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A 20-year commitment to getting the vineyard balance right

08 Dec 2017
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Photo: Wine Australia

Liz Riley understands better than most the practical pros and cons of using chemicals in the vineyard.

She started learning about agrochemicals more than two decades ago in her first job with Southcorp and was awarded a prestigious Nuffield Scholarship to study their sustainable use in European and North American vineyards in 1997.

She now makes a living helping others make the right decisions around pest and disease management, and is both an advisor to and advocate for Wine Australia on agrochemicals issues. She is also a Board member of the Australian Wine Research Institute (AWRI).

Hunter-based Vitibit has grown to become one of the nation’s leading viticultural consultancies and Liz was named the 2017 Viticulturist of the Year by the Australian Society of Viticulture and Oenology (ASVO) primarily for her expertise in the sustainable management of agrochemicals.

‘It’s a big part of what I do but there’s a whole lot of other stuff that bolts on around it’, she said. ‘Good pest and disease management is not just about agrochemicals. It’s about how you manage your canopy, vineyard floor and biodiversity and all those other things.

‘Agrochemicals is one of those words that kind of excites a response such as “oh yeah heavy chemical use” but actually it’s not in our interests to do that. It’s in our interests to have a sustainable environment, have good pest and disease management. We don’t want to expose our operators to stuff that’s nasty, and every time you spend money on chemicals it’s potentially eating into profitability.’

It’s very much a balancing act. Liz says anyone in her region who is ‘not running a protectant program, getting in ahead of the weather’ could be described as foolhardy. It’s also not about annihilating an insect that’s eating a minuscule amount of your crop just because you can, often it is appropriate to tolerate a level of damage.

And as a sector we must be careful never to get complacent. ‘Going down to the Yarra recently and seeing the impact of phylloxera in a premium wine district 10 years on was pretty sobering’, she said.

Liz says she chose viticulture because she wanted a profession that would allow her to live and work in rural areas. She moved from Perth to study at Roseworthy then spent seven years in national and regional roles with Southcorp before setting up Vitibit in 2000.

In that time, she’s seen issues evolve and new ones emerge. Biosecurity, she says, is a big talking point at the moment, as is profitability, particularly in regions with high land values. As a consultant, she does quite a bit more strategic work and has ‘a lot of value chain conversations’.

Not surprisingly, the other (constant) change is technology. ‘Digital cameras and smartphones and all those things make gathering and sending information so easy. Back in the day you’d spend an hour or two a day running back to the office to see if faxes had arrived and that would add up over the course of vintage.

‘The agility that devices give us to make decisions on the run or to keep reviewing decisions and then changing things is awesome. I’ve still got a fax line because I can’t bear to let it go; but I only get one or two a year now.’

The growth area is big data. The challenge, Liz, says is to make sure that we know how to use it, not just collect it, and that we develop technologies that support both researchers and practitioners.

The chair of the ASVO’s judging committee for this year’s award, Peter Dry, said Liz also was being recognised for her ‘significant contribution to the wine sector and its community through her service on numerous reference groups and committees’. Alongside her roles with Wine Australia and AWRI, she is Vice President of the NSW Wine Industry Association and Chair of its R&D Committee.

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This content is restricted to wine exporters and levy-payers. Some reports are available for purchase to non-levy payers/exporters.