In Acknowledging Its Uncomfortable History, The Australian Wine Industry Will Only Benefit.

Acknowledgement of Country: This article was written on the land of the Wurundjeri People of the Kulin Nation. I would like to pay my respects to the Traditional Owners and their Elders, past, present and emerging.

14 min readNov 1, 2020
Source: Anna Bailey, Redfern, New South Wales

Australia is a wine-loving nation. Drinking big glasses of crisp chardonnay with a pineapple kick or robust peppery shiraz in parks, bars and homes with friends and families is a great source of pleasure. Although wine itself brings great joy in Australia, the wine industry has caused a lot of pain; it has an uncomfortable history that needs to be acknowledged. As French philosopher Roland Barthes, author of Mythologies puts it:

“Wine cannot be an entirely happy substance unless we wrongfully forget that it is also the product of an expropriation.”

Australia is home to 2500 wineries across sixty-five wine regions and the land these wineries were built on was stolen from the Traditional Custodians. The expansion of the wine industry is correlated to the increase in European immigration which had dire consequences for Australia’s Aboriginal people.

The most widely circulating narrative about the history of viticulture in Australia is what Environmental Historian Nicolaas Mink, calls a producer centric narrative. Producer centric narratives tell the stories and history of wine from the point of the producers. This is common in New World wine-producing nations.

This narrative offers a bleached and flat approach to winemaking and storytelling and doesn’t address atrocities caused by colonialism. In failing to acknowledge its uncomfortable history, the wine industry is robbing itself of critical knowledge and fantastic opportunities. Additionally, it is preventing Aboriginal people from being involved in the wine industry. If the wine industry starts acknowledging its history it will benefit socially and economically.

Key dates in Australian Wine History

New South Wales, across the water from Sydney Cove.

1787: The First Fleet departed from Portsmouth England to establish the settler colony of New South Wales. It stopped off in the Canary Islands and Cape Town to collect vine cuttings.

1788: The first vines were planted in the Governor’s garden near Sydney Cove, 1.5 kilometres from the present-day central business district.

1791: Along the Parramatta River 8000 vine cuttings were planted by colonists.

1791–1792: Australia began producing fortified wine.

1809–1820: Vineyard planting expanded to St.Mary’s, Campbelltown and the Cumberland Plains in New South Wales.

1815–1816: British colonial officials, John James and William McCarthur travelled to Europe. Here, they gathered more vine cuttings and studied winemaking techniques.

1820–1840: Vine cuttings were planted in the Hunter Valley, and in the interior of New South Wales.

The 1870s: Grape Phylloxera, a vine pest, devastated European vineyards and a large number of Australian ones.

End of the 1800s: Vineyards exist in every Australian state except the Northern Territory.

The 1950s: Post-war migration after World War II resulted in thousands of Europeans from wine-producing countries, notably Italy, settling in Australia.

1959: The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) reported that wine accounted for only 12% of pure alcohol consumed nationally.

The 1960s-1970s: Vine plantings and wine production began to accelerate. At the same time, drinking wine started to become a more common cultural practice.

2018: In the 2018 Apparent Consumption of Alcohol Report by the ABS, wine accounted for 38.6% of the alcohol consumed in Australia.

Image courtesy of the Australian Bureau of Stastics

The Uncomfortable History

The first grapes were transplanted into the settler heart of the nation in Sydney Cove adjacent to Circular Quay in 1788. British colonists wanted to produce wine in Australia to recreate European traditions. They saw wine as a symbol of civilisation, historically and culturally.

In the early days of occupation, Colonial officials wanted to civilise Aboriginal people and encouraged them to drink wine.

As more Europeans arrived in Australia throughout the late 18th century and early 19th vineyard plantation skyrocketed around Sydney and vineyard plantation began to move inland.

During this time, Aboriginal people were forced to join the settler economy to survive and were conscripted to work in the vineyards. Master and slave relationships developed and were common.

Historian Julie McIntyre’s book, First Vintage: Wine in Colonial New South Wales, documents French settlers witnessing Aboriginal people being plied with alcohol and forced to fight each other.

Throughout the 19th century, convicts were employed on vineyards and Aboriginal people were segregated on their land. In Irrawang, New South Wales, Europeans worked in one area and Aboriginal people worked in another.

In 1880, Western Australia enacted legislation that allowed employers to pay Aboriginal workers in alcohol instead of wages as a means of controlling them and exploiting them. This practise was common in other parts of the country too.

Even when legislation in the mid-20th century was implemented that banned the practise, it continued until the 1960s.

The Second World War saw an influx of European immigrants from wine-producing countries in the Mediterranian. Most arrived by ship and went to live in rural areas.

This new wave of Europeans worked on vineyards and helped to transform the Australian wine industry. They found employment in many agricultural areas including in viticulture.

This made it difficult for Aboriginal people to find employment. Subsequently, many Aboriginal people migrated to urban centres.

In order to start remedying this history, the wine industry needs to start telling its history from a terroir centric approach, that acknowledges Aboriginal people’s connection and contribution to the land.

