Fabulous Ladies of the Riverina

The Riverina region has been making wines for over 100 years. Theirs is a proud history of pioneers and immigrants who saw the potential in the rich red earth, Murrumbidgee irrigation scheme and a warm Mediterranean climate. Today the Riverina is the largest wine making region in NSW and second largest in Australia.

So how come so many people have never heard of it?


Much of the wine produced by the Riverina, and sipped all over the world, doesn’t reference the region on the label. So while you most certainly would be familiar with De Bortoli, McWilliams and yellowtail, you may not have known that this is where many of those wines have come from.

Some of the wineries in the Riverina, like McWilliams, are now in their sixth generation of ownership. Many of the famously Italian family wineries – De Bortoli, Calabria, Casella, Warburn, Lillypilly & Toorak –  started by making wine for their own enjoyment, to have a glass of wine over a meal with their family and friends, just like back at home.

Alongside the long term residents there are also a few new players also making their mark – Yarran, Berton, Nugan and Mino & Co.

The Riverina region is most famous for botrytis and fortified wines but there is an increasingly popular move to alternative varieties, particularly those that originate from Italy and Spain as they thrive in the climate.

Of course, like all our wine producing regions, women have been at the heart of everything! So on Saturday 10 June 2017, we’re joining forces with Riverina Winemakers to be unearthing and highlighting the current women of the Riverina and the role they’re playing in the area’s success at a grand gala event. Here’s a taste of some of the amazing women that will be part of this extraordinary evening.

The Matriarchs

Lena Calabria

Joining Bill at the helm of the winery in the early days was wife, Lena – who was Bill’s pillar of support. When Lena married Bill 40 odd years ago, she was thrown into the Australian wine industry… literally.. with her and Bill making their home at the winery, living in a tiny one-bedroom section of the winery!

Lena would work in the cellar door and assist Bill with the day to day running of the small producing wine company; filling wine barrels to send to Sydney, wine tastings, administration work, hand labelling and bottling the small production of wines, cleaning out tanks and spending vintage nights on the weighbridge …. And this was with two kids, Frank and Michael, running around.

In the late 80’s when the wine industry was in the doldrums and sales had dried up, a persistent Bill with Lena by his side, handles the downturn by washing bottles for larger wineries. It saved the family & went on to provide the opportunity to produce wines for the export market in the 90’s.

When Lena had her third son, Andrew in 1984, she had to take a step back from the winery, but was still in charge of coordinating the famous ‘Vintage Festivals’ at Calabria Family Wines.

Lena is integral to the accomplishments of Calabria Family Wines and was always around to support the staff, especially during the busy vintage season, when Lena would pack up her kids and cook every night at the winery for her family and the 10 or so cellar staff. The winery cellar team were Lena’s family and she treated them like her own, making sure they had enough food to keep them going through the long nights!

Today Lena leaves the operating of Calabria Family Wines to her four children. She has done the hard work from the ground up, however you will still find her at the winery cooking for long weekend events and hosting wine buyers at her home, cooking her renowned Italian sugo (pasta sauce).

Lorraine Brewer, Yarran Wines

Yarran Wines began when Lorraine and John (late) Brewer, who have been grape growers in the region for over 30 years, had a son – Sam – who developed a keen interest in wine and began studying Oenology at Charles Sturt University in 1998.

Lorraine is actively involved in running the winery administration while Sam’s role is winemaking. But mum certainly didn’t let him walk into the job, and first Sam gained experience in several other wine regions outside of the Riverina including the Yarra Valley, King Valley, Sonoma Valley (US) and China. It was in 2009 that Sam joined the business full time as winemaker.

Emeri De Bortoli, De Bortoli Wines


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.”

It’s no surprise for her then that her four children – Darren, Leanne, Kevin and Victor – have inherited their dad’s passion for the company.

The Next Genners

Elizabeth Calabria, Calabria Family Wines­

Following on from her studies in Graphic design, Elizabeth – daughter of Bill and Lena Calabria – has immersed herself in the world of marketing and brand management at Calabria Family Wines.

Being born into the wine industry, it really was fascinating to see our family winery evolve and become the company it is today. Wine is in our blood and my brothers and I always had a passion to be involved in the family business. The beauty is that we were never pressured to join the family business, our parents always encourage us to go and explore. However, seeing the hard work and sacrifices my parents endured to get to where we are today was what led us back to our roots. We want to carry on this legacy,” said Elizebeth.

