It is a long way from trekking through the bush in Western Australia’s Pilbara region, learning bushcraft from your WW2 commando dad, to making wine in Barfold. Craig Aitken, winemaker at Barfold Estate, Heathcote’s most southern winery, took a long while to make this journey. A science degree led him to a thirty seven year career in the IT industry, where he met his wife Sandra who is now Barfold Estate’s viticulturalist.
In his mid-twenties Craig completed a twelve month Certificate in Wine Service. “We studied winemaking, wine service, wine styles and wine appreciation. I particularly enjoyed writing my final examination. We had a continuously filled wine glass throughout the exam. One of the things we learned on that course was that you should always buy at least a case or two of the wines you like. That way you can progressively sample bottles until you establish that the wine is at its peak.” Now a winemaker, he thinks this is an excellent rule to follow.
Craig was a late starter in drinking alcohol. “Up to around twenty five, I was a very keen diver. But, alcohol and diving don’t mix. I was spear fishing and free diving to depths up to one hundred and twenty feet, as well as scuba diving. My family didn’t drink much at home, although my mother, after a trip to Italy, used to have wine with her evening meals.”
On graduating from the University of WA, Craig and a friend set up an abalone diving business. “We did some pioneering work surveying WA abalone beds. We subsequently dived for abalone, selling our catch to a local cannery. But diving is cold work so I joined IBM, initially as a programmer. I’d done some computing at university so I decided to do a post-graduate course in computer science in parallel with work at IBM.”
Craig saw snow for the first time when he was twenty four, and soon became addicted to it. In 1972 he moved closer to the ski-fields, to Melbourne, and also took up hang gliding. This led to a term as National President of Hang Gliding Australia, and running the Victorian Hang Gliding Association. “My main focus was working on improving safety after a spate of hang gliding fatalities. The Victorian government tried to ban hang gliding but we discovered the states had ceded their rights ( under the Australian Constitution ) over air space to the federal government, so Victoria had no say on that issue!”
Sandra’s working life, after finishing a science degree, involved many roles in IT, from providing technical support to the marketing team, product management, sales, and finally account management. She left IBM to have their son, Stuart, who is now at University. It was on a “really bad day at the office whilst working as an account manager for a large international corporation ” that she decided to do something different with the rest of her life. “I had to decide on what to do. I realised that I didn’t want to work in the rat race any longer. I wanted to grow something. I didn’t even care what I grew but it was important that Craig be part of the journey. We decided to grow shiraz wine grapes. Shiraz was his favourite at the time.
“When we started to look for the right block of land we thought it would take a couple of weekends, but it took two years! I enrolled in a viticulture degree and Craig enrolled in wine technology, both at the University of Melbourne. By 1998 we had purchased our property. In 2002 we had our first crop. Our first Barfold Estate Shiraz, made in our tiny Port Melbourne courtyard, was aged in the lounge room on our pale green carpet. Craig won a gold medal for it. Overnight he was transformed from an IT consultant to a winemaker. By 2003 we had relocated from Port Melbourne to Barfold,” says Sandra.
Looking back at their corporate work experience, both Craig and Sandra are making use of their project management skills, sales, and marketing experience. “Our wine is available at retail outlets and restaurants. We have also developed good networks through direct marketing,” says Sandra. “A good proportion of our cellar door customers are locals. We enjoy the relationships we build with our customers, and welcome visitors to our cellar door.
“Being a winemaker or a viticulturalist is a rewarding job. We love to see the variability between wines and varieties in every vintage. Our philosophy at Barfold Estate is simple. We carefully manage our vineyard to ensure we get the best grapes. This enables us to make really good wines, which we hope all will enjoy with as much pleasure as we have had creating them.”