The Victorian and New South Wales gold rush of the 1850s and 1860s attracted a massive influx of immigrants from all over the world, especially from Europe, the US and China. The development of Australia’s wine industry was often interlinked with these new settlements.
Aside from British prospectors, German and Chinese settlers were particularly active around Albury and Rutherglen. But the gold rush also attracted Italian-speaking immigrants from Lombardy, and the Ticino and Poschiavo cantons of Switzerland.
People came to Australia to escape poverty and the political upheavals taking place at the time. Many settled on the Jim Crow Diggings at the Mount Alexander Goldfields (centred around Wombat, now Daylesford, and Hepburn).
By 1861, the Aboriginal population in the area had been decimated to just 15 men and eight women. The Italians were mainly young men, with only a basic education. Initially they had hoped to find work as stonemasons, bakers or wood cutters, but they joined the thousands of prospectors working the mines or working in the pubs, stores or mills that serviced the mining community.
Among them was Giuseppe Pozzi who immigrated with his brothers. He established a flour mill at Daylesford and purchased land to cultivate grape vines. By the mid-1860s, around 40ha were planted to vines, and wine was made for consumption through local hotels and wine shops. Unlike many other gold mining sites, this unique Italian community on the Victorian goldfields had a strong wine-drinking culture.
The Pedrini family, well known for its bakery, also had a large vineyard at nearby Spring Creek. By the 1880s, its primary income was derived from the vineyard and hotel. The Righetti and Vaninas families also possessed small vineyards. With the lack of available Italian speaking womenfolk, many of the original Ticinesi and Poschiavenesi settlers married Irish women – their Catholic faiths providing a common bond.
In the Yandoit Valley, north of Daylesford, a makeshift community of 5,000 people suddenly appeared after the discovery of gold in 1855. But the Italians, being much poorer, could only afford to dig and pan for gold along the river. Many opted to farm or work in the settlements. The Land Act of 1860, which promoted closer settlement, enabled many Italian families to acquire land.
The Gervasoni family is probably the most important from an historical perspective – the remnants of their activities are still to be seen, including a patchwork of vineyards, probably planted around 1863. Brothers Carlo and Guiseppe Gervasoni emigrated in 1858 (followed a few years later by their brother Luigi). Originally dairy farmers they turned to gold. But soon after, Carlo Gervasoni and his partners Carlo Giupponi, Battista Nani and Ambrogio Invernizzi established a “dairy company” specialising in agricultural produce (including butter) and wine for the diggings.
The Italian community established many osterias and bottega-type businesses in the area. Around 1863, the Gervasonis established small vineyard blocks, with Carlo and Luigi Gervasoni looking after around 2ha each. It was also typical for the grapes to be vinified in underground cellars and then sold to locals. Any surplus was distilled for brandy until 1901, when excise officers seized unlicensed stills. By the 1890s, the Yandoit area began to decline, with many families leaving the area because of dwindling trade and economic depression.
The surviving Gervasoni Vineyards (c1863) at Yandoit are a remnant of those gold rush days when the Gervasoni brothers planted vineyards to supply wine for local consumption. There were originally four plots, but only three survive: Old Orchard (where the vines are planted on the perimeter and the remnants of the original vineyard survive), Gervasoni and Maurice Gervasoni. Many vines have been left to rack and ruin, and some have sprawled indiscriminately through natural layering.
After World War I, the local red wine, known as Yandoit Pinky, was quite light in colour, probably because of growing conditions and grape varieties all being mixed together. Plantings include shiraz, “black cluster” (pinot meunier), possibly chasselas and other unidentifiable white and red grape varieties. The derelict old stone house nearby still has its underground cellars and square basket press.
All of these families have indelibly shaped the future of winemaking in their new home.