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.