Andrew CalabriaBusiness

How Calabria became one of Australia’s biggest wine companies

One of Australia’s most beloved winemakers, Calabria Family Wines, evolved last week to become the Calabria Family Wine Group. The move follows the company more than doubling its brands in the last 10 months from 140 to 283.

Calabria also announced the formation of Vinters & Co. Merchants – a new distribution arm of the company to represent its international distribution partnerships. In addition to its deals with brands including Dow’s Port and Canti, three new distribution partnerships were added last week: Italian brand Librandi, Argentinian winery Dona Paula, and renowned French champagne producer Champagne Deutz.

Meanwhile, Calabria’s Australian portfolio includes its own estate labels, the historic McWilliam’s Wines brand and Hanwood Winery acquired earlier this year, and the Deakin Estate, La La Land and Azhara brands, which it bought from the Henkell Freixenet Group last year.

The Calabria Family Wines story began in 1945, when founders Francesco and Elisabetta Calabria (below) immigrated to Australia from Italy and purchased land in Griffith for fruit farming. More than seven decades later, the third generation proudly carries on their grandparents’ values of hard work and innovation. Drinks Digest spoke to Sales & Marketing Director Andrew Calabria (pictured main) about how proud his grandparents would be to see how their legacy has evolved.

Back in 1945 do you think your founders, Francesco and Elisabetta Calabria, could have ever imagined the vineyard they created to make wines for family and friends would become a world-famous award winner?

It is unbelievable to look back and see how the family business has grown. We credit much of our success now to Francesco’s work in founding the winery 75 years ago. It was a very small scale operation back then and began as purely a means of extra income so he would never have imagined what his business would go on to achieve. I’m certain he would be blown away that his winery is winning awards on a global scale.

Making wine started out as a means of income for your grandparents. But in the ’90s your father attention turned to premium wines. What drove his passion for excellence on the world stage?

In the late 80s, Australian wine had hit a low point and that extended to our business as well. Instead of making and selling wine, which wasn’t profitable at that stage, we had to make ends meet by washing bottles for larger producers. While it wasn’t ideal, it did help us get through to when wine exports were booming back in the 1990s. The quick expansion and
opening of new markets like the UK allowed us not only to get back on our feet but to rethink the styles of wine we wanted to make and what we wanted to achieve.

Bill was adamant that the Riverina had the potential to carry a great reputation for producing premium wines, so set about growing our capacity and releasing premium ranges like Three Bridges. As our ambition has grown to put the Riverina region on the map, so, too, has our business into other regions across Australia. We’re extremely proud to have gone from winning awards at the local Riverina wine show 50 years ago to winning Best in Show at most prestigious wine show in the world, the Decanter World Wine Awards.

The vineyard has experienced tough times in its past, was it ever tempting to leave winemaking and try something new? What convinced you to stay?

During the recession in the 80’s, it was a very hard time to be in the wine industry and we were impacted heavily. Dad and Mum were washing bottles for other wineries just to keep food on the table and prevent us from having to close. Despite the challenges and setbacks over the years, wine has always been a central part of our family and business lives. The wine industry is such an innovative space to be in right now so despite the hard work and occasional challenges I think I speak for the family in saying that there’s no other job we would rather do.

How did producing wines for the export market change Calabria?

Producing wines for export has brought us to where we are today. At the time it was a great opportunity to expand our operations rapidly and reach new drinkers all over the world.

The Riverina region produces wine that epitomises what international drinkers have come to know and love about great Australian wine. With grape yields consistent and quality reliable here in the Riverina, we can produce this style consistently for the international market, vintage after vintage.

Do you ever encounter prejudices against the Griffith location of the winery?

The Riverina has always been fantastic for producing good volumes of consistent quality wine and sadly that may have led to the region being overlooked for premium or luxury wines. We have always been proud of our roots in the Riverina and feel as though we have played a part in its now positive reputation as one of Australia’s great wine regions for making reliable, great value wine.

We hope to see this reputation grow into a more premium position as we welcome more producers to the region, explore new and exciting varieties and winemaking styles, and showcase the wonderful food and wine community that exists here in the region.

Why is the region and its wines so close to your heart?

The region truly exemplifies our family heritage and produce the journey of many other Italian Australian families who came to settle here. The region is a multicultural hub of food and wine with so much wonderful produce grown in the region. At the core of the Riverina is a real community feel, which is also at the heart of our business.

The region is truly unique and has evolved to become a food and wine mecca in the outback. We have to appreciate that Griffith is not based on the outskirts of a capital city however you will find some of the World’s greatest dessert wines, fortified wines and alternate variety gems such as Montepulciano and Durif. Alongside the wines, we have a fabulous hospitality industry with the bustling main street that houses many cafes and restaurants where you can find a selection of great Italian and Indian restaurants.

Calabria has expanded its distribution of imported brands over the past 12 months, what prompted that decision?

With our new distribution partnerships, we wanted to diversify the portfolio outside of Australia and showcase the wines that we love to drink from producers around the world.

With international brands such as Champagne Deutz and Canti, we have been able to expand into different retail channels, specifically the on-premise channel, while bringing exciting new drinks to Australian consumers.

Although the wine industry is global it is very much built on family businesses and personalities that align with our families values. We have crafted so many friendships over the decades so to be able to work with such great wines and offer them to Australians is a real win for our family.

It was a big step to spend $50million buying McWilliams Wines, what will that mean for the future of Calabria?

The acquisition of McWilliam’s Wines marks a new era for our family business. McWilliam’s name carries more than a century of iconic winemaking history, and we are so honoured to see that continue to thrive here in the Riverina. To support the new partnership we have moved to operate as the Calabria Family Wine Group. We created this group so that we can
ensure every brand within our expanding portfolio can flourish and grow without compromising their unique and distinct brand identities.

The acquisition of McWilliams means that we are now custodians of a very important name in the Australian wine industry that stems back to 1877 and we intend on respecting the hard work and dedication the McWilliam family contributed.

The announcement of the acquisition and watching the company grow is so exciting for us, especially considering our humble beginnings and journey over the last 75 years.

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