The third generation of the De Bortoli family, the children of Deen and Emeri De Bortoli, are the custodians of De Bortoli Wines today.
Managing Director Darren De Bortoli also oversees the winemaking, alongside Leanne De Bortoli’s winemaker husband Steve Webber. Leanne and Steve manage the Yarra Valley Estate winery and vineyard while Kevin De Bortoli is Company Viticulturist and youngest son Victor De Bortoli is Export Director.
Every family member has pride in and a commitment to the business, alongside a passion for great wine and a sense of responsibility about leaving a legacy for future generations.
FOUNDER AND ORIGINAL WINEMAKER OF DE BORTOLI WINES
The De Bortoli Wines story starts with Vittorio, but it was never his plan to make his money from selling wine. He was, however, a man with a sharp sense for a good opportunity.
Vittorio had learned basic winemaking skills while growing up on a farm in Castelcucco in the alpine foothills of Italy’s north. Growing vegetables and fixing farm machinery were also in his repertoire and he brought all those skills with him when he immigrated to Australia in 1924. He came looking for a better life than the one facing him in war-ravaged Europe and even though he had to leave his fiancée Giuseppina behind, they planned for her to join him once he had found a place to settle.
Vittorio landed in Melbourne but decided he was better suited to the country and chose the newly irrigated Riverina area, near the town of Griffith in NSW. He initially lived beneath a water tank, working at other farms and, to save money, fed himself from the veggie patch he planted with seeds he’d brought from Italy. Luckily he was a good and enthusiastic cook.
By 1928 he’d saved enough to buy a “fruit salad farm” – a farm planted with a variety of fruit trees and grapes. Finally, after four years, Giuseppina was able to buy passage and sail to Australia where they could start their new life together.
Vittorio’s love of cooking and his self sufficiency (in addition to his thriving veggie patch and the farm’s fruit and olive trees he also kept chicken and pigeon coops) was the catalyst behind a long-standing De Bortoli family tradition - La Tavola Lunga, a tradition which still stands today. Vittorio would oversee the menu each day and then family and farm workers would all sit down to lunch together. These lunches helped turn Vittorio and Giuseppina’s home into something of a beacon for the newly arrived Italian workers. Fresh off the train in this new and strange part of the world, they would be taken out to the farm at Bilbul, to be greeted by the comforting sound of Italian voices and the familiar smells of Italian home cooking.
The first year on the farm, a glut of Shiraz grapes meant that not only could Vittorio not sell his grapes but many farmers in the region decided it was cheaper to let them rot than harvest. Vittorio didn’t like waste and went around offering to take the grapes. Many agreed. Vittorio constructed a couple of 900 gallon concrete tanks and crushed 15 tons of (free) shiraz grapes. Italians living around Griffith and the itinerant European fruit pickers who moved through the area began buying the wine from him and word – and demand – began to spread into Sydney and up to Queensland. Vittorio was now a winemaker. De Bortoli Wines was born.
THE 'BOSSA' AND ORIGINAL BUSINESS MANAGER OF DE BORTOLI WINES
Giuseppina Bisa grew up in the alpine foothills of the Veneto region, the same part of Italy as Vittorio De Bortoli. They agreed to marry but neither of them could see a future in Italy, where food shortages and lack of opportunity dragged on in the years after the war. When Vittorio decided to migrate to Australia, Giuseppina agreed to follow him once he had found a place for them to live.
It was four years before she was to see him again. During that time she moved to France to work as a maid, saving the money that would pay for her passage to Australia. She travelled the long sea journey on her own, landing in Sydney where she was met by her brothers (eventually – they were late), who then travelled with her to Griffith.
The time she spent in France came in handy for more than just the money. Giuseppina learned to speak French fluently and so when she first moved to Bilbul to marry Vittorio she was able to barter English lessons for French ones with the local schoolteacher. And when it became increasingly apparent that Vittorio’s wine would become their primary source of income, she ordered French winemaking textbooks that she then translated, helping Vittorio improve the quality and the quantity of his wine.
