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.