Emma Nor­biato

Halliday - - Inside - words by Casey Warrener

Meet award-win­ning wine­maker Emma Nor­biato from Cal­abria Fam­ily Wines in the Rive­rina, NSW.

EMMA NOR­BIATO threw a dart and it landed bulls­eye on a ca­reer in wine. From a sheep, rice and wheat farm­ing fam­ily in the Grif­fith re­gion of New South Wales, Emma had no con­tact with winer­ies or grapes while grow­ing up. “Lit­er­ally un­til the day that I put in my uni­ver­sity ap­pli­ca­tion, I wanted to be a di­eti­tian. Then at the last mo­ment I thought I couldn’t sit in a ster­ile, white-walled room all day – at least that’s how I was pic­tur­ing it. So I switched it and put down wine­mak­ing in­stead.” Wide-eyed and fresh out of high school, Emma set her course into the world of wine. “I didn’t know that shi­raz was a red or that chardon­nay was a white – I didn’t know any­thing about grapes,” she says. “It was all a bit of a fluke.”

Emma man­aged to turn that fluke into a hat-trick of suc­cesses, go­ing on to work with one of Aus­tralia’s most recog­nised brands, Pen­folds, then han­dle a huge out­put for one of the coun­try’s largest wine com­pa­nies, Casella, and more re­cently be­com­ing chief wine­maker of Cal­abria Fam­ily Wines. This all sug­gests it was a lit­tle more like fate.

Emma’s first gig out of uni­ver­sity was with South­corp, as Trea­sury Wine Es­tates was then known, lead­ing her to South Aus­tralia and even­tu­ally to a stint mak­ing Pen­folds reds. “Pen­folds taught me about aged wines – I used to do the Recork­ing Clin­ics – and the artis­tic side of wine­mak­ing,” she says. While she ap­pre­ci­ates that priv­i­lege, prac­ti­cal con­sid­er­a­tions caused her to change course.

“In 2006, Casella was in its growth stage and ad­ver­tis­ing for a se­nior wine­maker. I was 26, and my hus­band and I didn’t have kids yet, but we knew that we wanted to, so I thought if I was ever go­ing to do a se­nior wine­mak­ing role, that was the time. It was also in Grif­fith, so it was a way to get me back home.”

From the cre­ative ap­proach of a cel­e­brated la­bel to the mas­sive de­mands of a com­mer­cial win­ery, the con­trast be­tween those ex­pe­ri­ences was strik­ing. “It re­quired com­pletely dif­fer­ent skill sets,” Emma says. “Pen­folds was a lot to do with in­stinct. If the wine wasn’t ready, you’d push back the bot­tling date by a cou­ple of weeks. At Casella, that wasn’t an op­tion.” Step­ping up into the se­nior role at Casella was ‘make or break’ for Emma. “You’d have to pro­duce, say, 18 mil­lion litres of chardon­nay, and it would all need to taste the same and be bot­tle-ready by a set date. The pres­sure was in­tense. If you got the date wrong there were hun­dreds of bot­tling-line staff sched­uled with noth­ing to do, peo­ple jump­ing up and down about empty con­tain­ers, and or­ders missed,” she says.

“At Casella, if I thought I wasn’t go­ing to get some­thing done in time, my boss would say to me, ‘Emma, if it’s phys­i­cally pos­si­ble, then make it hap­pen’, or if I thought some­thing wasn’t go­ing to work, I’d be told, ‘Use your science de­gree, call the Aus­tralian Wine Re­search In­sti­tute and find out how to make it work’. It pushed me be­yond my com­fort zone, and it was a bril­liant learn­ing ex­pe­ri­ence in that re­spect,” she says.

“CAL­ABRIA HAS VAR­I­OUS FRUIT SOURCES OF DIF­FER­ING QUAL­I­TIES, BUT NO MAT­TER WHAT WE BRING IN, THE RE­SULT­ING WINE NEEDS TO BE THE RIGHT MIX OF TAN­NIN, ACID, OAK AND FRUIT, AND THEN YOU CAN ADD IN­TER­EST IN THE TEX­TURES AND LAY­ERS OF THE WINE.”

Emma Nor­biato, Cal­abria Fam­ily Wines

Work­ing across that wine­mak­ing spec­trum pro­vided Emma with well-rounded abil­i­ties, teach­ing her style and con­sis­tency, busi­ness smarts and hard work. She cred­its sup­port­ive peers with help­ing her through any ca­reer cross­roads – in par­tic­u­lar, she cites Sep­pelts­field se­nior wine­maker Fiona Don­ald. “We worked to­gether at Pen­folds. She’s older than me and has been a lev­el­headed men­tor when it comes to be­ing a fe­male in this pro­fes­sion, al­ways will­ing to take time out and talk with me when I’m not sure what to do,” Emma says. “One of the best pieces of ad­vice she’s given me is to fight for your golds, not your bronzes – don’t have an ar­gu­ment about ev­ery­thing, just pick what’s im­por­tant to you.” Emma also says it’s been in­spir­ing to see Fiona thrive in a wine ca­reer and have a fam­ily at the same time. “I thought, if she can do it, then I can too,” Emma says.

As a for­mer Wine­maker of the Year in the Aus­tralian Women in Wine Awards, Emma is of­ten asked if the in­dus­try needs such gen­der-spe­cific recog­ni­tion. In re­sponse, she points to the type of role modelling she’s re­ceived from col­leagues and friends like Fiona. “It’s about high­light­ing path­ways for women,” she says. “I was for­tu­nate to have great fe­male men­tors, and if younger fe­males can find sim­i­lar ex­am­ples to look up to, then I think these awards are war­ranted."

