THE DE BORTOLIS - PART 2
A Place At The Table
Family history has it that it was Giueseppina who pioneered the family's earliest commercial vintages - directing her husband's efforts by reading out instructions from the wine-making books she had ordered from France. Like most Italian farmers, Vittorio could make wine for the home table, but he had no idea how to preserve or refine it for his customers. Nor could h read or write. Giuseppina, fluent in Italian and French, was the educated one. she also became the more conversant of the two in English as she bartered private tuition from the local schoolteacher in exchange for French lessons. 'My mother learnt to speak English. She learnt to do all the accounts and she was able to run the business. I remember as a kid at night sleeping under the desk because she was doing the winery work, writing letters,' says Deen, the middle of three children. Only his eldest sister Flor, born in 1931, can remember the days before Giuseppina began working a double-shift on the farm and in the office. she remembers these as relatively carefree times, before paperwork and the demands of a growing business consumed all of her mother's time.
By the time Deen was born in 1936 and his sister Eola five years later, the family enterprise was well established and had become the centre of a small but thriving community as Vittorio and Giuseppina sponsored friends and relatives wanting to emigrate from Italy. New arrivals in Griffith would often be taken as a matter of course to the De Bortoli farm as their first point of call. Many would help out on the farm and vineyards in exchange for food and lodgings. 'My father had a lot of people come out from Italy and they had all these little huts at the back of the house, and they used to stay there. And, of course, in those days there was no money, they used to just work for their dinner and on the weekends they'd have their parties and play their bocce,' recalls Deen de Bortoli of an idealised past. 'I can remember as a kid still, there was a lot of fun, a lot of singing at least every night or second night, and it was sort of a period you remember, which you don't see any more. We try to resurrect it a bit now, but it's not like it was. everybody was in the same boat. Nobody had any money, so everyone was equal, and I think there weren't the jealousies that you probably got later on. Everyone seemed to be happy.' This labour built the farm, but there was also a sense of extended family, heightened by the fact that almost all who worked there came from the same village or nearby, and spoke the same regional dialect. when harvest and vintage brought in workers from interstate, and from other parts of Italy, they too became part of the family's life. Recalls Flo, 'Especially in the vintage, the men who came to work were also fed at home on long tables on the verandah, and they would come for their three meals a day, up to fifteen people.' while Giuseppina divided her time between the farm and the office, Vittorio divided his between the farm and the kitchen. 'I think Dad always realised the help that my mother gave to him, and quite often he'd try and help out. My dad was a great cook, so he quite often took over the cook's role if she needed to do other things.'
Home was now a small brick cottage, rather than the original lean-to in which the couple had first lived. Although a mark of the family's new prosperity, the building of this new house coincided with an uncertain time in its fortunes: war had broken out in Europe, and Australia and Italy were in opposing camps. Migrant Italians wee classified as enemy aliens, and many were interned for the duration of the war, or had their property confiscated. Vittorio and Giuseppina had already become naturalised Australians and as farmers were deemed to be making a valuable contribution to the war effort, so they avoided detention - unlike many of their workers and neighbours. But there were a few close calls. Flor still remembers her fear at being questioned by police because she had been boasting at school of the radio he father had bought for their new home, the family's first. From this point on, great care was taken to avoid suspicion, and the family dutifully reported in at the police every week. Despite these anxieties, World War II and particularly its aftermath saw a steady rise in the family's fortunes. by staying out of the internment camps and on their land, Vittorio and Guiseppina were well placed to met the growing demand for farm produce and wine. Still, there wee other battles. Strict licensing laws ensured that the large established brewers had a virtual monopoly on liquor sales, particularly if reatiled in smaller quantities, most of which was sold through affiliated hotels. The family kept its migrant consumers. Nevertheless, as is quietly admitted, much was done unofficially. The local Italian in Griffith, and no doubt elsewhere, ran their own bootleg pubs or osterias. Liquor was also sold from the back door, although never to the plain-clothed undercover inspector who came to the front, wanting to buy brandy 'for his ailing wife'. A favourite Griffith folktale is of Vittorio finally being paid a visit by an official from the taxation department, and meting their demand for years of back taxes by unearthing a small fortune in savings from a rusty tin can.
By the end of the war, Vittorio had the family's future clearly in his sights. He was determined that his three children would receive the opportunities he had been denied. Giuseppina was equally motivated. 'She was quite determined that whatever we wanted to do as girls, we would be allowed to do it. she gave us the feeling that to be educated and going to school was not our right, but a great privilege,' agree her daughters today. while both girls went to work in the family business, they would never labour on the land. The De Bortolis were peasants no longer. 'One good thing about Dad, he didn't want me to work on the farm, like a lot of farmers' daughters did. so I started off in the office,' recalls Flo, who still muses at what the future might have held had she been a boy. Both she and her younger sister always knew that when it came to the family succession, their brother Deen came first. 'Dad was determined to have a boy, and he was lucky the second child was a boy, because the family name was a big thing to him.
From the day Deen was born, it was never left in doubt that he would take over.' today, it is hard to imagine Deen anywhere else. as his wife fondly points out, 'he was born actually here at the winery. His mother didn't make it into hospital. she was one of those very fortunate women who didn't have a lot of problems with childbirth. So we always feel that Deen, if he ever dies, is going to come back and haunt the place.' and, unlike his sisters, Vittorio's son from the start worked the land. 'when I was six years old, I was driving the truck down the farm, you know, if we needed to pick up the grapes, things like that,' he recalls. despite lucrative offers to sell the farm and retire, Vittorio was adamant that in time-honoured Italian tradition the property would go to his son. However, although Deen grew up knowing where his future lay, his prospects as the heir apparent did not go unquestioned.
