Rooted to the land, like his vines




13-8-1930 16-8-2011


ROBERT Ritchie, who successfully pioneered cool climate viticulture in Victoria where four generations of his family had grazed sheep and cattle for more than a century, has died of motor neurone disease at his home, Beolite. He was 71.

Ritchie used a bulldozer to transform part of the family property, Delatite, to establish his vines, with the produce soon winning international recognition.

He became a multiple prize-winning premium winemaker, scoring three Gold Medals in 1982 and the trophy for best Victorian dry white wine in 1983 at the Royal Melbourne Show. Later, he won gold against the world, in New York, for his red blend.

His passion for grapes and wine was matched by his love for guns he had assembled an awesome armoury before giving much of it up to John Howard's buy-back. He also accumulated a collection of army trucks that proved maddening in their reluctance to start.

Like many farmers, he had strong views on life and the country, especially politics.

He was the second son of Robert and Sylvia Ritchie, of Mansfield, and as was the custom of the day, a nanny and later a governess helped raise him at Delatite Station. At age 9, he was sent to Geelong Grammar School with his younger brother David, to join elder brother Geoffrey. There he became a house captain and a notable sportsman a determined cricketer and a force to be reckoned with as a back pocket on the football field.

He read literature and the classics, delighting in the study of Roman and Greek civilisations, and went on to study at the Royal Agricultural College at Cirencester in England. There he played in the rugby and cricket teams weekends were often spent in London with his brother David, who was at Cambridge, and his cousin, Rupert Murdoch. In between, he had a stint of tough jackerooing at the famous Hobbies Howe Station at Seymour.

In 1953, his parents went to London for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth, and he accompanied them home via Rome, which he had previously only read about avidly in books. But as wonderful as Rome was, nothing compared with being back on the land at Delatite, where he was involved in all the daily activities.

In 1956, he met Vivienne Knox-Knight at a party given by his aunts, Marie Dumford and (now Dame) Elisabeth Murdoch, and 18 months later they married. "I loved her but I think it was a bit of a shock to her parents. Her mother, who was a doctor, said 'I hope she won't have to milk cows'."

Ritchie stood for and was elected three times to the local council, and retired undefeated after a decade.

Concerned at the lack of regeneration on the farm and in the bush, he was, with his father, a prolific planter of native trees. He also acquired a D4 bulldozer to build roads, dams and erosion banks and experimented by introducing new crops to the district: peas (for freezing), beans (for baked beans), buckwheat for the Japanese market, ryegrass seed and great swathes of lucerne. Finally, in 1968, he and Vivienne planted their first two hectares of grapes, predominantly riesling.

The elevation, cold climate and ironstone soil just about guaranteed success and, joined by their daughter, Rosalind, and son David, they gradually expanded the vineyard to its current 18 hectares.

Ritchie also used his bulldozer to assist in establishing Geelong Grammar School's junior campus, Timbertop, near Mansfield he cleared the bush and built most of the roads. His commitment to Timbertop was ongoing, and he served on the school's committee for many years.

Besides his work as a shire councillor, he was also involved in various other groups at Mansfield, including the Apex Club, St John's vestry, the Bindaree Retirement Village, the Agricultural and Pastoral Society, and he was captain of the Booroolite Fire Brigade.

Ritchie continued his boyhood involvement in sport as a vigorous local cricketer and footballer. As a back pocket, he won Mansfield's "most determined player" award in their premiership year of 1955. His captain-coach, Ted Leehane, said of him: "He is like an angry steam engine!"

Young people regularly travelled to his home to be cared for, selflessly guided and encouraged. His championing of young people meant that Delatite has supported both the Flinders Quartet and later, Chamber Music Australia, since their inception.

After his very late diagnosis with motor neurone disease in September last year, he asked to be cared for at home, rather than in hospital. This was made possible by the loving care of his wife, Vivienne, their family, many friends and the exceptionally dedicated team of district nurses and carers.

He died looking out over his most precious pinot noir vineyard with his dog, Rat, beside him.

He is survived by Vivienne, and his children Stuart, Rosalind, David and Charles.

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