A Place At The Table

Wine critic Huon Hooke can still remember the first time he tasted Darren De Bortoli's dessert wine. The two men had been students together at Roseworthy, Australia's first viticulture college, where they had forged a friendship based on a shared passion for wine, despite very different backgrounds. Huon, with a rowing blue from Geelong Grammar, had grown up in the Anglo-Protestant heartland of the Australian establishment. Darren was the grandson of an illiterate Italian migrant. both had graduated in 1982 determined to make an impact on a burgeoning wine scene; however, while Huon moved to Sydney to work as a wine merchant, Darren returned to the family farm. A year later, Huon and his colleagues got a call out of the blue. 'He said, "Hey guys, I've got something to show you. can I send you a bottle or something?" And we said, "What is it?" and he said, "It's a sweet wine." We were not that impressed, but Darren sent down half-a-dozen bottles of 1982 botrytis semillon, just taken as samples out of the tank. No label, nothing and I think they sat in a corner for a few days. We really weren't that interested in opening the bottles. and when we did, just out of curiosity, and poured a glass of this stuff, which was like nectar, golden in colour and very sweet and rich and honeyed, our jaws hit the floor. It blew our heads off.'


That wine, made from a grape infected with what winemakers call the 'noble rot', put the De Bortolis family on the map. Up until then, sweet wines in Australia had been of the cheap, poor-quality variety, like the hock produced in Griffith where the De Bortolis had their winery. but here, for the first time, was a dessert wine of world standard - something to compare with the best that Europe had to offer. In fact, the De Bortolis dessert wine would outclass its more expensive rivals in international competitions and sales. It was yet another triumphant chapter in a family saga that had seen the De Bortolis go from strength to strength over three generations.

Childhood sweethearts who founded a dynasty: Ciuseppina and
Vittorio celebrate their wedding in Griffith in 1928. (De Bortoli family)

These days, the De Bortolis are among Australia's top ten wine producers and exporters, with an estimated worth of more than $100 million. A casual visitor to their headquarters in Griffith could be forgiven for thinking themselves on the set of Dalls rather than a family winery. Huge stainless steel tanks loom above a vast production site that dominates its rural surroundings. In a tiny corner, enclosed by well-tended gardens of flowers and herbs, sits the family home. This modest house is still the setting for the family's business meetings, which generally take place over lunch. Here too is where friends gather to play bocce and eat, for the De Bortolis are part of a vibrant rural community that has been shaped by successive waves of Italian immigration. and it is this shared history that, up to now, has been the wellspring of the family's good fortunes. 

Indeed, the family's rags-to-riches story, notwithstanding the scale of its trajectory, is a relatively common one among Australia's migrant communities, not least among those arriving in the latter half of the twentieth century from continental Europe or Asia in search of the good life. What makes the De Bortolis' story different from most of the dynasties featured on these pages is that their success was not achieved in a single generation by a founding patriarch alone. rather, the family has built its achievements over three lifespans, with each generation stamping its individual mark on this ascendancy. This may reflect the fact that, in many respects, this family had further to climb than many, originating as it did from such humble peasant beginnings with few expectations. but it may also suggest that progress up the ranks has slowed as the upper rungs of Australian society have become increasingly crowded with established players.

This portrait of a carefree Vittorio taking a punt holds pride of place above the winery's cellar door. In fact,
Vittorio anxiously tended the family fortunes alongside Giuseppina, leaving little to chance. (De Bortoli family)

Certainly, the family until now had looked strongly to its own local community for its peer group. And its connections to a shared Italian heritage remain an essential part of the family's character and cohesiveness today. It is only now, in the third generation, that the family is in the process of being absorbed into an increasingly diverse national elite. although still headquartered in Griffith, their success has made them tall poppies in the district, and pushed the family onto a national stage. These changes, in turn, will undoubtedly have a profound impact on the family's identity as it negotiates its progress through the ranks.