Indeed, if local hearsay is to be believed, Vittorio and Giuseppina's boy came of age as one of the leaders of the town's brat pack. rock-and-roll had just hit town and Deen was an avid follower. He also loved fast cars and drove a gleaming shark-finned convertible, which he drag-raced out past the local dam. Griffith, like many country towns, is built for young men to cruise through, with an impossibly wide double-barreled main street. It's still a place where boredom and alcohol fuel high-octane teen spirits. Few old-timers, however, have forgotten the day that young Deen de Bortoli drove over the police constable's toes. it's hard to dismiss this small-town gossip when photographs of the time show a cocky young man, who in features, attitude and slick-backed hair resembles no one more closely than James Dean. It's also hard to reconcile this fashionable young man with Deen de Bortoli today. although still a sharp dresser when occasion demands, Deen's youthful polish has largely worn off. In his day-to-day stubbies and flannel shirt, his appearance is very much that of the ruddy-faced, salt-of-the-earth farmer. A ute has taken the place of the convertible. but all who know him will tell you that in personality little has change. Confident, headstrong and opinionated, he can, according to his family, be stubborn to the point of perversity. and while he enjoys a challenge, Deen loves nothing more than to win - whether it is an argument, a Friday night bocce game among friends, or a business outcome. Even as a young teenager Deen was determined to map his own path, irrespective of his parents' wishes. Despite Vittorio and Giuseppina's deeply felt belief in the value of education, their son dropped out of high school as soon as he could. He remains unrepentant to this day. 'I left school when I was in third year, on the day I turned sixteen, which was 17 August 1952. My father didn't want me to, but I felt I knew more than the teachers did, and I just wasn't interested. I was interested in the winery, and I think I made the right move.'
And yet Deen's focus was not on the fine art of winemaking. As he says himself: 'The wine didn't interest me in those days. It was more the mechanical side of it. I was just intrigued by the fact that you crushed the grapes, put them in a tank and they'd ferment and all this red stuff would be bubbling over. Selling wine didn't enter my head at all. I just liked the way it was made.' the following decade would see a gradual phasing out of the family's fruit growing endeavours to winemaking alone. while Deen indulged a fascination with the mechanics of winemaking, his father was anxiously aware of the need to reach drinkers. with no opportunity to sell wine through the usual channels, he had to create his own distribution centre and home-delivery service.
A small corner shop in the Sydney suburb of Kingsford, next door to the local undertaker, put him in easy reach of the growing migrant communities in the city's inner-west. it also became a means of providing for his daughters through the family business, without compromising his son's inheritance. 'Deen would take over the winery end, and the Sydney end was left to Flo and me - that was something we always knew,' says Eola today. It was the short end of the straw. particularly as the enterprise was designed to advantage the family winery rather than operate as a viable concern in its own right. Although Vittorio would eventually upgrade to a larger site in Annandale, his daughters agree that 'as far as Dad was concerned it didn't matter if Sydney made any money as long as the winery was benefiting from it'. Both girls were sent to manage the business with their respective husbands. Today they are joint landlords. Of a building that no longer has a affiliation to the winery, managing it as a rental prosperity, and agree that the time they spent working there would have been better spent elsewhere.
It was the short end of the straw. particularly as the enterprise was designed to advantage the family winery rather than operate as a viable concern in its own right. Although Vittorio would eventually upgrade to a larger site in Annandale, his daughters agree that 'as far as Dad was concerned it didn't matter if Sydney made any money as long as the winery was benefiting from it'. Both girls were sent to manage the business with their respective husbands. Today they are joint landlords of a building that no longer has a affiliation to the winery, managing it as a rental property, and agree that the time they spent working there could have been better spent elsewhere. 'It was a great sacrifice, and thee was a time that I said to my husband Silvio, you know, this is a little bit too much. but he said, "Oh, I can't let your dad down, he needs this help." So we battled on, but I wouldn't do it today. I would have just walked out!' says Flo, who still remembers the backbreaking work involved in unloading and redistributing the 270-litre barrels. 'I hope Deen appreciates the sacrifices we made on his behalf because we could have been putting that energy into our own business. but I suppose it's what you do for your family. It's very fortunate really that we did stick by Dad, because look at the business today.' Despite their contribution to the winery's success, neither sister has any involvement in the business today, nor a share in its profits. They have never returned to live in Griffith, although they keep in close touch with their brother and his family, returning for holidays and family occasions.
Vittorio's embryonic distribution system put the winery on a more secure footing, but years of work and worry had taken their toll. In 1957 he was hospitalised with ulcers. His son was determined to make things easier. The answer, Deen believed, lay in increasing mechanisation. He was sure that with the aid of his beloved machines, the farm could produce more wine, more cheaply and more efficiently. 'I always felt that you needed to get to a certain level to make it viable and to modernise it,' says Deen, who still applauds himself for acting accordingly. 'I virtually put it all in myself. I built the actual crusher pit - or designed it myself and helped the concreters - and then set up all the elevators and conveyors with a local blacksmith.'
In that year alone, the size of the winery doubled, with a corresponding jump in wine production from 700 to 1900 tonnes. This flurry of activity coincided with a personal milestone in Deen's life. In 1958 he married his local sweetheart, Emeri Cunial. His new bride was also from an Italian family, and her parents had come from a village across the valley from Vittorio's and Giuseppina's. Like Vittorio, Meri's father had been among the first to settle in Griffith. but unlike this peasant farmer, he was a natural linguist who spoke English without an accent, and he soon assumed a leadership role in the community as an interpreter and facilitator with Australian officialdom. although Deen had met his match - for Emeri's elegant blonde looks and softly spoken, precise English camouflaged an equal determination and fiery temper - business always came first. 'At the time the family was extending the winery and building extra tanks, so Deen required new machinery. That meant our honeymoon was taken in Adelaide because that's where the equipment came from,' recalls Emeri with a vey smile. 'I spent my honeymoon going through machinery shops! I was still a good little bride at the time, and doing the right thing, because I knew Deen had a job to do.'