For Emma, who worked as a young wine­maker at Tus­cany's CastelGi­a­condo and has en­joyed other trav­els in her ca­reer, the best part of the job has been the sto­ries she’s ab­sorbed along the way. “I meet all kinds of in­ter­est­ing peo­ple, and the more peo­ple I meet the more in­spired I am be­cause ev­ery­one has a dif­fer­ent story of how they’ve got­ten to where they are,” she says.

In 2009, Emma left Casella to start a fam­ily. The fol­low­ing year she joined Cal­abria Fam­ily Wines, also in the Rive­rina. As part of this role, she took re­spon­si­bil­ity for Cal­abria’s 50-odd grow­ers, lo­cally as well as in the Barossa. As some­one who loves the out­doors, Emma has found this re­spon­si­bil­ity ther­a­peu­tic. “I spend about half of my days in vine­yards, if not more,” she says. “When I’m in front of a com­puter and the phone is go­ing off, and peo­ple are ask­ing me a mil­lion ques­tions, my head isn’t clear, so I go out to the vine­yards for a cou­ple of hours and that calms my mind. The bal­ance be­tween be­ing out­side and in the win­ery helps keep me sane.”

Com­pared to the brands Emma cut her teeth on, Cal­abria is some­thing of a mid­dle ground. “We have pre­mi­ums at the top end that re­tail be­tween $70 and $100 a bot­tle, and we have a large com­mer­cial range that starts at as lit­tle as $10 a bot­tle, so we al­most have both those ex­pe­ri­ences within the one win­ery,” she says.

Late last year, the Cal­abria fam­ily asked Emma to take up the post of chief wine­maker, step­ping into the large shoes of Bill Cal­abria AM, who has a his­tory with wine that dates back to the 1950s.

Now in his 70s, Bill wanted Emma to take the reins.

“Like many women, I prob­a­bly suf­fer from a bit of im­poster syn­drome, so ini­tially when I was asked to take the role I was hes­i­tant,” Emma says. “But with Bill and his son Michael, and the whole fam­ily, I’m free to make mis­takes and ask stupid ques­tions, and I have a lot of flex­i­bil­ity. I don’t think I could have found eas­ier peo­ple to work with, or a more sup­port­ive en­vi­ron­ment to work in,” she says. “It might sound cliched, but Bill is al­ways say­ing to me, ‘Emma, this ca­reer is a marathon, not a sprint, so do what you can to­day, and the rest will be there to­mor­row’.”

As the chief wine­maker of a size­able win­ery and a mother of three, bal­ance is in­te­gral. “At the end of the day, I’m hap­pier when I’m work­ing as a wine­maker, which makes me a bet­ter mum. I have great sup­port from my fam­ily, hus­band, col­leagues and em­ploy­ers. It’s a team ef­fort,” she says.

This idea of bal­ance also car­ries through to Emma’s wine­mak­ing. “Cal­abria has var­i­ous fruit sources of dif­fer­ing qual­i­ties, but no mat­ter what we bring in, the re­sult­ing wine needs to be the right mix of tan­nin, acid, oak and fruit, and then you can add in­ter­est in the tex­tures and lay­ers of the wine,” she says.

Put­ting to­gether those pieces of the puz­zle is some­thing Emma en­joys, par­tic­u­larly when it comes to chardon­nay. “It re­sponds so well to wine­mak­ing and it’s such a ver­sa­tile va­ri­ety,” she says. “You can make it oaked or not, tex­tu­ral with lees and malo, or clean and crisp. I of­ten drink chardon­nay at home be­cause I’m con­stantly search­ing for that one with all of those com­po­nents in har­mony. It’s such a fun wine to make, drink and talk about,” Emma ex­plains.

As for other wines in the Cal­abria range that are ex­cit­ing Emma right now, she cites a cou­ple of bright, com­plex reds. “We’ve just fin­ished blend­ing our ’17 pre­mi­ums, and we’re about to re­lease a 100 per cent gre­nache. I’m pleased with all of our top-end projects, but that gre­nache has beau­ti­ful lay­ers and tex­tures, as well as bal­ance and great drink­a­bil­ity. It’s called the Three Bridges, and it’s one where I think we’ve hit the nail on the head.”

In terms of what best high­lights her style, Emma points to an­other gre­nache from the Saint Petri range. “I think it’s a mod­ern, el­e­gant, bal­anced, New World wine. It’s pared back in terms of oak and tan­nin, and has a lovely silk­i­ness. We have to keep a di­verse range of wines, we can’t make them all look like that, but the Saint Petri Gre­nache shows the di­rec­tion I’d like to take and the type I en­joy.”

While the Rive­rina is per­haps bet­ter known for its ex­pan­sive vine­yards pro­duc­ing big-batch wines, the re­gion is work­ing to shake off that stigma. Thanks to a new gen­er­a­tion of wine pro­fes­sion­als, plus an in­flux of ex­cit­ing va­ri­eties, Emma be­lieves it’s work­ing. “There’s a new breed of som­me­liers and wine writ­ers in­ter­ested in the re­gion,” she says. “In my opin­ion, younger peo­ple don’t nec­es­sar­ily drink what their dads drank, so while the Rive­rina is not par­tic­u­larly ro­man­tic for some, the bias against it is not there for oth­ers who just want to drink in­ter­est­ing, de­li­cious, tex­tured wines, which we make.”

Emma also feels strongly about the Rive­rina's role at the bulk end of the spec­trum. “This re­gion puts most peo­ple’s first glass of wine in their hands, which is im­por­tant,” she says. “The bet­ter we can do that, the more peo­ple will drink wine.”

Emma with Bill Cal­abria.

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