I first met Darren De Bortoli in Griffith when I was covering a murder. An Indian fruit picker had been beaten to death, then dumped and burnt not far from the vineyard De Bortoli's grandfather, Vittorio, founded after fleeing the World War I wreckage of Italy.
With the story in the bag I was asked to get some colour on what looked like the pending collapse of the Australian wine industry.
"Just don't talk to Darren De Bortoli," I was advised in a local pub. "He is a complete prick."
I headed out to De Bortoli's and we sat among his vines and drank beer under the awning of a battered old caravan as the sun set. Every few minutes one of his staff would amble up and open a bottle and settle into a camp chair. They didn't seem to think he was a prick, though it was clear he was the boss.
Two years later we meet again over stiff white linen at Balmoral's Bather's Pavilion. Half-a-dozen oysters on ice glisten under a red chimichurri sauce before him as he talks about his grandfather, Vittorio, the farm labourer who lived under a water tank tower as he saved to buy the farm that became the empire.
In the 1920s, war veterans were being allocated farm land under the soldier settlement scheme. Many made a go of it; many others, without the skills or the capital to work their blocks, walked away in despair. Italian peasants working the fields of Griffith began to buy cheap land.
Vittorio grew grapes to make the dry red his countrymen were used to drinking and in 1928 made his farm a vineyard. By the time he was interned during World War II the illiterate farmer was wealthy.
At the end of the war, Vittorio was pinched, according to family legend, for bootlegging.
''I like to think he was doing his bit for morale,'' De Bortoli says.
Records held by the National Archives tell another story.
On August 29, 1946, Vittorio had sold 67 gallons of claret, 65 gallons of hock, 61 gallons of sweet sherry, 61 gallons of brown muscat, 57 gallons of dry sherry and 52 gallons of red port, overcharging by £70 and 18 pence.
He was found guilty of breaking strict wartime price regulations throughout 1946 and 1947, jailed and fined. It was a sign of his early success that he secured the services of the future chief justice Garfield Barwick to plead his case before the High Court. He lost.
As a waiter removes entrees De Bortoli fills the brief pause in our conversation with a lecture on his favourite topic, plans to maintain the lakes at the mouth of the Murray River as freshwater by increasing environmental flows through the Murray-Darling system.
He is incensed by the notion. He rummages in a nylon backpack, pulling out internet printouts and a bound scientific report bolstering his view that the lakes were historically estuarine, and the billions of litres of water needed to keep them fresh would be wasted.
De Bortoli confesses he wasn't there the day a public meeting about the plan turned so ugly it penetrated city-centric news broadcasts.
''I was in a restaurant right next to Rob Oakeshott's office in Port Macquarie, but I watched what I could on TV because I knew it was going to be fiery,'' he says.
''You can either go quietly into the gas chambers or you can put up a last stand, that's the way I look at it.''
De Bortoli ignores my attempts to divert the conversation and reads out choice quotes from his stash of documents.
''Let's talk about you for a bit,'' I finally suggest.
''Yeah,'' he says flatly, and turns to the wine list.
''I think a nice Australian riesling would go down well. Let's try a Ken Holmes.''
''You know it?''
''Nah, but Ken's a good bloke.''
De Bortoli's father, Deen, left school at 15 and threw himself into the family business. In the 1960s, Australians started drinking table wine and Deen wanted to exploit the new market. Vittorio was resistant but Deen pushed and soon the second-hand plant equipment Deen bought was churning out thousands of boxes of De Bortoli. The operation doubled, then trebled in size.
He sent Darren and his two brothers to St Joseph's in Hunters Hill, where, like everyone else, Darren took his football seriously and his religion for granted.
''I believe in God because I don't want to be a hypocrite on my death bed,'' he says.
Was he aware of being wealthy? He toys with his fish. The question appears to cause De Bortoli indigestion. His brown farmer's face twitches as he makes an attempt, ''Yeah, well, like most kids, you know, there's no, you know I'd say, sort of, you know, can't really, yeah, you know.''
He finally concedes that his generation of De Bortolis ''never went without''. On graduation he went to Roseworthy College in South Australia to do a degree in wine making.
''It was the start of the cool climate push,'' he says. ''We all lived together, you lived and talked wine, and we were talking about wine, making concepts, years before they became common in Australia.''
He returned to Griffith headstrong and ambitious. Much like his father before him he set about recasting the family business.
His first project remains his best known. De Bortoli believed Australia could produce a sophisticated sweet wine. The Noble One, made with late-picked botrytis-infected semillon grapes, has won 113 international awards since its first vintage in 1982, the year he finished college.
It wasn't enough. He demanded the company buy into the Yarra Valley, where grapes for the more sophisticated cooler climate wines he had learnt to make at Roseworthy could be grown.
Deen resisted and Darren threatened to quit. On one occasion his mother, Emeri, hid the keys to all the family vehicles. Deen came around. Since then De Bortoli has seen the business double and treble again. Today it is the sixth-largest wine producer in the country, the second largest family-owned outfit, worth about $200 million.
Despite the success the ambition remains. He is determined to leave a business large enough to absorb those members of the coming generation - 12 at last count - who earn a seat at the boardroom table.
De Bortoli waves over a sommelier. ''Is the De Bortoli '08 sauvignon any good?'' A ready laugh.
I ask about his fearsome reputation as a businessman. ''I sometimes wonder what it's like sitting across the table from me,'' he answers quietly. A pause. ''My bark's worse than my bite.''
I suggest local growers struggling through a grape glut that has seen prices collapse might find him a tough negotiator.
''Well, there's only two of us buying,'' he says, referring to his Griffith neighbour, the Casella family. The suggestion is clear - there is not much to negotiate.
De Bortoli is a pragmatist. He views wine making as an agricultural industry like any other. Despite the long relationships his family has had with Griffith growers, he sees no reason to pay his suppliers above the market price. He confesses to ''conservative tendencies''.
''I went to an institution for six years … that conditioning, it's amazing how strong it is.''
But did he enjoy it?
''I suppose I am generally happy with the end product. Am I glad I went? Yes. Did I enjoy it? No.''
Why? ''Well, the systemised abuse.''
At this point De Bortoli wants to talk off the record and I turn off the recorder. He tells me about waking at night in a Joey's dormitory to find he was being groped by one of the Marist brothers.
Pretending to be gripped by a dream he flung his arm up and yelled bloody murder. He told some of his friends but only one would back him up when he went to report it.
He remembers there was an interrogation of some sort, then the incident faded away. He was never touched again.
At first he is reluctant to make the story public but later changes his mind. ''It wasn't that serious; other people went through much worse.''
De Bortoli says he suffered no long-term effects from the assault, though admits he has had ''trust issues''.
And there was the aggression. ''On the football field I didn't just want to beat the opposition, I wanted to f---ing kill them.''
By now the wind has picked up and the sun is going. The sea has faded from cobalt blue to gunmetal grey and staff are hovering, ready to reset our table for dinner.
We share a cab up through the streets of Mosman and I tell De Bortoli I want to write the story.
''I dunno, I'll think about it,'' he says, then fishes out his Murray-Darling file, thrusts it into my hands and climbs out at the lights.