Like most of her generation, Emeri would not work in the vineyards or winery, but instead made home and the family her focus. In keeping with older traditions, the new bride also joined her husband in the parental home. The two generations lived together for six years, until Vittoeio decided to build himself a flat above the winery. 'I don't know about Deen's mother being very happy about leaving the house. I don't think she was. I mean, I wouldn't have been,' confesses Emeri today. 'I think Vittorio wanted to get away from all these screaming children. The family was growing, and I had three (of four) children, all under five.' While Deen dates his stewardship of the family business from his father's illness, others believe it coincided with the arrival of this third generation. (Until that time, a passion for model trains and aeroplanes is rumoured to have competed with the winery for his attention.) either way, in the decade that followed the birth of Deen and Emeri's children, the family winery was transformed. Not only were production levels almost doubled every year, but for the first time there was a trained winemaker on board. Louis Del Piano had arrived in Australia from Italy in the early 1950s, part of a new generation of Italian who sought a better future far from the rubble of war-town Europe. Unlike his predecessors in Griffith, he was not from the villages but a university graduate who had celebrated the end of the war with overnight road trips to Paris and the Folies-Bergere. Keeping quiet about his professional qualifications. Louis applied for a visa as a labourer and, with thousands of others, was encouraged to emigrate as part of a new manual workforce. an acquaintance directed him to Griffith where he immediately found work at the McWilliams' winery. Three and a half years later, in 1959, Vittorio de Bortoli wooed him over with the promise of an additional 5 pounds a week and an insistence that all Italians should stick together.
Arriving in Griffith in themid-1950s, recalls Louis, was like finding oneself on the far side of the moon, and the De Bortoli winery, despite its growing capacity, was primitive at best. 'Thee was no laboratory, no refrigeration. They had one decent pump and a couple of small filters, pumping wine from one bigger tank into two or three smaller tanks. In those days, they didn't even have numbers on the vats. It was amazing. I told old Mr De Bortoli, "I've got to know from which tank into which tank the wine is going." Eventually I got the stencil made myself, got some oragne paint, and painted the numbers on.' More difficult was finding the funds for a basic laboratory. 'I kept insisting that I needed some laboratory equipment - you know, some flasks, a couple of bunsen burners, things like that. I kept asking a couple of times a week. In the end, he said, "All right, all right." He took some money out of his back pocket and he gve me a ten-pound note and said. "Go buy yourself a laboratory".'
Despite these initial frustrations. Louis del Piano remained with the De Bortolis for almost nine years. As the wine became more refined, so too did its packaging, Louis designing a family crest for the labels, which proclaimed the motto Semper ad Majora -'Always striving for better'. but progress was painstaking. Vittorio did not see the need to become more sophisticated and, with vivid memories of childhood poverty, he loathed spending money unnecessarily. Moreover, while not as outspoken as his son, Vittorio could be equally hard-headed. Recollects Louis, who is nothing if not loquacious: 'He would listen to me without saying anything, nod his head a bit, and then when I finished, he'd say, "You're making a long story out of nothing. Tell me in six or seven words what advantage is coming to me. If you can prove to me that I get an advantage, and I can make more money and improve the position of the winery, we'll do it." I found that he was very cunning. He knew what he was doing, and he always knew what he wanted.' Nevertheless, Louis often required Giuseppina's assistance in bringing her husband on side and credits her with being the more far-sighted of the two when it came to embracing change. Louis would also find an occasional ally in Vittorio's hair, despite a clash of egos, as Deen's ambitions now far surpassed his father's/. although he shared Vittorio's taste in wine, Deen was impatient for growth. It was in part, he says, an expression of youthful exuberance. 'As a young person you want to do things a lot quicker. At the time my father sort of pulled me into line a bit. I'd slow down for a year, but then away we'd go again, building more tanks.' Deen's incessant need to keep building - a trait still jokingly remarked on by the rest of his family - invariably mean t that he also had to turn his attention to finding customers. 'I used to go out and sell wine myself in those days,' he recalls. 'I remember selling wine off the back of the truck because things were pretty hard in the early sixties. We went through a bad era in the industry, when things were pretty slow. but being young you just wondered why people were closing down and felt, well, that means there's more room for us.'
Confident to the last, Deen continued expanding and diversifying, putting in a bottling line and a distillery to make fortified wines like the McWilliams family. Inevitably this put him on a collision course with his father. 'We'd have a lot of rows because, typical father and son, I wanted to move on quicker than he did. So we used to have some good ding-dong battles. but they were pretty friendly,' reminisces Deen today. Adds his wife: 'Sometimes I would be in the house and I would hear Deen and Vittorio fighting out in the middle of the yard, and they would be really arguing hammer and tongs. You'd think they were going to murder each other.' Increasingly Deen would wait for his parents to make their annual excursion to Sydney to visit their daughters and to keep an eye on the distribution business, before he embarked on his next building project. These prolonged absences became the focus of frenzied activity. 'Vittorio would go away, and Deen would have everybody lined up to do extensions. And Vittorio would come home and he'd find all these things that wee done. first he would walk around the winery to see what had happened while he was away, and then there'd be an almighty explosion, and then he'd go off and he'd shake his head and he'd have to accept it. He exploded a lot, but I could relate to that because I probably am a little bit like that myself. but once he exploded, he was all right,' remembers Emeri cheerfully.
Unlike her mother-in-law who found their fights distressing, Emeri would regularly join in. she and Deen had their fair share of battles too, which often culminated in smashed crockery. 'We would never really fight over business. I think that what we'd fight over were trivial things, and it was probably the pressure brought on by business and other outside things.' Even today, their disagreements are legendary among their friends. 'They have the most volatile arguments - they're Olympic standard. They're gold medalists and you can work as hard as you can, but you can't quite get to their level. Typical Italian style - it just explodes! then bang, it's gone, the plate's smashed, it's over.' While others could easily be left traumatised by such vehement outbursts, these arguments are simply regarded as part of the culture of the family. No matter how violent their disagreements, Deen and Vittorio never stopped taking their meals together. 'They'd come in, have lunch or dinner, or whatever, and discuss something else completely,' comments Emeri. mealtimes, then as now, brought the family together, and the day's business was reviewed and discussed round the table. Not that this ensured agreement or cooperation. 'Vittorio and Deen never agreed on anything,' she confesses, 'Deen would suggest something, and Vittorio would say, "No, no, no", and he'd go off on a tangent. Deen's good at that now too sometimes, but he is a little more lenient in giving our boys more responsibility.'
