Demetrio and the Snake

We lost one of the good ones this week (29th May, 2020). Demetrio Zema was part of the Coonawarra fabric, a great man, a great father, and a man who you always knew what he was thinking, because he’ll tell you. Demetrio loved duck shooting. He was an exceptional friend of my Dad Trevor, and they would often go duck shooting or hunting quail in the long Phalaris grass of the Coonawarra Plains.

It was also known that Demetrio was petrified of snakes. One day when he was coming back from quail shooting, he saw a snake in the middle of the road. Being so scared of them, he slammed on the breaks in the middle of the road, jumped out of his tiny Suzuki with his shotgun at the ready and promptly fired twice at the snake – missing both times. His hunting dog – trained to retrieve anything he shoots – promptly jumped out of the car, picked up the snake, and brought it back to Demetrio. Demet, of course, was yelling at the dog, who thought it was in trouble, so jumped into the back of the car – still with the snake in its mouth. Now Demetrio really lost his mind. The dog – being yelled at even louder now – didn’t know what to do, so dropped the snake in the car and jumped out. The snake (no doubt as scared as Demet) slid under the driver’s seat. So there was Demetrio, his tiny white Suzuki with all the doors open in the middle of the road, trying to flush a snake out of his car. Eventually, the snake slipped out of the car unharmed, and Demet shaken from the ordeal, drove about 10km an hour to our house to tell Dad the story. Being so shaken, Dad couldn’t understand what he was talking about, because he kept reverting back into Italian. It took three goes to tell the story, which made Trev cry-laugh for an hour. Demetrio did not see the humour in it. “Not bladda funny – not bladda funny” he kept repeating.

Originally a House painter in Penola – Dad’s nickname for him was “Mr Brush” (“Mr Bladda Resh” Demet would greet Dad. “Hello Mr Brush!” he’d say back). Demetrio dreamt of being able to afford a small block of land to plant grapes. Finally, he and his wife Franchesca (the greatest pasta maker in the world) bought their first small block alongside the highway in the early 1980’s, where Zema Estate now resides. Winemaker Sue Bell tells the story of her first visit to Zema Estate, with some of her winemaking friends. A couple of them asked for a spittoon, to which Demetrio replied (with thick Italian accent); “Your blooda spit my wine out, you can get out.” He turned to Sue, who quickly replied “No no, we will definitely be drinking your wine – it’s delicious.” Woe betide any tire kicker tourist that had plans on tasting without buying when Demetrio was in the tasting room. They often copped an earful. He had a passion for the industry, and was immensely proud of his wines.

My favourite story about Demetrio was when he rang Dad to help him clear out his makeshift cellar – a car pit full of long necks of wine. His first trial white wine vintage – of what I assume was Riesling – was bottled with a crown seal in longneck beer bottles. As they were loading them into the back of the Ute, Trev said to Demetrio he should try one. “No, they’ll be no bladda good.” said Demetrio. “No, I think we should try one,” said Dad, so they popped the cap on a bottle, and they poured themselves a glass each. Demetrio took one taste of it, looked at the wine in amazement, turned to Dad and pointing to the hole in the ground. “Right – all da bottles back in the pit; back in the pit.” Age-worthy wines from the very first vintage.

Deb Redman also tells the story of Demitrio giving a ribbing to a forever-single Mal Redman every time he would see him at the Coonawarra Club. “You stilla feeda da chooks Mal?” he would say with a smirk (for those not familiar with the term, mime being a male and hand-feeding chooks at waist height – you’ll get it). When Deb came on the scene, Demet was still using the line on him until finally one day Deb said: “Demet, stop asking Mal that – I feed his chooks now.” Demet had tears of laughter for a full 5 minutes.

Demetrio summed up everything beautiful about this country. An immigrant warmly welcomed into the region, and welcomed into the Coonawarra winemaking circle, he created a beautiful dream from nothing for his family. Funny, brutally honest, and generous, he helped make Koonara’s first vintages from 1992 to 1997.

Mr Brush, you will be missed.

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