Women in Wine: Leanne De Bortoli and Kate Webber
As third and fourth generation members of a renowned Australian wine family, Leanne De Bortoli and Kate Webber have wine in their blood. Leanne is Manager of De Bortoli’s Yarra Valley Estate and her daughter Kate is the first of the fourth generation to come back into the family business as a winemaker at their Yarra Valley winery.
How did you get started in the industry and what inspired you to work in the wine industry?
I was born into the industry, just like Kate. Funny to look back but I did not think I would necessarily work in the family business but here I am now. Gentle osmosis.
I was not overly interested in wine when I was growing up, but after finishing school I took a gap year and travelled to Lyon, France as an Au Pair. I visited Beaujolais as well as some other regions close to Lyon and started to develop an interest in wine. After returning home, I completed a Science Degree at Monash Uni and then travelled overseas over the next few years doing vintages in Burgundy and Napa Valley.
In your career, have you had any standout achievements? What was that experience like?
I look back to when Steve (my winemaker husband) and I first arrived in the Yarra Valley back in 1989. We were given this amazing opportunity by my family to come and manage this small 10-hectare vineyard back in the day when the Yarra Valley was just starting its trajectory. In 1990 we opened a new cellar door and restaurant back at a time when there were only a handful of Cellar Doors and even less restaurants, open to the public. Over the years we have expanded our winery and vineyard holdings. I see what we have achieved over the last 30 years and it fills me with great pride.
I have only been part of the winemaking team for three years so feel that I have yet to prove myself but I feel there is so much opportunity out there as well as support to give things a go.
What advice would you give to young women just starting out or considering a career in winemaking?
Leanne and Kate
Start by doing a vintage in different wine regions, whether it is within Australia or overseas. Most wineries look for extra staff over vintage and you don’t necessarily have to have had experience (although it does help). Be prepared to work hard and be part of a team. If it is something you truly want to do, then perhaps look at gaining a qualification (but not necessarily an oenology degree).
What is your favourite wine to make, and your favourite wine to drink?
I’m lucky enough to have a team of winemakers who make all the wine I like to drink!
My favourite wine has always been and still is Pinot Noir – I love the versatility of this variety in Sparkling wine, Rosé and of course as a table wine that goes so wonderfully with food.
I think Chardonnay would have to be one of my favourites to make. We have some very cool parcels of fruit here in the Yarra Valley and I do get excited when it comes into the winery.
One wine that excites me at the moment is Gamay. Relatively newly planted here in the Yarra Valley but I love the type of wine it makes.
Do you have any role models or mentors who have been an important part of your career journey?
I look at my mother and how she managed to be part of the business but also raise four children amidst a busily expanding winery. I only got sense of that commitment myself when I was raising two daughters and still working actively in the business.
I’d have to say my mum and dad! My father (Steve Webber) has always been an inquisitive winemaker and interested in trying different wines. He and Mum would travel overseas and come back all enthused about some new wine and Mum would say to Dad “Can’t we make something like this?” I remember staying with them in the south of France and they got all excited about pale dry Rosé. Mum was saying that she couldn’t understand why more people weren’t drinking that style of wine in Australia. They came back, decided to make a pale dry Rosé under our La Bohème range and then started a campaign called Rosé Revolution with a lot of other wineries to push the interest in this style of wine.
I also have the opportunity to work with Sarah Fagan, one of our Yarra Valley winemakers and she has provided lots of insights as well as advice along the way.
What are you most excited about in the Australian wine industry right now?
I love seeing the experimentation happening now whether it is new varieties, new techniques and the amount of young people giving it a go. The emphasis is certainly on and in the vineyard where a lot of this experimentation starts and then continues through to the winery. Most wineries are looking at their sustainable practices, starting in the vineyard and then pulling it though to their winery practices too.
Lots of new varieties and wine styles. Anything goes. Young people are coming in and keen to try something different.
What are some of your favourite highlights throughout your career in wine?
So many highlights!
When we won the Jimmy Watson trophy in 1997 that was a pretty exciting time for us. For whatever anyone may think of the actual award it helped to cement that recognition of what De Bortoli were doing here in the Yarra Valley.
I have had the opportunity to work overseas doing a vintage at Artesa in the Napa Valley and another vintage at Domaine Vincent Girardin in Burgundy, France. I also did a vintage at Mac Forbes here in the Yarra Valley. Working at these various wineries of different sizes has given me valuable cellar experience.
What qualities do you think it takes to succeed in a traditionally male-dominated industry?
Be prepared to work hard and stick to your guns.
It has probably been easier for me because there are quite a few women in our business. My nonna, Emeri De Bortoli is chairperson of the company, and my mum manages the Yarra Valley arm of the business. Julie Mortlock and Sarah Fagan are a couple of our senior winemakers. In the winery cellar there are still more men than women but hopefully that will change as more women see winemaking and/or viticulture as a career. I already see that now with the number of female winemakers and viticulturists in the Yarra Valley.