For Vittorio, who trusted only what he could see and grasp, his son's willingness to gamble on the future bordered on the reckless. Deen's constant search for improvements, his eagerness to try new things, his delight in buying more and more equipment, and his determination to keep growing could bankrupt the business they had so painstakingly built from nothing. 'I think he was frightened of going into debt and expanding too much and sort of losing everything. I suppose, too, as he got older the technology got beyond him,' reflects Emeri today. Deen, on the other hand, was equally sure that his investments in infrastructure would pay off. He was counting on a growing market and an escalating demand for table wines. And he began to reap dividends in the late 1960s when changes to the Trade Practices Act opened up the lucrative liquor trade to full competition. bottle shops sprang up around the country, and hotels and pubs wee no longer restricted in whom they could buy from. Most importantly, however, these reforms coincided with a second, quieter groundswell of change. Australia's flood of Southern European migrants in the 1950s and 1960s, or 'wogs' as they were disparagingly known, had introduced Australian taste buds to the delights of wine, olives and garlic. Henceforth, the country would look increasingly to Europe, not England, for its culinary inspiration. In 1972 table wines outsold fortified wines for the first time in Australia. Traditional winemakers, such as the McWilliams, were caught on the back foot. 'We were known, and known well, as a fortified wine company. Our ports, sherries and muscats were top-class, and we held a big portion of the Australian sales at that point. when people started to drink these dry (table) wines, both white and red, we were left with an enormous amount of grapes because we didn't have the market for the unfortified wines. People like the De Bortolis had a market built up there. It was very, very difficult,' recalls Keith McWilliam with some chagrin.
for Deen it was a golden opportunity. The De Bortolis had always produced inexpensive wines for people to drink with meals on an everyday basis. it was perfectly suited to this new mass market, and Deen's production lines were already in place. As wine consumption grew exponentially, so did the winery, crushing from 20,000 to 30,000 and 40,000 tonnes of grapes a year from their own and surrounding vineyards. The winery went from barrels to flagons, and then Deen ld the way into cask wine by being one of the first to beg-and-box. Vittorio, however, remained cautious to the last. His most memorable intervention came when Deen hired the company's first sales reps to address this emerging market. As far as Vittorio was concerned, these blokes in their fancy ties and suits were bludgers, he simply could not abide paying salaries to employees who did not do any useful physical work. when his son went on his first overseas trip that year, to the Munich Olympics, Vittorio called in the reps and se5t them to work putting in fence posts and wiring the vines. They resigned en masse. Deen, on his return, had to set up a whole new sales team. nevertheless, Vittorio was mellowing with age, and despite his occasional outbursts, his son was well and truly in charge. In the course of a two-decade transition, Deen had established himself as a second, perhaps even more forceful patriarch than his father. as a result, in contrast to many dynasties, this next generation would prove itself to be as adventurous and entrepreneurial as the first. Vittorio had a achieved his ambitions in creating a prosperous farming venture to pass on to his son, but Deen's vision far exceeded his father's.
'Vittorio was the old school,; observes John Taylor, the de Bortolis' printer and a family friend. 'Deen had to go over his father in a lot of ways to develop. he couldn't have achieved what he did with his father's outlook.' Deen's passion for building and his mechanical aptitude reflect a faculty for numbers that makes him a natural businessman, says John, who had served as official roaster at almost every De Bortolis family occasion, and who considers den his mentor. 'He knows all his invoices to three decimal points. he's got the most incredible memory for detail and those types of things; he knows how much everything costs. He actually taught me the basis of costing. another thing he taught me was not to have a wages mentality. You've got to take risks, to take the plunge. Have your vision, and achieve it bit by bit, but don't get the wages mentality.' Despite Deen's run-ins with his father, his business acumen harks back to an old-fashioned way of doing things. As Keith McWilliams observes: 'My parents taught me the value of a quid, and I'm sure old man De Bortoli did the same with Deen.' Indeed, Deen 's appetite for a bargain equals his enthusiasm for mechanisation. Most of the De Bortolis' equipment has been picked up at a fraction of the market price. Often it is second-hand and has been adapted to the job at hand. The winery's cooling apparatus, for example, was salvaged from BHP and simply made to work on wine vats rather than mines. It is both a point of honour and a source of enormous pride to Deen that he can produce wine as cheaply as anyone else in Australia. There is nothing boutique about his approach.
In fact most visitors to the winery walk past Deen, not realising they've just brushed shoulders with the owner and not the handyman. It's an impression he's happy to cultivate, and that he will often use to direct unwanted guests elsewhere, sending them on an elusive search for a more appropriately attired proprietor. Eecalls John Taylor of their first introduction: 'When I met him, I knew him only as the chap who picked up the labels. He'd come in with a truck and throw them on. I always thought what a wonderful worker they'd got in this fellow. He'd be under the machine, he'd be round with a broom sweeping, every job there was, he'd be doing it. Anyway, he came in one day and picked up these labels and said they needed to order a few extra hundred thousand, which was an enormous order at that time. and I said, "I'll have to get official confirmation, I'll have to get Deen De Bortoli to authorise this." He said, "I am Deen De Bortoli."