Elizabeth says she remembers running around during the vintage festival celebrations and waiting with excitement with her father, Bill, to see the first batch of grapes hit the crusher each vintage. “It has really been a playground for my brothers and I but we were also able to witness firsthand the way the business works, from the ground up – which has been an important quality as we step into our roles of managing Calabria Family Wines.”

Sophie De Bortoli, De Bortoli

The youngest child of De Bortoli Wines Managing Director Darren De Bortoli and Margot De Bortoli, Sophie is currently studying a Bachelor of Integrated Product Design at the University of Technology Sydney. Like her siblings and cousins, Sophie worked in the family business while growing up, first on the bottling line and the cellar door and now, when she’s home during university holidays, she also helps out in the marketing office in Bilbul.

Sophie likes to travel and took a couple of years off after she finished high school in order to see some of the world, working as a teacher’s assistant in England before returning home to study. The winery, she says, has been central to her life for as long as she can remember and “my fondest memories of my family are those of the winery in my childhood years”.

Christina Sergi, Warburn Estate ­

Christina is the great granddaughter of Giuseppe Sergi that bought his family’s winemaking traditions to Australia nearly 50 years ago – so that makes her part of the 4th generation of this family run business.

She finished university in mid-2015 at the University of Wollongong with a Bachelor of Commerce and immediately returned to Warburn Estate to take up a position in Digital Marketing.

It’s in this role that she is bringing new and modern ideas to the Italian traditional winery, and helping them adapt with social and technological change. 

However, Christina is also mindful about keeping the important traditions, as well as understanding the digital world of marketing.

The Winemakers

Emma Norbiato, Calabria ­Family Wines

Emma Norbiato is senior winemaker for Calabria Family Wines and in 2016 was named Winemaker of the Year in the Australian Women in Wine Awards. She was born and bred in the Riverina, being raised on a sheep and rice farm, eventually leading her to become a winemaker. Graduating from Charles Sturt University in 2001, Emma achieved the highest mark for sensory evaluation in her year and was awarded an Associate Judging position at the National Wine Show in Canberra at age 21. Whilst studying, Emma completed vintages at Mountadam and Cranswick Estate, finally commencing an assistant winemaker role with Lindemans in 2001. After a vintage in Tuscany making Brunello at Castelgiocondo, Emma returned to Australia and spent four years at Penfolds in the red winemaking team. Following this, at age 26, Emma took up a Senior Winemaking role with Casella Family Brands, notably producing Yellow Tail.

In 2009 she commenced employment with Calabria Family Wines. When not pursuing her passion making wine, Emma enjoys cooking and being
outdoors with her kids – mainly mountain bike riding and waterskiing

Julie Mortlock, De Bortoli ­


Julie Mortlock has been working for De Bortoli Wines for more than 25 years. Currently she’s Senior Red Winemaker at the Bilbul Estate and helps oversee the company’s extensive fortified wine portfolio, one of the largest and most diverse in Australia. Since 2000, she’s also assisted Darren De Bortoli with the iconic Noble One Botrytis Semillon.

She initially started in the quality control labs at De Bortoli Wines, and became interested in winemaking after progressing to winemaker’s assistant (“doing the jobs they didn’t want to do”, she says) and began studying, firstly for a Bachelor degree in Wine Science and then another in Wine Business, both from Charles Sturt University. She began looking after all the white wines produced at Bilbul, then moved onto the reds and fortified wines.

The fortified wines are a particular favourite. To add to her successes, Julie was shortlisted as ‘Sweet Winemaker of the Year’ in the 2016 International Wine Challenge.

Kylie Wheeler, McWilliams ­

At the ripe old age of 31, Kylie Wheeler finally knew what she wanted to do with her life – make wine. After completing a Bachelor of wine science she took her first steps into the industry with a boutique winery in Wagga Wagga. She has never looked back. Having recently joined the ranks of the winemaking team at McWilliam’s she is excited to be working towards her first vintages.

Kylie’s passion for the wine industry is clear. Besides the eclectic bunch who make up the Australian wine industry, for Kylie the thing which stands out the most is the fact that; “Australia embraces old world methods as well as the new world. The industry here also is not afraid to try new methods and push boundaries. All of this combined is what makes me love the fact I am a winemaker and work in the industry in this country”.

Meet all these women and more at the Riverina Fabulous Ladies Gala Dinner on Saturday 10 June

Book your tickets now

We’ll be kicking up our heels and indulging in a five course dinner with 11 local wineries providing wines to match. The women of the region will also be sharing their stories during the evening as part of a series of fun panel sessions. Plus afterwards we’ll dance the night away under the grand marquee!