Giuseppina and Vittorio married in 1929 and she was integral to the success of the business from then on. Not only did she manage the books and the business correspondence, but Vittorio constantly came to her for advice in the day to day running of the business. When he did so, he jokingly referred to her as “bossa”.
But Giuseppina was not just a business manager. She also ran the household and had three children Florrie, Eola and Deen. It was a busy life but there was one aspect of all the busy-ness that Giuseppina was grateful for – it allowed her an excuse to escape the cooking, one of her least favourite things to do. Luckily Vittorio loved to cook and supervise what was being served each day. He also created the tradition where they would all – family and farm workers both – sit down to eat lunch together every day.
Giuseppina’s intelligence and hard work were crucial to the solid foundations of the family business. With her, it was able to flourish.
It seems that Deen De Bortoli was born into exactly the right family. Almost from the day of his birth at the family house in Bilbul, Deen had been fascinated with the machinery and the day-to-day workings of the winery. As soon as he could walk, the little boy in the baggy shorts was a common sight around the farm.
This passion for machinery didn’t limit itself to the farm and the winery. He had a fascination for model aeroplanes, go-karts and particularly the motorbikes that he tore about the property on. He was obsessed with technology and, increasingly, how it could help De Bortoli Wines to expand and grow.
Deen decided, against his parent’s wishes, to leave school at 15 and begin working at the winery. It started many years of inter-generational tug-of-war between Deen, with his ideas of expansion and modernity, and his dad Vittorio, more comfortable with tradition and low cost. As Deen’s wife Emeri tells it, the arguments between Deen and Vittorio about expanding the winery were so common that they became background noise.
In the end Deen, forward thinking, energetic and strategic (he would wait until his father left the farm to tend the wine distribution business in Sydney before bringing in builders to install more tanks or expand the bottling line), triumphed. The capacity of the winery expanded immensely as did the array of grape varieties De Bortoli Wines made. But perhaps he and Emeri’s greatest achievement in ensuring the future of the business was raising four children – Darren, Leanne, Kevin and Victor – who grew to be as fascinated with the business as their parents.
Deen was willing to make decisions outside of his comfort zone. In 1982 Darren, with Deen’s guidance created the iconic dessert wine Noble One and then came the success of the cool climate wines produced at the family’s Yarra Valley Estate in Victoria, followed that with the purchase of properties in both the King Valley in Victoria and the Hunter Valley in New South Wales.
Deen died suddenly in 2003, just after the the 75th birthday celebrations for De Bortoli Wines. He died at the family farm in Bilbul, where he had been born and which remains the centre of the family and the business today.
COMPANY CHAIRPERSON AND MATRIARCH OF THE DE BORTOLI FAMILY
“Other than my family, my every waking moment is spent thinking about my garden...I love spending time in the garden, dreaming about how it will look, the suitability of certain plants and planting something that will provide pleasure and sustenance.”
Emeri Cunial grew up in Griffith, the daughter of migrants from the same region in Italy as Vittorio and Giuseppina De Bortoli. She met Deen through his cousin Pierina, who lived next door to Emeri’s family and they married in 1958. After the wedding, a party spanning two days and involving more than 130 guests, a wedding feast cooked by friends and family and truckloads of De Bortoli wine, Emeri and Deen moved to his family home at Bilbul.
Emeri’s determined temperament and love of cooking and gardening were a good match with a family that sat down to talk through (and sometimes argue about) business over lunch every day, eating dishes made with produce pulled from the garden. She was never in any doubt how central the family business would be to her life.
“Deen lived and breathed the winery,” she says. “We started our married life by visiting machinery shops in South Australia, on our honeymoon. That was when I knew how important the business was to him.”
Over the decades, Emeri acted as a crucial sounding board for Deen while he was alive and now continues to do so with her children as Company Chairperson. She was integral to the creation of Locale, the acclaimed North Italian-inspired restaurant at the Yarra Valley Estate. Emeri’s vision for Locale – skillfully cooked, authentic Italian food cooked with fresh local produce – is still very much in place at the restaurant today.
Emeri’s personal legacy becomes clearer every year, via the gardens she’s created and helped plant (usually accompanied by her beloved dogs) at Bilbul, the Yarra Valley and the Hunter Valley, gardens that are both beautiful and edible.