'There he was in his usual greasy shirt and shorts from doing all the work around the winery. I still laugh about it. But Deen's never changed. He's down-to-earth. he knows every driver, every worker, and he makes it his business to get around with everybody, and I think that's the secret of his success and probably his knowledge.' Deen's wife is less appreciative, attributi8ng her husband's work ethic to an inability to delegate based on his unswerving conviction that no one else could do a better job. Particularly in the early years of his stewardship, Deen was the winery's troubleshooter; a one-man band who fixed the machines, ran the bottling line and oversaw the vintage. This had its downside, as Emeri is quick to point out. 'We didn't have a life because the winery just controlled everything. You just couldn't plan to go anywhere in case something happened. And invariably it always happened at school-holiday time, when you had planned to go somewhere. so we bought a caravan and it was packed and Deen would come in and say, "I think we can go tomorrow".' Hopes too of a house of their own faded. 'We'd so many plans of houses but there was always a new extension to the winery. There was always a piece of machinery to be built or bought. I can remember when we got the first centrifuge, I used to go and look at it and I'd say, "That is my house." In those days it was nearly $200,000 for the centrifuge, and I'd say, "that is my house, that's my house".' Instead, new rooms were added to the original cottage and the old verandah enclosed, as a third generation grew up in the shadow of the winery. Their lives too would be shaped by the dynamics of the family business. 'All I can remember as a kid is my father coming home yelling obscenities and abuse about my grandfather because he had made some decision and his dad was completely against it,' says Darren, the eldest, who was born on 1 January 1960. 'It was a very difficult time for the family,' recollects his sister, Leanne, 'because the business was going through a transition and Dad was taking it to that next level. There was a time, before we started to get people in with specialist skills, that he was effectively carrying the burden of the whole place on his shoulders. And thee were times, as kids, when he was asleep on the couch after spending all night at the winery when you'd tiptoe through, being very mindful that you didn't want to wake him, because you knew you'd cop the wrath of him if you did. Looking back at it now, I think he just wanted to make sure the place was set up for us to slide into.'
And four of Deen's children, like their father before them, worked in the winery. They might have been more hindrance than help, but pocket money was earned grape picking or sticking labels on bottles. There was still a sense of family, for most if not all of the workers had been employed on the property for most of their lives. At the same time, this third generation would have a significantly different upbringing and outlook. Fair like their mother, they grew up as part of an upwardly mobile, Anglicised mainstream, beginning with their names: Darren, Kevin, Leanne and (with a passing nod at the family patriarch) Victor. None learnt to speak Italian. Their education too would be different. At the age of twelve, Darren was sent to board at St Joseph's College in Sydney, marking the start of a new tradition among the males in the family. 'Joeys' is among the country's most prestigious Catholic boarding schools, with a distinguished alumni of old boys, and a triumphant track record in schoolboy rugby union. After six years of Maris education and discipline, during which time he learnt to blend as unobtrusively as possible into the fabric to go to university when he went to Roseworthy College in South Australia to study winemaking. It was a course that had been charted for him at an early age, although not by Deen or Emeri. 'I always remember as a small child being told by my grandfather that I was going to be a winemaker. I never got those pressures from my parents, but I certainly understood from my grandparents that they had mapped out a future for me already.'
In 1979, having lived to witness his grandson's dutiful progress, Vittorio died. One wonders, however, what he would have made of Darren's contribution to the family enterprise, for his grandson would graduate from Roseworthy with a sophisticated palate, a passion for expensive wines and clear ides of his own about the future of the business. Indeed, he would seize the opportunity to try something radically different just a year after his return in 1982. It was dry, and everything went right, and hundreds and hundreds of tonnes of grapes came in, and every tonne was better than the other.' Hectares were left unharvested, and there were rotten grapes aplenty. However, this was no ordinary rot, because, as his father suspected and Daren confirmed, Griffith by some sheer fluke of nature had the perfect climatic conditions for a fungal infection called botrytis. Indeed, the few bottles of wine that remained from Vittorio and Giuseppina's first vintage in 1928 had the telltale sweetness of having been botrytis affected. However, in Australia, unlike Europe, the infection was regarded as a scourge not a blessing because nobody drank sweet dessert wine, let alone prized it. This all changed when Darren received his father's blessing to attempt a French-style sauterne.
It was tremendous gamble. by breaking new ground, Darren would fly in the face of entrenched prejudices, assuming his experiment in making the dessert wine succeeded. Looking back, even he finds it extraordinary that this father was prepared to take the risk. 'You must remember the wine industry was in a fairly poor state, so it wasn't really the time to be encouraging or doing something new. I was very fortunate I had the full support of my father. I can't imagine a big multinational conglomerate making a decision like that because it represents a serious amount of money to buy the fruit. You still have to pay the going rate, and the wine might turn out to be absolute rubbish. Not only that, there was strong consumer resistance to sweet wines because they were equated t being cheap wines, although Noble Rot actually makes some of the world's greatest and most expensive wines.' The first vintage, in 1982, became one of them. 'That 1982 sauterne has won more medals and trophies internationally than any wine in world history,' boasts John Taylor gleefully. In fact, it proved so successful that it quickly encountered the fierce opposition of French winemakers who used the industry's strict labelling laws to try and see off the challenger. The De Bortolis were eventually forced to abandon the name 'sauterne' in favour of the sobriquet 'Noble One'. Despite such obstacles critical acclaim ensured sales, and this groundbreaking dessert wine henceforth became the family's calling card as it moved into new markets in Australia and overseas.
It did not succeed, however, in circumventing a prolonged battle of wills between the next generation of father and son. 'Those first four or five years tended to be extremely vocal,' confesses Darren of his early working relationship with Deen. 'You know, sort of tantrum-throwing, yelling matches. I'd make a decision and my father would disagree with it and I'd be severely reprimanded, and I'd insist it was the right decision. I think what happens after a period of time is that you get more of those right than wrong, and therefore you get a level of respect or tolerance maybe.' 'It's nice to know some things don't change,' smiles his aunt Eola, who witnessed those early exchanges on her visits to the winery. For Emeri, who had also seen it all before, those outbursts were only to be expected. 'I think when the young ones come up out of schooling, or whatever, they do think they know it all, and they have all these different ideas. and, of course, you have the old bulls that have got their ideas and are not willing to concede to the younger ones. It's inevitable that Darren wanted to prove he could do things, and Deen didn't think he could.' At the time, however, there was little room for complacency as relationships were stretched to breaking.
'I remember one major argument with my father, to the extent that that was it. I was heading off. I didn't have to put up with it so I was packing the car and in the process of leaving,' recalls Darren. It was only Emeri's intervention that saved the day. 'My mother stole my keys. By the time she handed the keys back everyone had calmed down and we were able to approach things in a rational light. but I always think what would have happened had she not pinched the car keys.' (In fact Emeri had been so worried about her son's intentions that she had hidden the keys of every vehicle on the property.) One of their most trenchant debates was over where the family could expand to next. although Griffith now produced one of the world's great dessert wines, there was not the same potential to generate premium table wines. Darren had his heart set on buying land in the Yarra valley, which he had visited while still a student. He believed the area could become one of the great winemaking regions in the country. Not only was its cool climate suited to producing some of Europe's greatest varieties, including chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir, it was perfectly positioned at just over an hour's drive from Melbourne. Sydney had the Hunter Valley and Adelaide the Barossa, but this promising Melbourne hinterland was still devoted primarily to dairy farming.
