Culture: As Australia Takes Steps Toward Reparations to Indigenous Communities, So Does the Wine Industry
This year could be historic for Australia. Sometime between September and December, Australians will vote on a referendum that could amend the nation’s constitution to recognize Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, who have been largely disenfranchised throughout Australian history. If successful, Indigenous groups will get permanent representation in the government. This referendum comes after the Australian government announced earlier this year it would give $424 million AUD ($282 million USD) in funding to “improve the lives of Australia’s original inhabitants.”
What does wine have to do with this? Wine’s place as a premium agricultural product that requires arable land and water—both scarcities down under—can be significant for Indigenous justice and reconciliation, a process that is deeply connected to ownership and custodianship of the land.
The wine industry, which spans over 360,000 planted acres of grapevines, generates over $45 billion AUD ($29 billion USD) annually. The best vineyards adhere to farming principles in line with what Australia’s Indigenous peoples call “caring for Country,” which refers to the reciprocal relationship between people and land. It is a form of sustainable land management that draws on ancestral knowledge and traditional customs.
In recent years, as climate chaos continues, members of the Australian wine industry have started to connect with local Aboriginal communities in the hopes of learning more about seasonal changes and traditional fire management practices. These include tactics like controlled burns, in which small, prescribed fires are set in the cool season to burn off dead forest matter, which helps reduce the chance of uncontrolled wildfires when the weather turns warm. These practices have been implemented for tens of thousands of years by Australia’s traditional custodians.
Borrowing Indigenous practices benefits the wine industry. Certainly, Australian vintners are keen to draw a connection between winemaking and Indigenous peoples, using Aboriginal names and art on wine labels. But what is the wine industry doing to benefit its Indigenous communities?
Giving Recognition Through Wine
In 2019, Wine Australia, the industry’s national organizing body, started listing Acknowledgement of Country, or Land Acknowledgment, on its corporate reports and website. These acknowledgements specify the Indigenous land that wineries and vineyards occupy. A rising number of Australian wine companies have also done the same on their websites and back labels.
These public gestures may help facilitate an important shift, both semantically and culturally, but some worry they’re all talk. In response, some wine organizations are putting words to action.
Take Tahbilk, one of Australia’s most historic wineries, which dates to 1860. It’s located in the wetlands of the small Nagambie region in central Victoria. In 2021, Tahbilk—which means “a place of many waterholes” in the local Taungurung language—partnered with Aboriginal tourism business wawa bilk. In collaboration with Taungurung elders, Tahbilk launched a walking tour along the property’s wetland trails to share the culture and history of the Taungurung people.
Similarly, in the McLaren Vale region of South Australia, the biodynamically farmed Gemtree Wines offers a Wuldi Cultural Experience, where visitors can walk the property’s eco-trail with Ngarrindjeri elder Mark Koolmatrie. The excursion concludes with a wine flight paired with native foods.
“It’s great to see [wineries] authentically connecting with traditional custodians and asking what is best for their specific relationship,” says Ashleigh Bartley, a Bwgcolman Ewamian tribe member from Northern Queensland and Aboriginal Tourism specialist with Visit Victoria. These efforts mean that wine industry folk aren’t the only ones cashing in on Indigenous contributions. “There is a unique opportunity to establish economic development opportunities,” Bartley notes.
Education around the evolving relationship between wine and the Indigenous community is also a growing focus. In 2022, Wine Yarra Valley, the organizing body of one of Victoria’s most prominent wine regions, held a Cultural Awareness workshop led by Bartley. As part of the workshop, a resource manual was developed covering everything from how and when non-Indigenous wine companies should use Aboriginal storytelling to local history.
Wine Yarra Valley is now planning a series of volunteer days to help restore Coranderrk Station, a local Aboriginal community in nearby Wurundjeri Country. Coranderrk, which was established in the mid-19th century, was a successful Aboriginal enterprise until it was largely destroyed by government legislation and officially closed in 1924. Now, the community is rebuilding; Wine Yarra Valley plans to direct volunteers to help support a forthcoming visitor’s center.
“Vines cover huge areas of Wurundjeri Country,” says Brooke Wandin, a Wurundjeri woman who is the Director of the Wandoon Estate Aboriginal Corporation and a caretaker of Coranderrk. “If [wine] growers can better understand our connection and love of Country, this can influence growers to work with Country. Improving the health of Country benefits all of us.”
A Welcome to (Wine) Country
Welcome to Country is a traditional Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander custom for welcoming visitors into another group’s country. It’s always delivered by a member—ideally an elder—of one of Australia’s First Nations communities, and can involve song, dance and a speech. It’s a beautiful custom that has come to have special meaning in some Australian wine regions.
In February, at Wine Yarra Valley’s annual Pinot Celebration, Wurundjeri and Bunurong elders opened the event with a “Welcome to Country” ceremony. In the same month, the Margaret River region, located in Western Australia, held its inaugural pre-vintage Welcome to Country event, which welcomed seasonal workers who just arrived for the wine harvest. The ceremony was led by Wadandi Pibulmum elder Dr. Wayne Webb.
The Margaret River event is part of a series of “Caring for Country” initiatives by the Margaret River Wine Association (MRWA). Some of these events are in partnership with the Undulup Association, an Indigenous-run nonprofit dedicated to providing cultural awareness of Western Australia’s traditional custodians.
“Respecting country and acknowledging the Wadandi people of the region as the traditional custodians of our land is something we are very passionate about,” says Amanda Whiteland, CEO of MRWA. “We ask visitors to walk softly and take time to listen and care for Boodja (Country).”
Reclaiming History Through Wine
Given the importance of land to Australia’s Indigenous population, it makes sense that some are reclaiming their history through their own wine labels.
Paul Vandenbergh, of the Wirangu and Kokatha countries in South Australia, founded Munda Wines in 2022 with partner Damien Smith. It’s Australia’s second Indigenous-owned wine business after Mt. Yengo Wines, and the first to focus on premium production.
“There are over 500 Aboriginal countries and 250 language groups here in Australia,” says Vandenbergh. “We are the world’s oldest living culture; we have some of the [world’s] oldest soil. We have a rich history of working with our land as it has evolved over our 80,000 years here in Australia.”
Munda, which means “land” in both Wirangu and Kokatha languages, currently sells a Syrah, Grenache and Chardonnay from three different regions in Australia. Their front labels list only the wine origins’ Indigenous place names.
Currently these bottles are made by non-Aboriginal winemakers at other established wineries. However, Munda’s goal is to employ Indigenous winemakers, as well as provide other employment opportunities and internships to the Aboriginal community. Vandenbergh also helped co-found the Tjindu Foundation, which helps develop a new generation of Aboriginal leaders.
“We are already talking to selected universities around providing scholarships and further opportunities across several wine business-related disciplines: sales, marketing, viticulture and winemaking,” says Vandenbergh.
Support for Indigenous communities can take other forms, too. Mt. Yengo gives a portion of its profits to the Aboriginal artists whose work adorns its wine labels. The winery also donates to the National Indigenous Culinary Institute. Of note, Australian Grape and Wine is a sponsor of the culinary school, setting an example of public support to the non-Indigenous wine community.
And yet, there remains much work to be done. Outreach and partnership with local First Nations communities is progress, but the path towards reconciliation is a winding one.
“I see the start of it, but the journey will be long,” says Vandenbergh. “I see momentum building, which is encouraging. I see our stories resonating. And I see wine people, buyers, other winemakers starting to come with us on the journey to understand more about the ancient lands they work with.”