A tip from Emeri
"I love to use Chardonnay when I’m cooking as it adds flavour and body to many dishes."
Did you know?
Emeri is currently planting a 15-acre memorial garden at Bilbul, dedicated to her late husband Deen.
The third generation of the De Bortoli family, the children of Deen and Emeri, are custodians of De Bortoli Wines today. All of the four children contribute to the business – Darren as Managing Director and Winemaker, Leanne and her winemaker husband Steve Webber managing the Yarra Valley Estate, Kevin as Company Viticulturist and Victor as Export Director – aware and conscious of leaving a legacy for the next generation.
MANAGING DIRECTOR OF DE BORTOLI WINES
“I’m proud of the success of course but I’m also proud of the fact that we have a reputation for being a down-to- earth and respected company that’s family run and family-owned.”
Emeri De Bortoli says that even at a very young age her oldest son Darren had a strong will, determination and “always an enquiring mind”. “Darren would love to listen to the older generation talk,” she says. “We’d send him off to bed but he’d always come back in and before you knew it, he was back at the table, eager to know what was going on.”
Darren De Bortoli still has an enquiring mind. Whether it’s within the winemaking industry or on his Facebook page he’s never been afraid to challenge popular wisdom. It’s a quality that’s had him labelled “maverick”, “headstrong” and “ambitious” but it’s also one that helped imagine and then produce the iconic Australian Botrytis Semillon, Noble One, a wine no-one believed could be made with any success in Australia.
Darren carried the hopes of his grandfather Vittorio that he would become a winemaker and carry on the family business. Despite a tendency to “rebel against being forced in a direction” he went to Roseworthy to study for a Bachelor of Applied Science in Oenology. But when he returned to the family winery he wasn’t interested in business as usual.
The success of Noble One (which he continues to help make every year), gave Darren the confidence for his next plan, to push De Bortoli Wines towards the premium end of the market. After a series of “robust” discussions with his father Deen, the family bought the cool climate Yarra Valley Estate and followed that with properties in the King and Hunter Valleys.
Under Darren’s direction, De Bortoli Wines has become one of the largest and most successful wine businesses in Australia, but he’s always had a talent for keeping success and growth as just one part of the equation.
In recent years Darren has become passionately involved in causes that effect farmers, such as the debate about water flows in the Murray-Darling Basin. Anyone who follows his Facebook page (his brothers and sister joke that he’s still in his “honeymoon phase” with social media) will know his firm ideas on the water issue, alongside often insightful and sometimes hilarious posts about wine, history, politics and even the perch he keeps in his dam (the ones he feeds but won’t let anyone fish for).
Darren’s always been fond of animals and they of him too. His mother recalls a mangy German Shepard stray coming into the yard when Darren was only a young boy and Darren running up to it and flinging his arms around its neck. Emeri was convinced the dog would attack but instead it licked Darren’s face. They kept the dog.
As it was with his grandfather, food is one of his passions. Darren and his wife Margot are fond of entertaining, continuing the family tradition of good wine, good food and good friends.
A tip from Darren
"For me, one of life’s simple pleasures is hot roasted chestnuts with a full flavoured red wine in the middle of a cold winter’s night."
Did you know?
Darren became Managing Director of De Bortoli Wines when he was just 33.
YARRA VALLEY ESTATE MANAGER
“Our unofficial family motto has always been “good wine, good food, good friends” – I think it’s a pretty good formula.”
Leanne De Bortoli’s childhood playground was the winery established by her granddad Vittorio. With the family living opposite the winery, work and play blended seamlessly. One day Leanne and her three brothers would be rollerskating or skateboarding through the winery, weaving around looming wine vats and vast bottling lines, the next they’d be helping out on those same bottling lines, in the winery’s Cellar Door or in the vineyards. At other times they’d be yabbying in one of the irrigation canals surrounding the estate or climbing the fruit and olive trees that their grandparents had planted around the house, “picking oranges and stuffing our faces full of figs”.
“Thinking back on it, it was pretty cool having a winery as a playground when you are a kid,” says Leanne.