While Deen was always looking for new ways to expand, the Yarra was an ambitious undertaking. There was little in the way of infrastructure, and cool-climate viticulture was still relatively new to Australia. His son 'ranted and raved and kicked doors' before finally throwing down the gauntlet. 'Darren said at the time, "Well, of we don't get a cool-climate property, I'm leaving",' recalls his mother. It could not have come at a worse time personally, for Emeri and Deen were now caring for Giuseppina who had Alzheimer's disease. The indomitable woman who had been the matriarch of a dynasty would struggle with the disease for more than a decade, eventually dying when she was ninety-one. While little else remained of the individual she had once been, Giuseppina's strength of will persisted to the very end. Despite these pressures, Deen and Emeri began making the five-hour drive south to explore the possibilities. Shortly thereafter, in 1987, they bought their first property in the Yarra and began the capital-intensive process of establishing vineyards, and a winery with its own restaurant to encourage tourists from Melbourne. 'Deen conceded Darren was right,' says Emeri, but only 'after the usual arguments of course.' This time it was her husband who'd been found lagging behind youth. 'I think in the back of Deen's mind, he probably knew it was the right decision all along. It was inevitable. but to do it was hard at the time-very hard.' In fact, the investment could have been better timed from a financial as well as personal point of view, because it came just before the 1989 recession. Cash flow was tight and the family, like many others, came perilously close to being overextended. Nor was the family's presence entirely welcome. Despite Noble One, the family had a down-market reputation and, as Darren's sister Leanne reflects: 'There wee quite a few people who felt that we would come in and bastardise the region. I suppose, in some respects, we had a lot to prove.' Prove it they did, and the gamble paid off. The family's first vintages suggested enormous potential and, as others quickly followed the family's lead, the Yarra became - as Darren had predicted - one of the most sought-after tourist destinations and wine-producing regions in the country. Stephen Shelmerdine of Melbourne's Myer dynasty, who also had vineyards in the Yarra and is a family friend, insists that the De Bortolis should be given much of the credit for this.
Once again the Yarra venture demonstrated the family's ability to anticipate a new trend in consumer habits and tastes. While bulk wine continues to make up 70 per cent of the Australian market - and over 60 per cent of the company's turnover - an upsurge in consumer spending over the next decade and into the new century found expression in a tourism and gastronomy boom. The Yarra valley and the wines it produced thus added a vital new string to the dynasty's bow. 'It's very important for De Bortoli to be in the premium wine market,' points out Huon Hooke, who has kept close tabs on the family's progress since his days at Roseworthy with Darren. 'It's a very important, growing section of the market, and a very profitable section. Certainly a much more profitable segment than the cheap wine market.' he believes the family's decision to expand into the Yarra reflects its synthesis of the personal with the commercial. 'I think the main reason Darren's parents did it was twofold. Firstly, to give the younger generation an extra interest - something to focus on that was more interesting to produce than what they'd been doing before. and premium wine is much more interesting to make than bulk wine. at the same time, it did wonders for the image of de Bortoli. If a company produces a flagship wine then that glory rubs off on all their other products, and I think that's definitely happened with De Bortoli. In fact, I couldn't think of a better example of that than De Bortoli.'
The family's feted and expensive Yarra Valley table wines have made the name De Bortoli synonymous with the best vintages Australia has to offer-most strikingly in 1997 when the winery was given the country's most prestigious wine award, the Jimmy Watson Trophy, for Best Young Red. Despite the plaudits, Deen has remained an ardent champion of cask wine, loudly defending its quality against the more expensive tastes of his son. 'It's a bit of a family joke that, in terms of wine styles, what my father likes and what I think are good are poles apart,' admits Darren. Observes his sister, 'Darren certainly has a far better palate than Deen has, but then Deen's quite happy, like many Italians, just drinking the wine He's made here.' Father and son's divergent drinking tastes have brought them to different understandings of the family business, at least according to the son. 'Deens position was to be one of the largest wine companies in Australia, whereas my position was to be one of the better winemakers in Australia, and not try to be big for the sake of being big.' According to his mother, however, the contrast is not quite so stark. 'Darren's and Deen's ideas have fused together. sometimes both of them will argue and I will say, "Don't you realise you're arguing about the same thin g?" they're both so keen to get their point across that they don't realise it's the same point.'
Certainly the two men seem to have forged a comfortable working relationship since Darren took over as CEO of the family company in 1994. In their shared office, across the road from the family home, Deen's schoolboy-sized desk, covered in a mountain of paper and receipt butts, sits alongside Darren's more typical computer-focused work space. While Darren has taken responsibility for most of the day-to-day operations of the company, Deen has continued to oversee major new projects and acquisitions. Even he acknowledges that his son's greater expertise in winemaking has freed him to concentrate on the things he likes best. While Darren is likely to be found having a cigarette on the office balcony as he struggles with the pressures of running a multimillion-dollar business, Deen is more often than not out and about - 'building something', says his son. Their different work spheres reflect the two men's enormous differences in style. Unlike his father's workmanlike shopfloor approach, Darren espouses the ethos of the contemporary corporate executive and stresses the importance of delegation and reliable, skilled staff. But father and son's segregating, says Darren, also ensures that both men have their distinct areas of responsibility and each does not encroach on the other's domain. The same holds true for each of Darren's three siblings, all of whom followed their older brother into the family business. While Darren is based at the company's Griffith headquarters, his sister Leanne has managed the Yarra valley winery with her husband, Steve Webber, since 1988. Steve, whom she married in 1987, is also the family's chief winemaker. closer to home, middle brother Kevin runs the family's vineyards in Griffith. Unlike his eldest brother, Kevin is very much the farmer, with little time for office politics; unlike his father, he is also 'the quietest one of the family'. In contrast victor, the youngest, is perhaps the most fiscally qualified of the family with a degree in accountancy. he has joined Darren in the office where he works in exports. Deen, who swore off advising his children what to do, takes a mater-of-fact vies. 'it was good they all landed back in the place and we've made sure there was enough expansion so that if ever they got in each other's way, you could send them anywhere. but they've always gone very good, so there's never been a problem.'
