De Bortoli Wines is a third generation family wine company established by Vittorio and Giuseppina De Bortoli in 1928. The couple emigrated to Australia from Northern Italy, from mountain villages at the foothills of the Italian Alps, near the historic town of Asolo.
Their son, the energetic and dynamic Deen De Bortoli, (b 1936 – d 2003) expanded and consolidated the business created by his parents. Deen's children established De Bortoli's reputation for premium wine including icon dessert wine Noble One and the Yarra Valley wines.
Italian family values passed down from Vittorio remain core values, there is a culture of hard work, generosity of spirit and of sharing good food, good wine and good times with family and friends.
Vittorio De Bortoli left Italy in 1924 to seek a new life in Australia. Even in his wildest dreams, the 24 year old could never have imagined that he would establish an Australian winemaking dynasty.
Vittorio De Bortoli, The Early Days
Vittorio De Bortoli left Italy in 1924, escaping the ravages of World War l, seeking a new life in Australia. However, even in his wildest dreams, the 24 year old could never have imagined that he would become the founder of an Australian wine making dynasty.
Arriving in Melbourne with little but his clothes, a few shillings, boundless optimism and a capacity for hard work, Vittorio caught a train to Griffith in the Riverina, New South Wales where he had heard that farm work was plentiful. Coming from the verdant foothills of the Italian Alps in Northern Italy to the flat sunburnt Riverina must have been a shock. He obtained work on a farm but times were hard. When he asked the farmer for sixpence to buy soup bones, he was told there was no money. He found other work including at Jones' Winery which later became McWilliam's Beelbangera winery [now decommissioned]. There is a grainy photograph of Vittorio’s makeshift abode beneath a water tank. The photo depicts rows of well tended vegetables. Vittorio may have been poor but he wasn’t going to starve.
By 1927, Vittorio had saved enough to purchase a 55-acre mixed 'fruit salad' farm in Bilbul near Griffith. Bilbul remains the headquarters of the family wine business. His future brother-in-law Giovanni arrived to help while his fiancée Giuseppina was working in France saving to join Vittorio in Australia. Giuseppina and Vittorio married in 1929.
A grape surplus in 1928 meant Vittorio could not sell his grapes so he made his own wine to enjoy with family and friends. Drinking wine with meals was a European tradition but in the 1920s in the Riverina and Rutherglen, winemaking was confined to fortified wines. The lack of good table wine was unacceptable to Vittorio. The wine making venture expanded and became so successful it became the core business. During the harvest Italian labourers who worked as cane-cutters in Queensland visited the De Bortoli farm to exchange news of Italy and drink wine. Vittorio obviously had a flair for winemaking because when they returned to Queensland they convinced him to part with some which is how he began exporting his wine to Queensland and Northern New South Wales.
While Vittorio managed the farm, Giuseppina who had bartered French lessons for English lessons at the local school did the bookwork. She became known as the “Bossa”. Family lore has it she sent away for French wine making texts that she translated for Vittorio. The partnership produced three children, Florrie, Deen and Eola. During the 1930s the family home became a mecca for other Italian migrants.
The first crush in 1928 was 15 tonnes of shiraz made in 2 x 900 gallon vats but by 1936 Vittorio had increased capacity to 20 vats holding 25,000 gallons. Everything was done by hand and up to 25 men worked at the winery during vintage. The grape varieties grown were mainly Semillon, Trebbiano, Doradillo, Pedro Ximinez, Grenache and Shiraz.
The De Bortoli family business survived the Depression, and the difficult war years despite Vittorio being imprisoned for a short period for selling wine above his quota - draconian laws in place at the time severely limited the amount of wine that could be sold. Furthermore, with the onset of World War II, fear and paranoia infiltrated the Australian Government. Many Australians of German and Italian background were confined in prison camps or had their movements severely restricted. New Government policies of compulsory acquisition of plant and equipment came into force. It was a terrible time for many migrants and Vittorio and Giuseppina risked losing all they had built. As the war ended, normality gradually returned and by 1952 a rationing system imposed on alcohol had been lifted. A consumer boom erupted and De Bortoli Wines began to expand in earnest.
Deen De Bortoli, Visionary, Builder & Innovator
In 1952, Vittorio's young son, the precocious 15-year-old Deen De Bortoli joined the family business. Deen’s passion was machinery and the new technology becoming available to winemakers. He was a visionary who saw the potential of wine as a popular beverage and he worked hard to increase the winery's capacity, not without opposition from his more traditionally minded parents. By 1959 he had increased capacity to 110 vats, holding 795,000 gallons.