Living on a winery is in the blood. Leanne and her winemaker husband Steve Webber now run the De Bortoli winery in the Yarra Valley, living and working on the estate. It’s where they raised two beautiful daughters Sally and Kate who, like their mum and uncles, grew up helping out in the winery and playing amongst the vines.
It’s a busy life in the Yarra Valley. Leanne looks after the winery’s cellar door and renowned restaurant Locale while also helping to promote the winery and the region, tending a thriving veggie patch and, as a self-confessed social media tragic, capturing and posting all the goings on at the estate – from the changing of the seasons in the vineyard to a bumper tomato crop or new dishes on the Locale menu – on her Instagram feed.
Leanne’s a great cook and often treats friends, family and colleagues from the wine industry to delicious meals using recipes handed down to her from her mother and grandmother and produce picked straight from her veggie garden. The meals, usually served on the back terrace of her home and are accompanied by beautiful views over vines and, inevitably, the family dogs.
Leanne and Steve regularly retreat to the Mornington Peninsula where they have a second home and the business of winemaking is replaced by paddle boarding, pilates and yoga.
“Something about the sound and smell of the sea is very relaxing,” says Leanne. “Also, there’s not a vine in sight!”
Of course good food and wine in the company of family and friends is still central even away from the winery. It may be a vine-free break from a busy life, but the family motto still holds sway.
A tip from Leanne
“Don’t be frightened to try new wine styles – even if you can’t pronounce the names, half the time neither can the winemakers!"
Did you know?
Leanne completed a Wine Marketing degree from Roseworthy Agricultural College, as did Steve Webber, just not at the same time. However through mutual friends from College, they first met.
COMPANY VITICULTURIST AT BILBUL ESTATE
“We’re not only improving wine quality through our management, by the varieties we plant and the crop levels we expect from them, we’re also handing on healthy and productive land to future generations.”
Kevin De Bortoli has always been an “outdoor person”. Growing up on the family winery at Bilbul, among the chickens, guinea fowl and pigeons that his grandfather kept, he decided he would become a farmer. His plan wasn’t necessarily linked with the family business, given that the work that he and his siblings Darren, Leanne and Victor were expected to do around the winery often had nothing to do with the great outdoors.
His first job, when he was around 10, was working on the winery’s bottling line.
“Everything was pretty well manual back then,” he says. “We had to put the bottles onto the line, knock the corks into the bottles and put all the wires on. We were told we had to do it to earn pocket money but I think they did it to keep us out of trouble.”
After leaving high school, Kevin worked at the winery, learning every aspect of it from the vineyard to the crusher and spending a lot of his time working with the maintenance crew. But it was when he began spending more time in the vineyard and decided to study for a Diploma of Viticulture at Charles Sturt University that he discovered his real passion for grape growing.
Kevin now looks after the 300 hectares of vines and 20-plus varieties of grapes at De Bortoli Wines’ Bilbul Estate. His farming practices continue to evolve as he’s become increasingly interested in improving quality and productivity in the vineyard through environmentally sustainable farming practices.
Kevin’s also been practicing and improving his barbeque skills (his steak with grilled radicchio, olive oil and De Bortoli white wine vinegar gets rave reviews), something that he’s been doing more of since he and his wife Jen and their four kids moved to a the new house they built near Bilbul. A feature of the house is a large dining table that seats 26, enough to house the extended family, which they do on many of occasions.
Working in the vineyard, out in the elements, seems to be “a natural fit”, Kevin says. It also seems to be the fulfilment of his 10-year-old self’s dream of being a farmer.
A tip from Kevin
"There are so many styles of wine from sweet to dry that you’ll find one you like if you’re not afraid to try many different styles."
Did you know?
Kevin met his future wife Jennifer whilst she was on a working holiday at the winery. Born and raised in Ontario Canada, Jen has introduced the tradition of the giant Christmas turkey to the family, something she is now duty-bound to do every year.
EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR AT DE BORTOLI WINES
“Internationally there must be a gazillion wines on offer but we overcome this by persistence and just making great wines. I don’t think people overseas are overly different to what consumers in Australia want. They just want a nice bottle of wine that they can sit back and enjoy.”