His wife is less laconic. It's important to her that each of her offspring has found their niche in the business, and she has clearly had a firm but subtle hand in ensuring this outcome. When Victor wanted to try working in a particular sales area, it was his mother he spoke to about it. although she is the only family member not to have an official position in the company, all agree that as everyone's sounding board, Emeri is crucial to how the family functions. for her, this is simply a reflection of a a mother's traditional role. 'I think that most mot hers tend to be the centre of the family because we love each of our children equally and, if you love your husband, you can relate to him as well. You can see where the faults lie, and who's to blame, and you manage to try and clam the waters.' But Emeri is more than a mediator. It is she who has shaped the family's traditions, and, by extension, its future direction and progress. She, perhaps more than any other family member, has also determined the way in which business is conducted, with decisions still being made round the kitchen table. father, sons and their respective spouses still have lunch together through the week and talk shop. As always opinions can become heated, but are tempered by an abundance of good food and wine. Other family traits have also become manifest. 'Daren can be a little bit like Deen,' observes Emeri. 'When somebody mentions an idea he'll just say, "Oh, no, no, no.""But then he'll go off and think about it and see its possibilities. We all recognise that. Knowing each other's personalities helps to make decisions, and it helps us accept each other and know how to handle each situation.'
While daughter Leanne and husband Steve are generally a phone call away in the Yarra, they are included in all major discussions and make regular visits to the family home. More often than not, Darren and Steve have found themselves in opposing camps, including recently on the need for the business to take a more structured marketing approach. In the end, however, a strong consensus operates. And all agree that the family's administration, ad hoc and organic as it may be, has worked well up to now in ensuring a flat management structure with a short chain of command and good communication channels. 'You can have a lot of misrepresentation if you're bigger bureaucracy, whereas if we see that something needs to be taken care of, it's done immediately,' points out Emeri. She hopes this communication and decision-making process will continue once she and Deen are no longer there to referee. For her, the lunch table will always be where the family gathers to touch base and discuss business, irrespective of the cook or the quality of the meals. 'I think they'd come over regardless of whether it was s sandwich or whatever. It's the convenience of having lunch and an acceptance of a family tradition. It always has been. I mean, when Deen and I got married that was the way things ere done. whoever comes into this house will have to end up cooking because it just seems the tradition of this house.'
Who that will be, however, is open to question. none of her three sons still lives at home. victor has an apartment in town, and the two eldest live across the road from the winery with their wives, who both work in the family business. Neither has married a local girl: Darren's wife, Margot, is from a south Australian winemaking family, and Kevin's partner, Jennifer, is from Canada. Each brings her own contemporary sensibility to their ole in the family. Moreover, although as the eldest, 'it seems to be the logical conclusion that Darren will take over from his father', he will not be the sole inheritor of the family business. Instead, it will be equally divided among all four siblings, as his sister Leanne makes clear. 'With my three brothers and myself, I think that in my parents' eye we all contribute equally to the business and at the end of the day we're all be treated equally. And certainly that is quite different to way it was in the past.' In this instance Deen, with his wife's support, is adamant about breaking with tradition, 'I'm a bit different to most Italians. They always give preference to the boys and the girls always miss out. But I think that's wrong.' Such progress will bring its own challenges, at least in the eyes of his eldest son. 'this is really the golden period for me,' acknowledges Darren of his parents' ownership of the company. 'being the eldest, I really have got a fairly free rein. When the brothers and sisters come on board, and may father and mother are no longer around, I am going to look back on this period with great fondness because of the degree of autonomy I've got.' But while this period of Darren's stewardship ma be charmed in some respects, it has been turbulent in others, not least perhaps because of the family's growing power and influence.
Today Griffith is one of the most prosperous towns in regional Australia. Many of its migrant families have made good, and the De Bortolis are only one of its many rags-to-riches stories, which include the Miranda wine family and the Bartha family, who recently became Australia's largest chicken producers when they bought out Steggles. The district's disproportionately high number of agricultural entrepreneurs means Griffith has always enjoyed full employment, and a steady stream of new migrants - largely from Fiji and India - are replicating the Italian experience. Meanwhile many of its earlier immigrants are seen as part of a growing local establishment. Despite their modest lifestyle, the De Botolis, along with the McWilliams, are considered the cream of this very wealthy crop. While the family has always enjoyed a high local profile, its new status has placed considerable strain on old community ties, particularly in the face of harsh economic realities. In 2001, a booming market for table wine finally reached saturation point. Darren, with his father's approval, was determined to keep volume and prices down. while the family saw itself as hostage to market forces, this perception was not always shared. 'It's very difficult when we set grape prices because we have to make a business decision and you know it can affect your friends. You don't want that to happen, but it also means that if we don't make that decision we won't be around in years to come., reflects Emeri. 'I don't think the wider community understands the struggle we go through in making the decisions we make. They think we are just trying to get prices down so that we can make big profits. but you know in your heart that you're not really the bad person, it's just the market.'
A vintage approached tempers flared, including Darren De Bortoli's when he found himself faced with growers hostile to the winery's pricing decisions at a company-sponsored dinner. 'Unfortunately i didn't anticipate the resentment the growers felt over the price reductions, which was probably a major mistake and very naive on my behalf. while I was trying to explain what I felt the future held, I got heckled by a few of our younger growers. at which point all the emotion and pent-up tension suddenly found an outlet, and I proceeded to lose it completely.' His response was to tell growers that those unhappy with the company's terms could take their grapes elsewhere. it was bitter medicine and his outburst-which according to one grower included 'every expletive in the book' - set the gossip mills churning. with an annual crush of close to 50,000 tonnes, the De Bortolis were responsible for buying up approximately 20 per cent of the local harvest. Now speculation abounded that the family was in difficulty and abandoning its growers; some even went so far as to say that Darren had been assigned bodyguards in the face of escalating hostilities. These rumours were wildly overblown, but they mirrored the shifting sands of community expectations and antagonisms.
