots of glass.
Jo said as someone who grew up on a tobacco farm surrounded by kilns and corrugated iron, she was ready to leave the past behind and take a bold new direction.
“We are all about the view up here, so it needed to be minimal and have clean lines,” she said.
“We didn’t want to interfere with what the view had to offer.”
Before the couple left, she asked them for a business card, and after a few weeks’ consideration approached Mark Gleeson of MG Design and Building about whether he was interested in designing their dream commercial premises.
A painstakingly thorough process followed over the next 12 months, involving touring a number of completed properties, meeting the owners and discussing their specific requirements.
The structure of close to 1000 square metres with a 40 metre long balcony needed to incorporate a cellar door and restaurant with guest amenities, office space, warehousing and a commercial kitchen.
“It also needed spaces that really worked well for us – and they do – allowing us to seat 150 people at full capacity, including wedding celebrations, but to also host smaller, more intimate affairs,” Jo said.
“It was ‘a given’ that it needed a balcony, and the outdoor dining has been really popular in the warmer months.
“We love people, and we love food and wine, and we’re making so many wine varieties that are food friendly - so it’s great that we can now showcase them with a selection of fresh, simple, seasonal dishes.”
Jo said despite being warned by many that building can be a nightmare, she found the entire process a pleasure, and is pleased to have been able to involve many local tradespeople and businesses. >>
"It was 'a given' that it needed a balcony, and the outdoor dining has been really popular in the warmer months." - Jopizzini
>> The quality and obvious attention to detail has not gone unnoticed by visitors and it’s something Jo attributes to their careful and considered choice of partners, from the builder Steve Graves of Bright Alpine Builders, to the cabinet makers, painters, tilers and artisan stone mason. “We really had the dream team,” she said. “Everything you see and even the things you can’t see are the work of the talented local people involved in the build, who we managed to keep busy for 12 months.”
The idea was to create a timeless structure that would hold its own in decades to come, which nestled into the landscape and not only framed the spectacular valley view but brought it inside through expansive double-glazed windows.
Jo said the build was enjoyable to be a part of, and the completed building exceeded all their expectations.
“The secret to success is to be really on the same page from start to finish, to have clear, concise and open communications at all times, and to be really content with your plans,” she said.
“The decision (to do this) wasn’t made lightly – we put a lot of thought and time into this because we are here for the long term.”
While the build is essentially complete, there are plans for additional landscaping works and to freshen up the older buildings on the property, eventually extending the accommodation for guests and office space as Chrismont grows.
The new cellar door will soon celebrate its first birthday and it will give Jo and Arnie an opportunity to reflect on a full 12 months of operation.
They say right from the start they were blown away by the local support they received, with many of their visitors coming from Wangaratta, Benalla, Mansfield, Albury/wodonga and Shepparton.
A former teacher, Jo is inextricably linked to the food offering in the restaurant – her cousin Giovanna Jones is in the kitchen creating unapologetically uncomplicated dishes inspired by their southern Italian heritage, with the odd nod to Arnie’s northern Italian background.
While as a child, Jo may have wished for a vegemite sandwich, she said her lunchbox usually contained Panini with eggplant parmigiana, homemade salami, Italian cheese and in the wintertime, pasta or minestrone.
“We were blessed to grow up in households where Sicilian cuisine was served every day and looking back now, we were the lucky ones,” she laughs.
“Between us we are extracting many fantastic recipes from our mothers – they don’t have anything written down – so we are trying to be a little more precise, collating dishes and developing the menu from season to season.”
There is also a “work in progress” larder stocking the family’s preserved and pickled produce like eggplant and zucchini, marmellata and olives, which have proved to be a popular menu item.
“We’re trying to extend the larder where we can, so people can take them home and enjoy with family and friends,” said Jo.
“The feedback we’re getting is that people like the freshness and simplicity – which isn’t overworked and which follows the seasons – and we’re bringing a lot of the wonderful recipes we enjoyed growing up.”
The menu is likely to include Sicilian chicken with golden raisins and pinenuts, which might be enjoyed with Arnie’s La Zona Pinot Grigio or Pinot Gris, or slow cooked beef cheeks with smoked herb mashed potato matched with a savoury, medium bodied red from their La Zona range like Tempranillo, Barbera or Sangiovese.
Wine matches are suggestions only; the couple believing guests should feel free to be led by their own palates and choose whatever they like, while the free flowing space between dining areas and the cellar door mean diners can taste before, after or between courses.
Guests are also making the most of the onsite accommodation, sharing lunch in the restaurant before exploring the many other attractions the region has to offer.
Jo said it was important for the couple to be hands on and working side by side with their staff, and she said over the months a “beautiful team” has emerged behind the scenes and at the front of house.
She said it has also been great to hear that other businesses in the valley have been getting busier since they opened – something that they suspected would happen – as new attractions complement each other and draw more visitors in.
“We’re enjoying the journey and it gives us confidence moving forward as a business and as a region, that the next five to ten years up this way are going to be exciting times,” Jo said.
It seems the stars have truly aligned for the couple who, along with winemaker Warren Proft, have celebrated two of their best vintages in succession in 2015 and 2016.
The popularity of the region’s Italian varietals also continues to gain momentum, and Chrismont will release a Fiano to their La Zona range in spring.
Like its Sagrantino, Arnie said it will be a limited edition and only available from the cellar door, which will give visitors another reason to visit, to taste and to stay and watch the clouds roll in.
“Sometimes we take it for granted, but then you come up here on a day like today and watch as the sun comes out from behind the clouds,” he said.
“The view is always changing – and I tell you what, at any time of year it can be pretty special.”
"We love people, and we love food and wine, and we're making so many wine varieties that are food friendly - so it's great that we can now showcase them with a selection of fresh, simple, seasonal dishes." - Jopizzini
OUTLOOK / The new cellar door floats above the landscape with windows that capture the changing seasons.