Victor De Bortoli, the youngest of Deen and Emeri De Bortoli’s four children, had mixed feelings about the family business when he was growing up. On the one hand, the winery and surrounding vineyards were “a massive playground: running around the vineyard on motorbikes, chasing snakes with the bow and arrow, yabbying in the canals, it was just one adventure after another”.
On the other hand there was the expectation that he would also help out at the winery. When he was 12 years old and his brother Darren was first attempting to make what was to become the iconic Noble One, “the old man grabbed us all to spend a day in the vineyard hand-picking those rotten grapes, while my mates were out having fun”.
After leaving school, Victor completed a commerce degree at Australian National University and worked outside of the wine industry for a period before returning to the fold, first as Area Sales Manager for De Bortoli Wines Canberra, then as head of the company’s first offshore branch in London.
The UK posting was both a learning curve and a wake up-call for Victor who, on his return to the winery at Bilbul, discovered the experience had enabled him to “truly understand” the industry and his family’s role in it. After Victor took on the role of head of export operations in 2001, De Bortoli Wines jumped from outside of the top 20 Australian wine exporters to number six in the country. It’s an achievement he describes quite humbly, as “pretty fulfilling”.
Victor’s position in the company has meant many years of extensive travel. Now he has chosen to travel less – with the full support of the family – so as to spend more time with his wife Melissa and their four children. His ideal down time is all about family, friends, food, wine and – like many in his family – gardening.
“I enjoy hanging out in the garden just poking about and growing vegetables. Unfortunately for some plants I really love pruning.”
A tip from Victor
"Don’t drink red wine warm. The old saying that red wine should be served at room temperature does not mean climate temperature, it actually means cellar temperature out of Europe which around 18 degrees. If you’re at a BBQ and there are reds sitting out on the table, pop them in the esky or fridge for 10 to 20 minutes. You’re not trying to chill them but just taking the heat out of them."
Did you know?
Victor won New South Wales Young Exporter of the Year award in 2001, the year he took over as head of export operations at De Bortoli Wines.
As the first five of Deen and Emeri De Bortoli’s 13 grandchildren reach adulthood, a new and exciting chapter of the family story is starting. Fresh ideas, energy and enthusiasm mean that the future of De Bortoli Wines is looking brighter than ever.
An exciting new chapter in the De Bortoli Wines story is now underway as the fourth generation of the family begins to come of age. Just like their parents and grandparents before them, this new generation grew up around the family wineries and bring with them a unique, fresh perspective combined with loads of enthusiasm and energy.
“Now the first five of us have reached adulthood, our parents are eagerly waiting to see what each of us will bring back to the company from our own experiences,” says Kate Webber, daughter of Leanne De Bortoli and Steve Webber and the eldest of the “Fourth Genners”. “And,” her younger sister Sally adds, “With eight more fourth genners still to come, the possibilities are endless.”
Kate spent two years working in the winemaker's’ laboratory at the family’s Yarra Valley Estate after completing a Bachelor of Science degree at Monash University. Proving that a passion for wine is part of her DNA, Kate now enjoys working for online wine retailer Vinomofo. Kate’s younger sister Sally worked in the family’s Yarra Valley Estate restaurant Locale while completing her Bachelor of Commerce and Economics at Monash University and has since been recruited as a communications graduate at John Holland.
Anna De Bortoli, daughter of Managing Director Darren De Bortoli and his wife Margot, is currently both studying a Bachelor of Business at RMIT University and working within the company as a Marketing Assistant. Her older brother Ben has been keeping it in the family also since completing a Bachelor of Commerce degree at the University of NSW, working as a cellar hand at the family’s Yarra Valley Estate. Younger sister Sophie is currently studying a Bachelor of Integrated Product Design at the University of Technology Sydney and spends her uni holidays working as a cellar hand or in the marketing office in Bilbul.
For kids who, as Anna says, grew up experiencing “impromptu board meetings around my nonna’s kitchen table over bowls of risotto”, it’s little wonder that the business is in their blood. Watch this space.
Sign up for offers, wine insights, food and more