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Sustainability in winegrape growing PhD thesis garners global attention

18 Dec 2014
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McLaren Vale has been the first wine region to benefit from the recently completed PhD thesis of Irina Santiago-Brown, but it’s unlikely to be the last – with her sustainability research garnering attention across Australia and on the world stage.

The first major outcome of the PhD thesis titled, Sustainability assessment in winegrape growing, completed in July, has been the development of the Sustainable Australia Winegrowing (SAW) program in McLaren Vale.

It’s not just the program that has earned academic and sector praise. The methodology called Mixed Methods Research (MMR), developed by Dr Santiago-Brown as part of her PhD is also attracting interest—due largely to its adaptability to other agricultural and industry systems.

Brazilian-born Dr Santiago-Brown moved to Australia in 2009 and began a Masters in Viticulture at the University of Adelaide in the same year.

Before her move to Australia, Dr Santiago-Brown had spent much of her career working as a special advisor for the department of the Governor of Bahia, working mostly in international relations and business sectors.

'Australia represented a change, a country that values balance between work and personal life', she said.

'I chose winegrapes as my next career focus because it produces something I love—wine and it’s part of a full life-cycle. It’s a product that’s associated with celebrations and I have a great appreciation of its diversity.'

While working on her PhD, Dr Santiago-Brown also worked two days a week with Sustainable Australia Winegrowing—McLaren Vale.

'This part-time job contributed enormously to the development of the research. I would never have had the level of access to growers, not just in Australia, but in all the countries I visited and collected data from, without the experience and initial network from McLaren Vale.'

The financial support of a PhD scholarship from AGWA also meant the initial objectives of her research became much broader.

'It meant I could now include other new-world wine producers – and it was quite surprising to find so many people worldwide highly committed to sustainability issues and willing to share their experiences and knowledge', she said.

'During the research I had the chance to put together 14 focus groups with 83 top managers (CEOs, chief winemakers and chief viticulturists) in the United States, South Africa, New Zealand, Chile and Australia.'

Husband Dudley Brown also funded his own travel to assist in the research, helping to moderate the groups.

Each stage of her research had its own objective and method:

  • Define sustainability through an Assisted Focus Group Method of Enquiry (AFGME)
  • Produce a list of indicators for sustainability assessment through an Adapted Nominal Group Technique (ANGT)
  • Discuss the engagement process of viticulture sustainability programs through a traditional focus group approach, and document and compare the most prominent sustainability assessment programs for individual organisations in viticulture worldwide.

Since completing and submitting her PhD in February, the feedback and outcomes of her work have been extremely positive.

Her work has been published as academic peer-reviewed articles and Dr Santiago-Brown continues to speak and exchange ideas with program managers of sustainability initiatives for both grape growers and other sectors worldwide.

A comment from one of her PhD examiners sums up the potential outcomes of her work, 'Besides the impact that this work will have on the adoption of sustainability assessment systems locally and worldwide, in my opinion the use of mixed methods research opens a new area of possibilities for studying the organisation of growers in agricultural as well as other industry systems.'

'The Sustainable Australia Winegrowing program is now open to any grower across Australia and several regions have expressed interest in knowing the system better and potentially adopting it', Dr Santiago-Brown said.

While McLaren Vale helped test the methodology and establish a working system, Dr Santiago-Brown said the region’s growers also understand and share the belief that the region cannot be sustainable in isolation.

'It’s is time to spread the idea.'

She will continue her two-day role at the McLaren Vale Grape Wine and Tourism Association (MVGWTA) managing SAW, and helping to expand it to other regions.

'We need to develop a governance structure to ensure program integrity and comparability among regions, in spite of adaptation of content to regional contexts.

'MVGWTA also received a grant from AGWA to develop a feasibility study on an ISO14001 (environment) certification for a wine region. I am currently finalising the report and organising community meetings to pilot the proposed methodology of our project.'

Other industries are also showing interest in SAW and the PhD work, and Dr Santiago-Brown has been invited to speak at a number of conferences as well as occasional lecturing at University of Adelaide.

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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.