The family-owned wineries of the Swan Valley often include a fascinating history and personal flavour, and Garbin is no exception. Winemaker Peter Garbin (son of founder Duje & Matija Garbin), wife Katrina and sons Joel and Adam have a philosophy of hands-on premium winemaking coupled with personal service.
Their wines include award-winning premium boutique red and white wines as well as rich, traditional fortified styles for which the Swan Valley is well renowned, some of which are only available at the cellar door. Their speciality is bottle fermented traditional method sparkling styles made from chardonnay and, more unusually, semillon, chenin blanc, shiraz and merlot. The fruit is sourced from estate vineyards in Gingin and the Swan Valley and grown with low chemical inputs and no pesticides.
The cellar door is low key, charming and spacious with a lovely outside area for warmer days.
As a full time design draftsman working over 70 hours a week I realized ends still couldn't meet and it wasn't the passion I was desiring in life. With over 30 years of drafting experience under my belt it was time to make a sea change and go back to our family business as a winemaker. Teaching myself winemaking and this grew into extra income I needed and feeling more fulfilled with life. All this happened right when my two sons were born.
I want you to know who I really am, what I've struggled to overcome and some of my biggest achievements in life. My family have watched as I have endeavoured to develop my future, through hardship after hardship "From designing buildings, to producing wine!".
So take a few moments and read this short timeline of how my parents started and how I grew into a winemaker. I hope it helps you get to know the REAL me, why I continued as a second generation winemaker and the family behind today's Garbin Estate Wines.
1937 - IN SEARCH OF A BETTER LIFE
Duje who had one brother Marin and parents Božan and Marija Garbin lived on an island called Šolta, south of Split, Croatia. Life was terribly hard growing up. Dad told me he never had anything to eat, working all day to build rock walls which determined the boundaries of your property. They would go fishing but never had a boat big enough to go right out to get the fish so they always came back with very little. Most nights after working during the day and catching food there was only a small amount of sardines for dinner.
Eventually Duje decided to grow grapes on the island to make wine as opposed to other fresh produce, this was of his own personal preference. You could call this the birth moment of Garbin Wines. A few years pass by, then World War II was approaching. Duje's father Božan said to him "If you don't leave they are going to intern you into a camp in Split" which all the Yugoslav young men were forced to go in so they wouldn't fight the Germans in the War.
Duje's brother Marin Garbin lived in Western Australia at the time working in the market gardens and told him "You had better come here and be with me" and that's the only place he could go. Duje left for Australia departing from Naples, Italy aboard the Otranto boat in 1937.
1939 - LIFE IN AUSTRALIA
When Duje first arrived in Western Australia he went to stay with his brother in Kelmscott, they both worked with another man from Šolta in a local market garden. Duje then spent some time up north in Carnarvon working on the banana plantations before returning to again work with his brother in Spearwood. He worked in the market gardens and lived with his brother until he could earn enough money to buy a property. During this time Duje was conscripted to fight the Second World War back in Europe. This was decided in a ballot system, you would have your name in a barrel, they would spin the barrel and pull names out, and poor Duje's name was drawn. Having only arrived a few years earlier he refused, so they interned him in a camp down in Harvey where he cooked and chopped wood for the army.
After serving his time, he went back to work with his brother Marin until he saved enough to buy his first property in Millendon early 1950's. Then proceeded to grow grapes and fruit trees on his 13 acre property.
1952 - MATIJA GARBIN
Matija was from Višnjica, a village near Vrgorac, Croatia and her story shares similar hardships. She saw the war, a lot of death and had many unfortunate stories, assigned to protect all the children in the village so they weren't going to be taken into camps or worse. Then she was exiled out of Yugoslavia, escaped the war and went to Africa. From there Matija boarded a boat named the Toscana and joined her sister in Australia. Once in Australia not knowing any English she couldn't get a job so she lived and helped her sister until hearing about Duje in Millendon.
Duje married Matija and lived on the Millendon property until my sister Mary was born, Matija said "It's too dangerous to have the children here" and decided to sell that piece of land. Then bought a 5 acre block (where Garbin Wines stands today) which was carved off from the property next door owned by the Mateljan family. The main reason why they chose this block of land was because it was close to Matija's sister who lived on Bishop Road. It was a worthless piece of land because it always flooded down the bottom end in the winter, since then we have completed earthworks to level it and make a decent piece of workable land. Then when I was born in 1956, Duje and Matija Garbin decided to establish Garbin Estate Wines making bulk wine, fortifieds and sherry.
