La famiglia è tutto

Most wineries in the Yarra Valley have wonderful views but Killara Estate, in the lesser frequented southern end of the Valley, arguably has some of the best. Visitors look down from Killara’s restaurant deck, across the sweeping vineyard to the triple peaks of Mounts Toolebewong, Ben Cairn and Donna Buang. However, it is not the view that sets this winery apart, it is the hospitality shown by the Palazzo family and Cellar Door Manager Kevin Sheehan.

La famiglia e` tutto, roughly translates to family is everything. Consequently, it is also at the very core of Leo and Gina Palazzo’s success in the relatively short time of their operating Killara Estate as a cellar door and restaurant.

Killara Estate has an historic background. This delightful  property was originally a huge holding in the 1880s. Originally owned by Dame Nellie Melba’s father David Mitchell, and then sold to the legendary Age Newspaper magnate David Syme, it is again becoming a significant asset to the Valley. The history of modern Killara is intertwined with the history of the Palazzo family’s journey to Australia.

For four generations the Palazzo family lived on the land, first in Italy and now in Australia. While the Palazzo’s in Italy were of some substance, the southern Italian trait of  ‘Padre ´e padrone’,  Father is father and boss, ensured that Leo’s father and mother came out to Australia with empty pockets. This philosophy operated on the theory that, while you’re under the family roof all of what the family has is yours, but if you choose to leave then you go with nothing!

After arriving in Australia in 1956 Leo’s father worked for Smorgans in Melbourne to gain enough capital to establish a farm in the Riverina near his brother.  After some initial success in NSW growing wheat, grapes and Hereford cattle the drought in the 1970s set them back. As a five year old Leo has memories of he and his seven year old brother using a .22 rifle to shoot crows to protect the calves. The drought forced the family back to Italy to enable his father to start over again as a motor mechanic, to raise funds to pay his debts with the intent of returning to Australia. The family returned in 1977. A little luck and sound investments in the property market put the Palazzo family back on their feet and the patriarch was able to clear his old debts and buy the Killara property.

The property did not have vines at that stage, but it was Leo’s father’s wish to plant them after his Riverina experience. Killara did have cattle which was his first love. At one stage it ran up to 1200 head of Hereford cattle. The vines were planted in 1986 and the grapes sold to vignerons to make wine for other labels.

The family has had its difficult moments. Leo wanted to produce their own wine but this did not accord with his father’s view of the future. Leo said, “It’s almost common knowledge that Southern Italians are hard headed and very strong willed, so when you get two similar personalities clashing, one of them has to accept the way things are or leave, so I left.”

In 1995 Leo bought a small scrap metal and roofing material business in Coburg. His accounting background enabled him to build this small business up to the extent that it now operates from a larger premises and manufactures roofing and sheet metal products in its own right.

Gina, Leo’s wife and partner in all respects is English, but she has her own Italian connection.  Her parents named her after the 1960s Italian actress Gina Lollobrigida. Her father served for many years in the RAF, and it was during a posting to Melbourne that Gina and Leo met. She has been an integral part in the success of both businesses ever since.

Sadly, it took the untimely passing of Leo’s 36-year-old sister Silvia, to bring Leo and his father back together. This enabled the existing winery/restaurant to become a reality. The previous business estrangement from his father was put aside and they both agreed that to progress the brand more public exposure was required.

Geoff Green, who became Killara’s Restaurant Manager in the formative years, was the driving force behind Leo’s insistence that to proceed to the next level a cellar door and restaurant was necessary.  Ironically again, it was the death of Silvia that led to the beginning of this business relationship. Leo met Geoff at his sister’s funeral he now considers him a family friend and mentor.

Leo’s personal vision for the restaurant is very Italian, “I wanted to establish something where people can just come together and be happy. It sounds a little weird but we just wanted people to feel like an extension of our family, and to have people come in and do what we do. Eat, drink and forget about life. It’s really humbling when you stand behind the bar and watch 160 people sharing our place. One thing we have done and I consciously want to continue, is to demystify this whole wine caper. I want people to be completely at ease while drinking our wine. I tell visitors not to be too concerned about matching wine and food, but to ensure that the company they bring with them is worthy of their own, and then worry about the wine.”

Leo is a hands-on owner and works with winemakers Mac Forbes and Travis Bush to ensure Killara wines are, “…alluring and pleasantly aromatic.  People need to want to get it to their mouth. I don’t want to have to be abstract with my descriptors.”

The current restaurant site was originally a milking shed set on 140 acres. Despite it being just up the road from Killara, because the property had been poorly advertised Leo and his family had no idea it was coming on the market. He thanks Wally and Judy Zuk owners of  Five Oaks winery for his family purchasing the property.  He was advised by Wally that it was being auctioned in ten days time, and realizing it was in the ideal position to fulfill their dream they made an offer. No one bid at the auction and their later offer was accepted. The new Killara  was a reality.

Killara’s entry level wine carries the Racers and Rascals label. This is another historic aspect of the property. In 1946 the Victorian Vintage Car Club held an annual car rally on the then 10,000 acre property. It included a time trial through a straight oak lined quarter mile driveway. The club produced a written history of their club called, Racers and Rascals. This little piece of motoring history has held good to this day as the Austin Healey, Alfa Romeo and Jaguar Clubs use Killara as a destination quite regularly for their club rally days.

Killara has plans for the immediate future.  A large area of vines in front of the restaurant has been cleared for lawn, and a large pavilion is to be built on it. The focus being on vintage car clubs so that they have a venue to come to Killara on their club days where their cars can be put on display to the public. Leo sees this as an extension of where it all started, “La famiglia e` tutto”.


Words Geoff Cooper Pictures Adele Van Es

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