De Bortoli, De Bortoli Road, Bilbul, NSW, Australien, 2680, Tel: 61 2 6966 0100
Vittorio De Bortoli left Italy in 1924 seeking a new life in Australia. Even in his wildest dreams, the 24 year old could not have imagined he would become the founder of an Australian Dynasty - De Bortoli Wines whose $170 million per annum business is Australias 6th largest wine company.
Arriving in Melbourne with little but his clothes, a few shillings, boundless optimism and a capacity for hard work, Vittorio caught a train to Albury then on to Griffith where farm work was plentiful. Vittorio came from Castelcucco near Asolo in the Treviso region, the verdant foothills of the Italian Alps. Arriving in the flat sunburnt Riverina must have been a shock, the contrast could not have been greater. He obtained work on a farm but times were hard and when he asked the farmer for sixpence to buy soup bones, he was told the farmer had no money. He found alternative employment and worked on several farms including Jones Winery which later became McWilliams Beelbangera winery. There is a grainy photograph of Vittorios makeshift abode underneath a water tank. He had made his mark, the photo depicts rows of well tended vegetables, Vittorio may have been poor but he wasnt going to starve.
By 1927, Vittorio had enough savings to purchase a 55-acre mixed fruit 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 fiancé Giuseppina was working in France saving to join Vittorio in Australia. Giuseppina and Vittorio married in 1929.
In 1928 a grape surplus meant Vittorio could not sell his grapes. This allowed him to make his own table wine. Drinking wine at meals was a European tradition but in the 1920s in the Riverina and nearby Rutherglen, winemaking was confined to fortified wines such as ports and tokays. Vittorio had grown up drinking wine at meals and the lack of good table wine was unacceptable so he made his own for family and friends. The wine making venture expanded eventually becoming the core business. During the fruit-picking season in the Riverina, 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. They encouraged him to make more and send it to them. Thus Vittorio 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 winemaking 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 25000 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.
In 1952 the couples dynamic 15-year-old son Deen joined the business. Deens passion was machinery and the new technology that was becoming available to winemakers. He was a visionary who saw the potential of wine as a popular beverage and he worked assiduously to increase capacity, not without opposition from his more traditionally minded parents. By 1959 he had increased the capacity of the winery to 110 vats, holding 795000 gallons.
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 Giuseppinas personal savings that enabled the company to package and sell wine in New South Wales and Queensland. The couple’s daughter Florrie and her husband Silvio became managers of the wine distribution company set up in Sydney. Their younger daughter Eola and husband Ian ran the business after Florrie and Silvio moved on. When Vittorio died in 1979, the sisters inherited the Sydney assets and Deen inherited the Bilbul winery.
Under the direction of Deen and his children, De Bortoli established distribution branches in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Perth and overseas in United Kingdom, Europe and North America. The company also expanded beyond its Riverina base into other premium wine regions including Yarra Valley, King Valley and Hunter Valley. Sadly, Deen De Bortoli died suddenly on 26th October 2003. Deen was loved and admired by all for his humble, generous nature and for his dedication to the Australian Wine Industry. Deen was 67 years old and is survived by his wife Emeri, their 4 children and 9 grandchildren.
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