Deen whose involvement in the Australian Wine Industry would be more than 50 years became a major force, a mover and shaker who energetically expanded his family company, relentlessly building and implementing many innovations, introducing new wine styles and embracing new technology and viticultural practices.
However, distribution was essential for the survival of the company. Archaic licensing laws and restricted distribution limited the amount of wine that could be sold from Bilbul. Vittorio purchased a licence with Giuseppina's personal savings that enabled the company to package and sell wine in New South Wales and Queensland. Deen's sister Florrie and her husband Silvio became managers of the wine distribution company set up in Sydney. His younger sister Eola and her husband Ian ran the business after Florrie and Silvio moved on. When his father died in 1979, Deen's sisters inherited the Sydney assets while Deen inherited the Bilbul winery.
Early in Deen’s career, fortified wines were the major sector of the market. De Bortoli with its Italian heritage, was one of the first companies to lead the way in the production of dry table wines which became popular during the 1960s and 1970s when a major wine boom occurred in Australia. Deen also released a fruity Italian style sparkling wine called Vittorio Spumante onto the market which introduced a whole new generation to wine. [The Emeri sparkling range is made in a similar tradition].
The 1960s also saw the birth of Deen and his wife Emeri's four children, the third generation of the dynasty, Darren, Leanne, Kevin and Victor spurring Deen's expansionary vision even further. As Leanne De Bortoli puts it, “Looking back at it now, I think he just wanted to make sure the place was set up for us to slide into.”
During the 1980s Deen and his son Darren made a sweet white wine from botrytised semillon 'Noble One' now Australia’s benchmark sweet white wine. In 1987 the company purchased its Yarra Valley estate and the 1990s saw the ever energetic Deen establish a large vineyard in the King Valley in North Eastern Victoria. Deen also oversaw the family purchase of a winery and vineyard in the Hunter Valley in 2002. Deen was a member of the Vine Improvement Society and active in the management of the company vineyards. He was also a member of in the MIA Sustainable Development Committee, concerned with land management issues including salinity control, drainage, recycling, and the streamlining of irrigation systems.
Deen lived to celebrate De Bortoli Wines' 75th Anniversary but died suddenly in October 2003. At one of the functions celebrating this milestone event, Deen paid tribute to his hard working parents. As he put it, 'If it hadn't been for my father, there would have been nothing for me to carry on'. Deen was born at the winery at Bilbul and died at the winery at Bilbul which had become such a part of himself and his parent's legacy. Deen had a passion and instinct for his family company and the wine industry. Perhaps his greatest legacy was his open-mindedness and willingness to embrace new ideas.
The Third Generation
The third generation, Deen & Emeri De Bortoli's four children, are the current custodians of De Bortoli Wines and all are actively involved in the business. With Emeri they also form the family Board of Directors. Eldest son Darren is Managing Director, daughter Leanne manages the Yarra Valley arm of the business, Kevin looks after the company vineyards in the Riverina and Victor is Export Director. If Deen expanded and consolidated what his parents established, then the third generation set a whole new direction - guiding the company into the premium wine market.
The remarkable success of Noble One in the 1980s, made by new graduate winemaker Darren De Bortoli [with the support of Deen] gave the family the confidence to go to the next step. Noble One, inspired by the classic sweet white wines of Europe, has over the past two decades become one of the world's most highly awarded and sought after wines.
The next step was the purchase of its first Yarra Valley vineyard in 1987. The Yarra Valley venture which is managed by Leanne and her winemaker husband Steve Webber has been enormously successful. Highlights include receiving Australia's most prestigious wine trophy, the Jimmy Watson in 1997, Steve Webber's Gourmet Traveller Winemaker of the Year Award in 2007 and receiving the Best Tourism Winery award at the Australian Tourism Awards in 2009.
During the 1990s the family also established their King Valley vineyards and in 2002 purchased a winery in the Hunter Valley. On the business front the familly took control of their distribution establishing offices and warehouses in the capital cities. In 1996 Victor De Bortoli established the first international sales office in the United Kingdom which was followed by offices in Europe [Antwerp] and the United States.
Notwithstanding the challenges currently facing the Australian Wine Industry, De Bortoli's future seems secure. There are 12 grandchildren of whom as Leanne De Bortoli says, “Some will want to come into the family business and some won't. We are just trying to set up a great family business that can be passed onto the next generation and how they go forward with that is up to them.”
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