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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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de Castella, François Robert (1867–1953)

by David Dunstan

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

François Robert de Castella (1867-1953), viticulturist, was born on 16 January 1867 at South Yarra, Melbourne, son of Swiss-born Charles Hubert de Castella, vigneron, and his wife Frances Alice, née Jenkins, from Sydney. In 1879-82 François was educated at Xavier College, Kew; there, at his father's insistence, he was served wine with meals. He left Australia in 1883 to study natural science at Lausanne, Switzerland, and vine-growing and wine-making in France.

On his return in 1886, de Castella managed St Hubert's vineyard at Yering, owned by his father in partnership with Andrew Rowan. After Rowan purchased Hubert's share in 1890, François joined the Victorian Department of Agriculture as a viticultural expert. He travelled throughout the State, advised vignerons and wrote the influential Handbook on Viticulture for Victoria (1891). Retrenched in 1892, he purchased Tongala vineyard and in 1896 became manager of Chateau Dookie for the Bank of Victoria.

Following the outbreak of grape phylloxera at Bendigo, in 1894 de Castella condemned the Victorian government's policy of vineyard eradication. He supported regional quarantine and the introduction of phylloxera-resistant, American rootstocks, as had been done in Europe. Although he was aware of the latest methods adopted by the French in combating the pest, his advice was ignored.

In 1907 the Victorian wine industry verged on collapse. At the behest of Hans Irvine, de Castella was again appointed viticultural expert with the Department of Agriculture. That year he was sent to Europe to obtain further information on the control of phylloxera. This journey, fully documented (1907-09) in the Victorian Journal of the Department of Agriculture (to which he was a frequent contributor), was the basis for the reconstitution of affected vineyards in central and northern Victoria. At Rutherglen de Castella cultivated varieties of rootstocks for Australian needs and developed the technique of field-grafting. His tour also led to the introduction of cultures of flor yeasts for producing delicate, dry sherries of the fino type.

Dark bearded, energetic, intelligent and purposeful in his youth, and silver-haired and sprightly in old age, de Castella was known to his departmental colleagues as Cas. To the wine merchant Samuel Wynn, he combined the 'lively cultivated manners of a European aristocrat' with the 'honesty, matiness and deep practicality of the true Australian'. Fluent in French, de Castella was a prolific writer in English, and also an active broadcaster and educationist. His friends considered him a confirmed bachelor and were surprised when, on 31 January 1923, at St Patrick's Cathedral, East Melbourne, he married a 33-year-old nurse Phyllis Yvonne Van Hemert Silvestre (d.1936). Following his retirement in 1936, the Phylloxera Board of South Australia commissioned him to report on the grape varieties of that State. His achievements, especially in ampelography, were recognized abroad. He was appointed to the French Ordre du Mérite Agricole in 1937.

De Castella enjoyed life and was a regular at Camillo Triaca's restaurant, 'the Latin'. He coined the term 'eubiotics', for the science of good living, and was foundation president (1936) of the Victorian branch of the Wine and Food Society. Survived by his three sons, he died on 12 May 1953 at Charterisville, his Heidelberg home, and was buried in nearby Warringal cemetery. A portrait by Will Rowell is held by the family.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Wynn, The Fortunes of Samuel Wynn (Melb, 1968)
  • Australian Vigneron and Fruit Grower's Journal, 1 Dec 1892, 1 Mar, 2 Aug 1894, 25 July 1908, 28 Apr 1923
  • People (Sydney), 28 Feb 1951
  • Australian Brewing and Wine Journal, 20 May 1953
  • Journal of Agriculture (Victoria), June 1953
  • Argus (Melbourne), 24 May 1890, 17 Jan 1939
  • Herald (Melbourne), 13 May 1953
  • de Castella papers (University of Melbourne Archives).

Citation details

David Dunstan, 'de Castella, François Robert (1867–1953)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 29 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

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