Coonawarra is mourning the loss of one of its great characters, Demetrio Zema, who was known as “Mr Painter” before he successfully turned his hand to making “the only kind of wine — full-bodied, red wine.”

The Zema Estate founder died last month at the age of 87, but he leaves behind a wealth of stories from a life that began in southern Italy.

Mr Zema was 27 when he arrived South Australia’s south-east, leaving his family and seven siblings behind to join his fiancée, Francesca. 

Before he founded the winery, Mr Zema painted houses in Coonawarra from the 1960s to the late 1980s, making homemade wine at night. 

Along the way he made many friends and joked he brought “culture” to Penola by introducing locals to his early homemade wines and his wife’s Italian cooking.

Although he and Mrs Zema intended to return to Italy, they stayed in Australia after forging a life and establishing an award-winning wine business.

Demetrio and Francesca Zema founded Zema Estate along with their sons, Matt and Nick, in 1982.(Supplied: Zema Estate)

Handmade legacy

Demetrio and Francesca established Zema Estate in 1982, continuing the multigenerational tradition of grape growing and winemaking of their families in Italy.

Their sons, Matteo (deceased) and Nick, were instantly made equal partners in the family business. 

Nick Zema said his dad never forgot the memories of the early years when the wine was made in a second-hand milk tanker, and handmade labels were glued to old sauce bottles and longnecks.

“Dad was always very proud — as most Italians are — of the homemade wine, and dad always got a lot of accolades and had a lot of fun showing people those old wines,” he said.

“It’s quite funny, even now I’ll still get people come up to me and say, ‘Oh, I was digging through the cellar and found this old bottle of wine with a handmade label on it — D&F Zema and Sons.'”

Plans for public event

Tributes to Mr Zema have flowed from the field sports and shooting communities, including the Mount Gambier Gun Club, where he was a fixture for more than 60 years maintaining his lifelong passion for hunting, training gun dogs and shooting.

“We always realised that dad had put so much into his 87 years of life,” Nick said.

The family held a small gathering to farewell Mr Zema this month, but were planning to commemorate his life at a public event.

“When the restrictions are lifted we’ll certainly have a celebration of life for dad in a memorial here at the winery,” Nick said.

“So that people can come and not only pay their respects, but think back about some of the great stories that they know about dad, and have a laugh and have a drink and celebrate a truly great life.”



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