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Sustainability champion earns Viticulturist of the Year

08 Jan 2016
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McLaren Vale viticulturist Irina Santiago-Brown’s flashy new red work boots might catch your eye in the vineyard, but it’s her contribution to the sustainable future of Australian wine growing that’s earning her the real accolades.

Named the inaugural Australian Women in Wine Awards (AWIWA) Viticulturist of the Year – an award sponsored by Wine Australia – in November, Dr Santiago-Brown said the award had been an educating and humbling experience.

Dr Santiago-Brown was commended for her work as viticulturist at Inkwell Wines as well as her role as lead developer for the Sustainable Australia Winegrowing (SAW) program – an accredited sustainability assessment program for wine growers in Australia.

In particular, AWIWA Chair Jane Thomson said her ‘consistent performance over the past few seasons and use of innovation and/or best practice methods to achieve results’ earned Dr Santiago-Brown the award.

Though she’s had a big couple of years – including completing her PhD thesis, leading the development of the SAW program in McLaren Vale and helping launch it nationally – Dr Santiago-Brown took a little convincing to enter the Awards.

‘I honestly had mixed feelings when I first heard about the Award. I’m not really someone who has been involved in women-only events or groups but when I took a closer look and saw that the Award sponsors and supporters were people and organisations I respect, it made me stop and think about what the Awards stood for and why it is important to participate in such things’, Dr Santiago-Brown said.

The Women in Wine Awards were launched in early 2015 and designed to acknowledge and reward the work of women in the Australian wine sector and sector leaders who champion equality and fairness for all sexes in the workplace.

A Wine Australia PhD scholarship recipient, Dr Santiago-Brown led the development of the SAW McLaren Vale program as part of her PhD thesis. It’s designed to provide growers and regions with meaningful benchmarks through a triple bottom line approach, which accounts for environmental, social and economic factors of grape production.

SAW is now considered to be Australia’s pre-eminent viticulture sustainability program and in 2015 earned national accreditation under Entwine.

The latest numbers from the McLaren Vale Grape and Wine Tourism Association show that participation of McLaren Vale growers in the SAW Program has grown year-on-year, with participating members now accounting for around 60 per cent of the region’s grape crush.

In the coming 2015–16 growing season, SAW will be trialled in the Clare Valley, Barossa Valley, Adelaide Hills, and Langhorne Creek with 10 or more growers from each of the new regions adopting the program in collaboration with their regional association.

Dr Santiago-Brown has stepped down from managing SAW but now says she has the opportunity to ‘live it’ as viticulturist at her small wine company Inkwell Wines, which she and husband Dudley Brown run.

‘In all my previous roles in government I’ve been involved in either the start or the end of projects. Only in growing grapes and making wine have I had the opportunity to complete the full-cycle of living and applying the outcomes’, she said.

‘I’ve come to realise that while SAW offers very good processes for assessment and education – as a very small wine producer those processes produce very different demands, in labour and costs, as well as desired outcomes for a company such as ours compared to larger scale companies.’

As a result, Dr Santiago-Brown is already considering her next research project – looking at the assessment process and identifying possible sustainability benchmarks and criteria to foster greater flexibility to meet the very different needs of small to large wine companies. 

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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.