[happy families] or blackmail in wine paradise
by Esther Moriarty & Stuart Pigott
So what kind of people are the Casellas really? Are we ready to believe they are as rosy-cheeked and cleaned-faced as they wish us to perceive them?
Why suddenly such direct and probing questions? Well we have been reading the archives of the Sydney Morning Herald, Australia’s oldest continuously published newspaper and to this day one of the nation’s most important daily newspapers. There we found a very different Casella story from that told on the [yellow tail] website. Before taking a look at the flip side of the ultimate wine megabrand and its makers, let us remind ourselves how they tell their own story on that website.
In 1957 Filippo Casella and his wife Maria emigrated from Sicily to Australia with their children Rosa and Joe. A small town named Yenda, close to Griffith in the agricultural Riverina region of New South Wales, welcomed the Casella family with open arms. There the couple had two further sons, John and Marcello, and in 1966 were able to to continue the family winegrowing tradition after buying farm 1471 and planting their first vines in Australia. They also planted some peach trees and plum trees for prunes, because just about everything grows really well in this sunny, well-irrigated paradise. In 1971 Casella Wines crushed their first 50 tons of grapes. Just thirty years later in 2001 they launched [yellow tail] selling 12 million bottles of their new brand in the US in the first year. Over the next 3 years [yellow tail] miraculously grew to become the number one imported wine to the US. Allow us to put that into perspective, this time without direct reference to the [yellow tail] website; by 2005 the megabrand was more popular in the US than all French wines combined!
Now let us turn to the archive of the Sydney Morning Herald, beginning with an article published in the December 11th 2009 issue (SMH1) under the title ‘Man tried to blackmail wine patriarch for $5.5m, court told’. It was followed by ‘How a blackmailer stung Australia’s leading wine dynasty’ on July 17th 2010 (SMH2), then ‘Lawyers, guns, money: the sting in Yellow Tail’ on October 30th 2010 (SMH3). Already the titles of these stories suggested to us that there might be rather more to the [yellow tail] story than we had hitherto imagined. Then when we read those articles abd that impression was dramaticaly confirmed. On the one hand they made many things about the Casellas and their hometown of Griffith suddenly very clear to us, but a lot else remained very unclear and we ended up asking ourselves those two direct and probing questions. We sought for answers, but the further we dug into the matter the more the questions multiplied.
One thing which immediately became clear from SMH3 was that in 1995 Marcello Casella, today Director of Vineyard Operations at Casella Wines, went to jail for five years over a marijuana crop in the north of Queensland worth an estimated AUS$57 million. His arrest, along with eight others, was the result of a long investigation into organised crime by the National Crime Authority. We asked ourselves if Marcello Casella was caught with the first batch of marijauna he was ever involved with, or if he succeed in completing other similar transactions without getting caught. And if so was he able to stache away a pile of cash before he was put away?
From SMH3 we also discovered that when Marcello Casella was arrested John Casella, today Managing Director and Winemaker of Casella Wines, was working at Riverina Estate Wines (now Warburn Estate Winery) for the owner Tony Sergi. In 1979 the Woodward Royal Commission into Drug Trafficking declared Sergi to be a “principle”’ of the Italian Mafia in Griffith who were heavily involved in the marijauna trade during the 1960s and ’70s. They also named him as a member of the Calabrian Mafia cell that organised the the murder of the anti-drugs campaigner Donald Mackay in Griffith in 1977.
Of course, all this doesn’t mean that John Casella was ever a member of the Mafia or ever directly involved in Mafia business. But we asked ourselves if Tony Sergi really had nothing to do with the Mafia during the twelve years John Casella worked for him before returning to the family company in 1994? Either way, John Casella grew up in a region that was one of the centres of organised crime in Australia. Is his current life as a respectable and successful businessman a reaction against this background? That would be entirely understandable, but the questions didn’t stop multiplying there.
Most of SMH1 is devoted to reporting how a couple of days earlier in Griffith Matteo de Dominicis was charged with blackmailing the Casella family for more than half a million Australian dollars and attempting to extort a further 5 million. According to the article de Dominicis allegedly demanded a total of AUS$ 645,000 from John Casella (the police charge sheet detailed the de Dominicis’ demands as follows: AUS$300,000 on February 29th 2008, AUS$150,000 between April 1st and May 3rd 2008 and AUS$195,000 on November 1st 2008). SMH2, published after de Dominicis had pleaded guilty to two counts of blackmail, reports that John Casella deposited all these sums into de Dominicis bank account, citing threats of violence to his family as the reason for paying up. But is that the only reason why he waitted so long before finally calling the police on December 6th 2009?
Just a few days prior to that de Domincis demanded the AUS$5 million from him, and maybe even with the enormous success of [yellow tail] he simply couldn’t pay. Or had something more than vthe threat of violence prevented him from calling in the police then? According to SMH2 de Dominicis asserted that in 1988 he gave Filippo Casella 2 kilogramms of marijuana seeds, enough to grow a multi-million dollar crop, and SMH3 reports that he claimed in court that this was the reason that the Casellas owed him all the money. As well as insisting that marijauna growing ran in the Casella family, de Dominicis also claimed in court that Filippo Casella was involved in the 1986 murder of his borther-in-law Nunzio Greco, a money launderer for the Mob. There is no hard evidence to back up any of these ugly claims and they could well be no more than the wild fantasies of a criminal mind, but regardless of that the whole thing resembles a brutal Quentin Tarantino Mafia movie more than the story of a successful family-owned winery.
SMH2 also reports that for years Griffith has been rife with rumours of bags and tins of cash the Casellas buried in the vineyards, some of which might still be there. Those rumours may also be no more than the fantasies of local people frustrated by their own inability to evade the tax man, or even just the result of the lure of buried treasure. However, it is hardly astonishing that a heady cocktail of truths, half-truths and wild allegations in a region with a history of organised crime should keep the rumour mill turning. For example, in 1999 the launch of Casellas Wines’ Carramar Estate brand in the US market failled disamlly, yet the company still had the capital to launch [yellow tail] on an even bigger scale just one year later. Is it astonishing that local people then asked themselves where all the money to build this wine empire came from? It certainly couldn’t have come only from the sale of peaches, and prunes from farm 1471.
In recent years Casella Wines has tried to promote itself as wholesome family company with a community-friendly brand according to the motto what’s good for Casella Wines is good for Griffith and that’s good for Australia too. In interviews, like that which appeared in the July/August 2009 issue of Winestate magazine John Casella repeats his vision for the future of Casella Wines: ”It’s about keeping family together, working together and giving the world something that nobody else is – and that’s value-for-money wines from a place that is relatively insignificant in world terms.” It sounds like well-learnt promotional lines and they don’t sound better through repitition. When asked by Winestate magazine how he spends his Christmases his tone turns to heavy-duty sentimentality: ”We always have lunch together on Christmas day as a family – and sometimes even dinner as well!” All together around one table, twice in one day! SMH2 is illustrated with a photograph of just such a Casella family gathering. Take a look and you can see one of the world’s truly [happy families].