1958 - STARTING A FAMILY
These were very simple times with simple pleasures. It was good times for Duje and Matija because they weren't hassled by anyone, you could work hard and have food on your plate at the end of the day. Duje worked the vineyard he planted here in Middle Swan and on a vineyard up the road for a man named Peter, also working another job at the abattoir in Midland. Matija was happy because she had her sister up the road, and was housewife with her two children myself and sister, Mary. She also had duties picking grapes used for road side sale (with rock melon and watermelon) and wine making. She also ran a small duck and chicken farm, people would order a duck and she would kill, clean and prepare it for customers on their way home from work.
We were your average kids, running about with a generous amount of land to play on. A piece of cricket bat, and a ball would be good for me. Duje had chicken sheds and duck sheds at the front of the property and I would tender to all the chicks and ducks. It was very basic life, not like today, everyone just survived came in at night had a good meal and went to bed, that was life.
1960 - FIRST GENERATION WINE MAKING
Winemaking and vintages were done in a very rudimentary style. All the grapes were picked by hand and Duje used to crush grapes by feet until 1960 when we bought our first crusher, nicknamed "The Thumper" which was made by John Fabrizio's father (a local fabricator). The grapes were crushed into an open tank then pressed by a little press, lots of oxidation.
My parents couldn't afford to put an electric motor on the Thumper at the time so opted for PTO (Power Take-Off). Our cousin John brought down a tractor and we would set up a belt driven of a PTO to drive the Thumper. So the back of the tractor had a wheel on it and so did the crusher, then a long belt was attached which went around the tractor PTO wheel and back to the crusher wheel which drove the blades. It was a fearful setup but worked nonetheless, I remember the long belt between the two used to fly off in every direction on occasion. I shake my head to this day thinking about it. Eventually we were able to connect a 3-phase powered motor to it and then 40 years later, sold it back to the original owner.
1972 - TERTIARY EDUCATION, LANDING MY FIRST JOB.
Drafting was my best subject in high school, I received 90/100 for my perspective drawing that I made of a cupboard. My teacher was very impressed with my skill and said "You should do something about drawing for a living Peter", so I found a drafting job in the paper and got the job. I finished school at 16 and started drafting with an engineer in Perth, he gave me a junior draftsman role and I was taught all the know-how. Here I learned the proper work ethic, to work hard and not muck around and do the best job you possibly can because I had good people working with me- that's what I learnt.
1978 - I REALLY WANTED TO BE AN "AFL FOOTBALLER" GROWING UP
Football was a big part of my early life. We played football in primary school and later in life when I went to work we played football. I started playing for a team when I was 15 in Midland Junior Football Club then in 1978 I joined the Swan Valley Football Club because I had some mates playing there. I didn't get to play professionally but loved the game and was always involved with it somehow throughout my life.
1984 - MOVING TO ADELAIDE, SA FROM PERTH , WA
I was 28 years of age when I moved to Adelaide. One of my Perth team leaders, went to Adelaide first and called me up and said there's a job opportunity here, great money, you should come. I was working on contract there for $19 an hour and I was only earning $9 when I left Perth, I couldn't believe how much I was earning. That gave me the incentive to work, Saturdays, Sundays all day long drawing. I worked on the Grand Prix circuit and the Adelaide Casino and a big office building next door to the Casino. I gained respect from my peers and work colleagues and learnt a lot too. My mum was very sad and didn't want me to leave but it was a good life experience. I learnt how to live by myself, buy my own food, cook, have a good time and met my wife Katrina who was an executive personal assistant on the floor above our office.
1987 - MOVING BACK TO PERTH
After three years I had realized my time in Adelaide, my contract had finished, my parents were elderly and Katrina said she would come back to Perth. I had a small apartment in Perth city and a job to go back to. Katrina got a job doing temporary work in Bayswater. After a couple of years we made our way and were able to sell the apartment and buy a house in Mount Lawley.
1990 - MATIJA GARBIN PASSES AWAY
My mum was a hard woman, with all that she saw in the war, the misery and death, I'm not one to judge. The good stories came later on in life when her children were born and she was able to make money selling wine, it wasn't much money but it was a better life for her. She came out here wanting to live a good life, bring up a family and have enough money to buy food. Not an extravagant life but none of the Swan Valley ethnics really wanted anything palatial. They worked hard and kept going day to day. Matija had strength of character, was a leader and a thinker with a plan, she passed at the age of 78 and is missed dearly by her friends and family.