Today, the De Vortolis celebrate their peasant ancestry. but three generations ago when the family patriarch, Vittorio, embarked on one of the first migrant ships to leave Italy for the new worlds of Australia and the Americas, he was set on escaping provincial hardships. Vittorio grew up in a small village in the Veneto region of northern Italy, the youngest of six children in an impoverished family of cattle farmers. Over the generations, the family's land had been divided to a point where Vittorio knew there was nothing left for him to inherit. To make matters worse, t he village and its surrounding countryside, which lay on the mountainous border between Italy and the former Austro-Hungarian empire, had been devastated in world War I. There was no work to be had and even though the family had its own farm, putting enough food on the table was difficult. Faced with such bleak prospects, Vittorio pinned his hopes on a voyage into the complete unknown. It was purely coincidental that the boat on which he sailed was destined for Melbourne. The year was 1924 and he was just eighteen years old. He would never see Italy again.

On arriving in Australia, Vittorio, along with many of his compatriots, immediately set off for Griffith in south-west new south Wales, where the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Scheme had turned an arid interior into an area of high-density farming. They were peasants in search of land to work, and the city held no appeal. Nor, one images, would Griffith have done. With only a few low hills on the horizon and a network of irrigation channels to define the landscape, the countryside is flat and featureless. Indeed, it would be hard to envisage a greater contrast to the mountains of northern Italy. Summer brought searing heat and dust storms, but land was plentiful and the advent of a reliable supply of water had made it a region of opportunity. Mixed farming, growing vegetables and fruit, ensured there was work for all. Just one small grainy photograph remains in the family's possession of those early days. It shows Vittorio's first Australian home underneath a three-metre high water tank that the young man had helped build.

With his marriage, Deen also assumed stewardship of the family winery - here celebrating
a successful vintage with fellow workers and his mother, Giuseppina, on far left. Deen is leaning
on the cellar door at far right. (De Bortoli family)

'They used to bring the big rocks down from Scenic Hill, smash them, and all these people would sit down with sporting hammers and make these little piles of rock, which were then used in the concrete of the tanks.' observes his son Deen today. 'These tanks are an unusual design, but he lived there for six or seven months, had a nice big vegie garden, and used to be able to swap vegies for other things he needed.' After two years of labouring on local farms, Vittorio had saved enough money to buy one of the small properties that were going cheap. Griffith had been a focal point for the government's soldier-settlement scheme, in which out-of-work veterans from World War I were given land to farm. It was a well-intentioned failure, as old-timer Keith McWilliam recalls: 'Unfortunately those people weren't famers and they nearly all went broke. There wouldn't be more than 2 or 3 per cent of the original farms still held by the soldier-settlers or their descendants. A lot of the people that were given blocks weren't healthy people. They had been gassed and all sorts of things in the war, and they just couldn't cope. but then the Italians came in around the mid- to late 1920s. They came in the hundreds and they could buy farms very, very cheaply because you had to take over some of the debt as well.'

Keith's own family of Scottish immigrants had brought land in the district before the war and had been the first to grow grapes. At the time of Vittorio's arrival, the McWilliams were Griffith's wealthiest and most influential family by far. Theirs was the only winery and their business was the lynchpin of the local economy. In addition to their own harvests, they bought grapes from local farmers, including Vittorio who, by 1928, four years after his arrival, owned three farms. 'That was when people were walking off farms because they couldn't get anything for their produce,' recounts his son Deen today. 'My father, coming from Italy, thought that was a waste.'

The third generation of De Bortolis would move closer to the Anglo-Australian mainstream,
while proving as adventurous as their predecessors. From left to right: Darren, Leanne, Kevin
and Victor (De Bortoli family)

Vittorio took over the farms and prospered, growing a variety of fruit and vegetables, including grapes. While elsewhere Australia was in the grip of the Depression, for Vittorio things had never looked brighter. Life was frugal, but there was always plenty of food on the table. Best of all, his childhood sweetheart Giuseppina had joined him. She had spent the last three years working in France as a nursery maid to pay her passage. 'They virtually got married by proxy, they were sort of married by mail, you could say. but then they had a wedding when she came out. This belated ceremony was not without a sense of occasion. Despite financial constraints Giuseppina, as was proper, had brought a trousseau with her, including a satin-and-lace wedding dress that she had embroidered herself. It is among the family's most treasured keepsakes - a tiny dress, almost child-sized, classically simple, and now  yellowed with age. Impeccably attired in their formal best, the young couple gaze out of their wedding photograph with a sense of solemnity and portent.

