The Riverina dynasties conquering the drinks industry

Treasury Wine Estates and Accolade Wines tend to steal the headlines when it comes to Australian wine, but three Italian family dynasties from the Riverina have quietly grown to become drinks industry behemoths – Casella, Calabria and De Bortoli.

The Riverina is the largest wine producing region in NSW, located on the state’s south-west plains and centred on the city of Griffith. John James McWilliam planted the first vines in the region at Hanwood in 1913. Penfolds followed in 1919, with De Bortoli arriving in 1928. The first major varietals were Pedro, Semillon, Trebbiano, Doradillo, Grenache and Shiraz, which were grown predominantly for the production of fortified wines.

Italian immigrants were attracted to the region after the first and second world wars. They started making wines like they enjoyed back home and demand for their wines evolved into businesses.

Calabria Family Wine Group was established by Francesco and Elisabetta Calabria (above), who immigrated to Australia from Italy and purchased land in Griffith for fruit farming in 1945. 

In 2021, the company more than doubled its brands from 140 to 283. In addition to acquiring the historic McWilliam’s Wines brand and Hanwood Winery, Deakin Estate, and La La Land Wines, the family winery has also added a distribution arm, Vintners & Co. Merchants. It represents the family’s international distribution partnerships and includes the Italian brands Canti and Librandi, prestigious Portugal port house Dow’s, Argentinian winery Dona Paula, and renowned French champagne producer Champagne Deutz. 

Casella Family Wines was founded by Filippo and Maria Casella (above), who immigrated from Sicily in 1957 and settled in Yenda, where they constructed a small winery in 1969. Fifty three years later Casella has grown to be one of the most profitable wine companies in the world and was recently valued at around $1.5billion.

“When my parents first arrived in Australia in search of a better life they knew it wouldn’t be easy,” son and managing director John Casella explained.

“They knew they would have to work hard and endure some challenging times if they were to fulfil their dream of building a winery and ensuring a prosperous future for our family. Little did they know (the winery) would go on to become Australia’s largest family owned winery.”

De Bortoli Wines was established in 1928 by Vittorio and Giuseppina De Bortoli. Vittorio journeyed from Castelcucco to NSW in 1924 – there were less than 200 people of Italian descent living in Australia when he arrived in Griffith. Giuseppina joined him in 1927 and in 1928 the couple purchased a fruit farm, where De Bortoli Wines was born.

In 1982, grandson Darren De Bortoli created the acclaimed Noble One, originally released as De Bortoli Australian Sauternes Botrytis Semillon, which won the Trophy for Best Botrytis Wine at the International Wine & Spirit Competition in 1985. The family now own vineyards in the Yarra Valley, Rutherglen, the King Valley and the Hunter Valley. In 2021 its annual revenue was $158.2million and its wines are now exported to 76 countries.

Riverina grows its reputation for premium wines

The Riverina has suffered its share of tough times, ranging from floods to drought and the collapse of grape prices in the Depression and Recession. Earlier this month, some wine grape growers in Griffith were left reeling after an isolated thunderstorm wiped out much of their crop just a couple of weeks before harvest. 

During the Recession in the late 80s, the Calabria family were make ends meet by washing bottles for larger producers. However, the fortunes of the Calabria and Casella families turned in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

It was then was that Francesco and Elisabetta Calabria’s son Bill decided to start creating premium Riverina wines and sent his first container to the UK in 1996.

“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,” Calabria’s third-generation Sales & Marketing Director Andrew Calabria (above) told Drinks Digest last year. “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.”

Yellow Tail transforms Casella’s fortunes

In 2001, Filippo and Maria Casella’s son John (below) had a vision to create an approachable wine that consumers wanted to drink and could easily understand – Yellow Tail. 

Over the past 20 years, Yellow Tail has grown from two initial offerings—Chardonnay and Shiraz—to a portfolio of 23 different single varietals and blends. In 2013 the 1 billionth bottle of Yellow Tail was produced. Meanwhile, the brand’s revenue has grown from $5.67 million in 2001 to $359.24 million in 2021.

According to Wine Intelligence, Yellow Tail has also been the Most Powerful and Most Loved Wine Brand four years running (2018, 2019, 2020, and 2021).

But there’s far more to Casella than Yellow Tail. The family has vineyards in wine regions including the Barossa Valley, Coonawarra, Adelaide Hills, Clare Valley, Langhorne Creek, Wrattonbully and Padthaway. It has also acquired legendary premium brands such as Peter Lehmann Wines, Brand’s Laira and Morris.

Last year, Morris entered the Australian whisky market with the launch of two premium whiskies: Morris Australian Single Malt Signature Whisky and Australian Single Malt Muscat Barrel Whisky.

And last week Coca-Cola Europacific Partners sold its stake in Australian Beer Co to Casella.

The companies have been in partnership since 2012 when the then-Coca-Cola Amatil signed a deal with Casella to take over its brewing operations next door to the winery in Yenda, near Griffith in NSW. Its contract brewing clients include Mighty Craft’s Better Beer … could a Yellow Tail beer be on the cards? After all, the brand dipped its toe in the water by launching three beers into two test markets in the US in 2016 …

According to John Casella, the key to the success of his family business is its Sicilian immigrant heritage.

“There’s a lot that’s inherent here,’’ he says. “It’s about a mindset of keeping the business strong, serving the community, and family. A lot of that came out of us being immigrants.

“For us it wasn’t about making money. Money is good when you don’t have it, but when you have it, you look to other things.
“It’s about having a positive impact on the community, on employees, the family, and the wine industry.”

Andrew Calabria agrees that family, community values and a constant quest for premium quality will always be at the heart of Calabria Family Wine Group’s vision.

“That’s the beauty of the family business,” he said. “You’re driven by passion, not by dollars. It might not be right in some people’s eyes, but we’re driven by what we want to do and love and thinking about where to go next. It’s not even in the next 10 years, it’s about the next generation.”

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