'Sometimes there's an expectation that if there's a problem, it's okay, De Bortoli will take it. and I find that the most frustrating, gut-wrenching sort of emotional pressure because the reality is we're not going to take grapes if we can't sell them,' insists Darren. 'My job is to ensure that the company remains in a strong, healthy, viable position, and it is very difficult when you have an emotional relationship with your grower base, because that complicates the decision-making process. it shouldn't, but the reality is of course it will.' Most gape growers consider Darren a tougher businessman than his father. As John Dal Broi, whose family has sold grapes to the De Bortolis for two generations, observes: 'Deen's the sort of guy who's very friendly out in the field. He loves being out on the farm and talking to growers. so we have a difference here. They're both good business people, but under current pressures and given the size of the business now, you can't be Mr Nice guy all the time.' While he may no longer be a regular at the local Catholic Club - in the interests of avoiding business arguments - Deen has grown up among the Griffith community alongside many of his growers. John Dal Broi is a regular guest at his home and a fellow bocce player. He is one of a close circle of friends who, says Emeri, 'know us as people, as friends, and not as someone who owns a business'. As her sister-in-law Eola points out: 'I think that Deen and Emeri have a very strong family in the Griffith community. I think they are very well thought of. Sometimes that can be quite difficult for sons and daughters to keep up with.'
Certainly one suspects that their eldest son leads a more isolated existence. As one local farmer observed, 'he's the third generation, Darren is, and he probably hasn't had it as tough as what his father did.' for a town built on migrant labour, earning one's position in the community remains a key point. 'I don't think you'd be accepted in this society if you were old money, because unless you worked to achieve it I don't think they want to know you,' reflects John Taylor, but more than having to constantly prove himself, as did his father before him, Darren by virtue of interests and associations no longer seems one of the lads. His peer group, one imagines, is in the cities among those who share his tastes in expensive wine and his corporate outlook. Taller and heavier-set than his father, he also looks more suited to the boardroom than the farm. As sister Leanne points out, 'I think Darren has a different style to Deen's that no doubt comes from going through university and studying, but then Darren has something quite different to contribute to the company.'
Up to now that contribution has entailed giving the family business a higher, more up-market profile at home and abroad. but as the company continues to grow, so too does the pressure to put it on a more corporate footing. The winery now employs more than two hundred staff, many with highly specialist skills. At the same time, the family is getting bigger as a fourth generation of De Bortolis grows up with aspirations of its own. when prompted by her grandfather, Leanne's daughter Kate pertly responds that she'd like to be vice-president one day. Meanwhile Darren's eldest son Ben is 'adamant he's gong to be the boss', says his father. This has its advantages in encouraging Bento do his homework, but 'whether that happens' remains to be seen. 'If he can do it on merit: fantastic,' says Darren. but he also believes that 'at some point, we're going to have to draw the line in terms of nepotism because you can't keep employing family members irrespective of their talents. it's a difficult issue to resolve. But there may come a time that there may not be a generation or group of De Bortolis coming through who are capable of taking the company to the next step. It may even be that I'm incapable of taking the company to the next step and that's just the harsh reality of life.'
For Darren, recent efforts to diversify the company's interests outside winemaking have not been successful. The family was one of the big losers when the insurance giant HIH collapsed, having bought twenty-three million shares only a year before the company went into receivership. (Town gossip was quick to respond, dubbing Darren 'Steve Austin, the Six Million dollar Man', because of the estimated loss. This sturdy irreverence and cynicism no doubt has gone a long way to keeping the family's feet firmly on the ground.) Irrespective of his own abilities as CEO, however, Darren believes it is inevitable that as the family and company grow larger, success based on the characteristics of the various family members involved will no longer hold sway. With this in mind, he and his siblings have kept a close watch on McWilliams' wines where shares in the family business are held by four separate companies, each representing the descendants of the founding patriarch's four sons. While some family members still work in the business and a representative from each branch of the family sits on the board of directors, it is run virtually as a public company with an independent CEO. This has made things somewhat restrictive and impersonal, says Keith McWilliams who still harks back to the good old days, but it has ensured the long-term stability and success of the family company. now stretching over five generations, McWilliams' wines remains a market leader, valued at more than $140 million.
For Deen, the De Bortoli winery has always been an expression of the people behind it. 'It's the family that makes the business. I think it's important that family can carry out what they're capable of carrying out rather than the other way around.' According to his son, however, the interests of the company must eventually take precedence over those of individual family members. Much as he likes history, he says, there is no room for sentimentality in business. while selling out to a public corporation is anathema to Deen, as it was to his father, his son believes even this may be inevitable as the sums of money on offer become too tempting to refuse. (In 2001 Rosemount Wines, one of the staunchest family companies in the business, accepted a billion-dollar offer by Southcorp to merge into the public corporation, which now owns a handful of old family names.) It seems inevitable, when looking at the history of dynasties past, that the flavour and character of the De Bortolis dynasty will eventually become absorbed into a mainstream business elite. Certainly Darren, if not his father, appears resigned to this possibility. 'I wouldn't want to see De Bortoli become a public company, but I'm also a realist and I know that it's going to occur - it's just a question of when.' In financial terms, such a deal could well be the De Bortolis' crowning achievement, but may believe the family will not make such a final break with the past. (Keith McWilliams remains convinced that it will stay a family-owned company, but that it will have to change its outlook, perhaps mimicking the path his family has taken.) Certainly there seems little doubt that with each generation the family will continue to revise its dynastic traditions as it makes steady progress away from its rural Italian roots. The only thing they can not afford to change are the arguments.
Australia - Dynasties - The Murdochs - Part 2
Australian Aboriginal Sites in Temperate Australia
Australian Aboriginal Anthropology
Australian Aboriginal Music