In them, as with all her other photographs, Giuseppina looks like a much larger woman for she exudes a wiry strength and holds herself with dignity and pride. Her strong features are dominated by a pair of dark almond eyes that stare at the camera. Intensity and willpower emanate. In contrast, her husband is as soft-featured as she is angular. Today, Vittorio's portrait holds pride of place above the De Bortoli cellar door as the founder of the family's fortunes. but this is no stern-faced patriarch. Instead, yes twinkling, he laughs up at a kitten perched precariously on his straw hat - the picture of the contented peasant farmer. It is an image the family is keen to cultivate, particularly in today's corporate world, but most observes agree that Vittorio knew the value of a dollar and anxiously tended the family's fortunes.

Vittorio and Giuseppina celebrate 50 years of marriage and winemaking with their children, Flor, Deen and Eeola,
shortly before vittorio's death. although he often disagreed with Deen's management of the business, Vittorio was
a traditionalist, leaving everything to his son and not his daughters. (De Bortolis family)

Nevertheless, while friends remember Vittorio as a shrewd operator, most agree that Giuseppina was the one with steel in her bones and the determination to make good. 'Father always claimed she was the boss. He used to call her "Bossa". Whenever he wanted to know something he's say, "Hey, Bossa! what do you think of this?" And it was always bossa, rather than her calling him boss, because she was the mouthpiece. He was the hard worker, but she was the one with the brains, and so the combination worked brilliantly for many years.' Adds Deen's eldest sister Flo, 'I think my mum has been underrated a lot, because if she were in a different situation she would have been a great woman. She had power that people didn't realise.'

For Vittorio and Giuseppina, life was the farm and they devoted their energies to it. In this they were no different to most other Italian migrants who had been able to purchase land in Griffith. Keith McWilliam still credits these new citizen with 'getting the town moving' and transforming the Griffith area from a sluggish backwater into a food bowl for the nation. 'They worked extremely hard. Their women and kids were out there in the blazing heat. They worked ungodly hours, I can tell you. eighteen hours a day would be nothing for these people. They worked with their wives all day, with their kids after school, an d in the packing sheds at night - packing all the stuff they were producing.' By the time the tide of depression turned, the land and hard work were paying off. Vittorio and Giuseppina ran their farms along traditional Italian lines, growing a mixture of produce to sell. but they had also made their first wine the year they married. Today, their descendants salute this decision as serendipitous. It had been a bumper harvest, they say, and so as not to see grapes wasted, the couple made wine for their home table. Others recall it as an opportunity grasped. Keith McWilliam can remember his uncle, as early as 1928, admiring a parcel of grapes on the De Bortolis' farm, only to be told this batch was not for sale - they were keeping the grapes for themselves.

Rough and ready though it was, the De Bortolis' wine found an appreciative audience among the Italian community. In those days many Australian drank beer with tier meals, of they drank anything. Wine fell into one of two categories: either it was 'plonk', drunk by derros, or it was an aperitif. Unlike the rest of the population, however, Italians did not like sherry, ort or other fortified wines. Very little table wine was being produced by commercial wineries such as McWilliam's who catered to the Anglo-Australian mainstream. The De Bortolis farm was one of the few places where migrant Italians could get the kind of wine they had grown up drinking. Keith McWilliam remembers the attraction: 'There were a lot of people who used to live within four or five miles of the place. and on a Saturday and Sunday particularly, they'd walk over to De Bortolis' with any kind of container at all - they'd have ordinary petrol tins, anything - and they'd buy their four or eight gallons. It was only about a shilling or two a gallon in those days. They'd take them off home. We could hear them singing, often at two or three in the morning.' Among the De Bortolis' keenest customers were the migrant Italian workers who followed the harvest, coming to Griffith to pick fruit and vegetables before returning to Queensland where they worked cutting sugar cane. This itinerant community began buying 270-litre barrels of wine to take with them on their return journey north. Soon they were the mainstays of the De Bortolis' winery, as son Deen recalls. 'The Italians from the cane fields wanted dry wine, so my father made this Clarendon hock, which he was able to sell to the cane cutters. when they'd come down, they'd buy barrels and barrels of this, and they'd send it up by rail to Queensland, because in those days probably 95 per cent of all wine in Australia was fortified. It just got bigger and bigger and bigger from there.'

Australia - Dynasties - The De Bortolis - Part 2

Australia - Dynasties - The Murdochs - Part 2

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