1992 - BECOMING A FATHER
When we were living in Mount Lawley, Duje was on his own in Middle Swan. I decided that we were going to live out there eventually and make a go of wine making. Our current house was built so we had a roof over our heads and that was a good start. I went to TAFE to receive further education in Viticulture studies, we went on excursions to visit wineries and learn about winemaking. I wanted to make this my career, I wanted to be out here so I could live the life that I wanted to live and not work long hours for someone else. I was working so hard and not getting the satisfaction that I really wanted. I started to do viticulture here with my dad and he was still able to help me learn the craft. We planted some Cabernet Sauvignon out the back and Chenin Blanc. All of this was happening around the time my first son, Joel was born.
Also around this time I was very determined to change everything, pulling down structures and old sheds. I nearly died trying to pull down a shed here. I was sitting on the roof, pulled out the last nail and went straight through the roof, hit the side of dad’s drying racks, spun over the top and crashed on the ground. My young nephew Damian came running out, could see I was in trouble and went running in to get Mary and my mum. I was in a bad way there but I was trying to make something of my life.
1993 - LEAVING MY FULL TIME JOB
I left my full time job in September 1993 to pursue wine making full time and did contract work in the same field of work to pay the bills and fund the winery. This was also the same month my second son Adam was born. When my last contract ran out I decided it was time to live in Middle Swan with my Dad on the Estate and become the full time winemaker I wanted to be. Katrina and I knew then we could make a go of winemaking if we slowly worked at it. We were actually lucky because in those days we could make something out of this. Today it's a lot harder to enter the marketplace. We had a little shed out the front, people would come in, buy our wine, and we were able to slowly take a place in the market.
1995 - WINNING OUR FIRST AWARD
One afternoon we were sitting in the kitchen and opened a bottle of the 1994 Shiraz and started drinking it and my brother-in-law said to me "This is really nice" and I said "Yeah.. this is pretty good!". I was proud of the efforts from myself and my consultant who helped when we were working on the Shiraz, it was really soft, full and lush. Fast forward to 1995, I decided to enter the Shiraz for judging. Katrina was sent to Lamonts to put in an appearance for the Swan Valley Wine Show, someone had to stay home and look after young Joel & Adam. I had both boys sitting next to me on the couch when Katrina arrived home and she pulled this trophy out of her bag and I couldn't believe it! We had a big write up by Ray Jordan (West Australian Winewriter) who compared it to a "Grange" which then snowballed into a very successful Spring in the Valley that year. It was one of those freaky things I will always remember. It was also around this time when I decided to commit to making premium wines full time.
1997 - BUYING GINGIN PROPERTY
Katrina and I decided we were going to need more land if we were going to take Garbin Wines to the next level and have more wine to make a comfortable living. So we sold our Mount Lawley house and found our property in Gingin. We had a choice of 3 properties and the very first one I saw was the ticket. It was on a brook which had continual running water, I looked around and everything was so lush with lots of growth. WA fruits were growing oranges on the neighbouring property so it was sure to be good soil. The first vineyard planted was 7 acres, 31 rows, as a trial we put in Shiraz, Semillon, Chardonnay and Verdelho and they are still growing today. We planted rootstock which wasn't a great idea due to the extra work involved grafting but I learnt along the way. We planted the second vineyard block on the property which was on their own roots and turned out much better and now we have grown from 7 to 20 acres.
1999 - EXPANDING GARBIN WINES
If I was to make a go of this business we were going to need more area to work in, we had little room to store barrels. I found out in Osborne Park there was a man who owned a salvage yard. I walked in there one day and I said "Have you any trusses for sale? I'm thinking of building something back at my place at the winery". He said "There's this guy up in Toodyay, he has a sheep shearing shed and all his trusses have fallen down and he wants to sell them all off to send his kids to school". So Katrina and I drove up there to have a look at them and as soon as I saw them I thought, yeah I can do something with this. I booked a big semi truck, went up there and bought these trusses for $250 each, stacked them up and started designing our back processing area. It was a piece of cake for me because I had 30 years of experience in construction. I just needed a good carpenter, and that was a father/son team.
I had made the commitment to come to Middle Swan and make something of my life after engineering and in order to do that I needed more space to operate. I didn't have any big plans but it has snowballed over the years, creating opportunity for more growth, structurally and in business.
2002 - KATRINA GARBIN AND THE THIRD GENERATION
Katrina married into the business and plays an essential role in the winery. Not only serving customers at the cellar but looked after all of us including my dad, Duje. Every time we came in after work there was always a home cooked meal on the table, with an Italian background she learned a lot of great dishes, old traditions and cooking styles. This was all done while raising our two boys Joel and Adam and using her administration skills to manage business logistics.
Katrina also used to label all our wines by hand. Within a working week she managed to complete and label our first export order which was one pallet to China. One pallet has 12 bottles to a carton and 64 cartons to a pallet so that's 768 bottles, with both sides that's 1536 labels! I always admire her patience.
The years while Joel & Adam were in primary school and high school were spent slowly building the business. The boys helped when they could with small tasks especially in school holidays. I never had the ability to hire extra staff, if we did, Garbin Wines would not be able to survive and expand at the rate I wanted. So we continued to chip away, serving customers at the cellar door, building relationships with clients and friends, run between two vineyards and fulfil export orders to Asia. Because of this we were able to purchase various vineyard equipment and machinery which makes our seasonal work achievable with reduced intervention/labour, resulting in a hard working, hands on, family winemaking experience.
2006 - SPARKLING DISGORGING
Only a couple of wineries made sparkling wines in the Swan Valley at this time so I saw an opportunity to enter the market. I was looking for a disgorging machine over east and was tipped off that a new machine "Poker-700" that had arrived in Australia. So I rang the company selling the machine and told them we were interested in making sparkling wine. The machine was from Europe and the exchange rate was AUD/EU0.60c at the time, it was hard buying. We ordered the equipment in 2006 and we launched Garbin Estate Sparkling Disgorging Services in October of 2008.
The problem with owning the first Poker 700 in Australia was owning the first Poker 700 in Australia! I had to make all the mistakes, when we first started every bottle we put through would fizz and the ice plug filled with dead yeast would retract into the wine. After a few weeks of problem solving I realized there wasn't a big enough ice plug in the bottle to force the back pressure to push it out of the top. So I made the ice plug bigger in the bottle, and sure enough it worked.
The first sparkling I ever made was Sparkling Semillon, it was excellent and I was very proud of it. I learned how to make sparkling from consultants, book reading and research which I still do to this day. It's a fascinating process and there's always something new to learn. I was happy to be in the position to add an extra arm to our business.
2008 - DUJE GARBIN PASSES AWAY
My father was the hardest working man I knew. It was amazing really, he helped me pick and harvest grapes well into his eighties and for someone to go out there in his 80's and still keep bending his back and picking grapes showed what sort of a man he was, unique and strong willed. I will always remember him for the stories he told and what can be achieved through hard work and determination. Duje would have been 100 years old in May 2009 but passed away May 2008. As a tribute to everything he has achieved, I decided to feature him on our current premium wine label. He lived a hard life but a good life and is always in our thoughts, your legacy continues.
2011 - THE BOYS ARE GROWING UP
Joel and Adam finish school and start becoming more involved in vintage (when we need the most help) and other seasonal tasks. Joel goes on to spend 6 years learning retail skills while working in a bottle shop (the liquor industry) and completing certificates in Digital Media and IT. Adam studied and completed a Bachelor of Exercise & Sport Science at Notre Dame University. Meanwhile Katrina and I held down the fort, continued to make wine, work hard, put food on the table and support our children's endeavours. This was no easy task as we continued to wear many hats and do most of the work ourselves to save money so when opportunities arose we could invest back into the business.
2016 - VINTAGE CHANGES FOREVER
I saw an advertisement for a harvester for sale and it was advertising to local winemakers in the Swan District. Katrina and I were driving through Guilford one day and I remember we stopped at one of the pastry shops to buy some pies to bring home, I pulled down one of the side streets, parked and I said to Katrina " We better buy that harvester, what do you think about that?" One thing I've learnt in my life is, things that I let go by I kick myself later for. I said to Katrina" We should buy this because if it gets snapped up, we are not going to easily buy a WA harvester and Gingin is only going to become harder to work". Katrina agreed and sure enough we rang up right there and then. You can't buy functioning second hand harvesters from interstate because of the risk of introducing new pests, diseases or weeds found in other states and territories. Joel and I went to inspect the harvester, very impressed with the machine and we thought this will make life a lot easier, and it did!
2020 - INVESTING IN THE FUTURE
At this stage we are not planning to plant more vines, Katrina doesn't believe me, but right now we just don't need any more. Because if this Shiraz comes up the way I want it, fingers crossed, and I work on the vineyard and get it producing to maximum tonnage, we will be doing alright. If the boys decide they want more fruit, there's plenty of room to keep going. Most of our efforts now will be spent expanding our name into the market so people are aware of our family business. We also plan to expand our knowledge in vineyard growth and maintenance to further enhance the quality of the grapes and achieve the maximum yield from our vines. With the ever changing climate we must adapt and be vigilant to whatever is thrown our way. It's been a wild ride so far and we look forward to continuing this journey, making premium wines with my family into the future.