Image courtesy of Anna Bailey

“ If Australian wine is going to reflect its true terroir, it has to involve First Australians.”- Gary Green, Mount Yengo Wines

Terroir is a commonly used word in viticulture. It translates as, “a sense of place”. However, its meaning is more complex. Scott McWilliam, Global Ambassador of McWilliams Wines believes that 80% of a wine’s flavour comes from its terroir.

Wine is an expression of its terroir, the human and non-human factors that influence its taste. This is a concept Aboriginal people understand.

Voice of Nicole Bilson, Sommelier, Wine and Spirit Educator, Writer and Consultant.

The concept of terroir is similar to the Aboriginal idea of Caring for Country. It’s the spiritual, agricultural and cultural connection to the land. Sue Bell of Bellwether wines in Coonawarra, who has Aboriginal heritage, said to Jeni Port and Nicole Bilson, “Connection to Country is a fundamental pillar of Indigenous identity.”

Wurundjeri Elder, Aunty Joy Murphy Wandin explained it this way to wine writer, Max Allen,

“When a crop does well there is something is the soil that says: this land is here for everyone, and equally provides for all who live on it, so long as that land is cared for nurtured and treated with respect.”

Aboriginal people are part of the terroir. Their agricultural practices have shaped the Australian terroir, and their focus on working with nature, not against it, is crucial to the future of Australian viticulture.

In the summer of 2020 bushfires ravaged Australia. The Black Summer bushfires highlight the importance of caring and respecting the land and the need for Indigenous knowledge. The smoke taint from the fires forced many of the country’s wineries to scrap 90% of their 2020 vintages.

Australia’s terroir is rich and unique. The phylloxera epidemic in Europe destroyed the majority of Europe’s vineyards. The epidemic affected Australian vineyards but didn’t destroy them. As a result, Australia’s terroir is home to the oldest land, oldest living culture and some of the oldest vines in the world.

It is something that no other wine-producing country in the world has. As wine journalist Jeni Port puts it, “It beats European Terroir”. However, embracing the uniqueness of Australian terroir cannot happen without moving away from the current producer centric narrative.

Photo courtesy of Anastasia Telvak

The Art of Asking

A terroir centric approach involves telling the stories of how humans and nature shaped and continue to shape the wine, and communicating that to wider audiences.

The first step towards a terroir approach involves Acknowledging Country. This is more than putting the words on a bottle. It is a delicate process that takes time and patience, as Jeni Port and fellow wine writer Nicole Bilson discovered when conducting research Acknowledging Country in winemaking.

For wine producers to Acknowledge Country, producers need to find the exact language group and nation identity that resides in the area where they are producing wine. This can be challenging.

Some Aboriginal people may not want to be acknowledged or be involved in the wine industry or any alcohol industry due to the damage alcohol has caused Aboriginal communities. However, the only way to find out if they are comfortable is by asking. If winemakers and industry professionals aren’t reaching out, things stay the same, and the stereotypes are reinforced. However, asking and listening opens doors.

Alcohol Abuse is an Australian Issue

Consuming more than two standard drinks per day on average is considered risky drinking behaviour. The Australian Human Rights Commission says several factors cause alcohol consumption at risky levels.

They include but are not limited too, removal from family, trauma, loss of culture, lower levels of education, lower socioeconomic status and racism.

According to the Maryland Recovery Rehabilitation Centre, intergenerational trauma in the form of Complex Post-Traumatic-Stress Disorder can transfer from parents to children if left untreated. In some cases, entire families can carry trauma they never directly experienced. Alcohol is the most used substance by people who want to alleviate their symptoms temporarily because of its accessibility.

Although alcohol abuse in Aboriginal communities is well known, mainstream media has stereotyped and exaggerated this. Melissa J.Stoneham, Jodie Goodman and Mike Daube’s article, The Portrayal of Indigenous Health in Selected Australian Media found that 30% of all articles on Indigenous health were about Aboriginal people’s negative relationship with alcohol.

Biased media coverage has contributed to the stereotype that alcoholism is a problem mainly affecting Aboriginal people, however, this isn’t the case.

The 2018–2019, National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Survey found that 15.2% of non-Indigenous Australians aged 15 and 18.7% of Indigenous Australians engaged in risky drinking behaviour. This is only 3.5% higher than non-Indigenous Australians which suggests that alcoholism is not an issue exclusively affecting Aboriginal people.

The Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education 2016 report found that one million Australians were consuming, on average, eight drinks a day. Alcohol abuse isn’t an Aboriginal issue; it is an Australian one.

Scott McWilliam is in charge of developing wine education at the National Indigenous Culinary Institute (NICI)in Sydney. He feels that education can and should be used to confront the stereotypes that are placed on Aboriginal people.

When issues are tackled head-on, it opens the door and creates more welcoming and inclusive opportunities. Excluding Aboriginal Australians from participating in the wine industry isn’t intentional; it’s the result of a lack of knowledge about how to connect. It’s up to the next generation of winemakers and wine professionals. And until there is a treaty between state and federal governments and Aboriginal people, creating a terroir centric narrative has to be a grassroots movement.

Source: Anna Bailey Location: Redfern, New South Wales

Why Would a Treaty Help?

The ability for wine professionals to reach out to local Indigenous councils is heavily affected by the fact that Australia has no treaties with its Aboriginal people.

Until there is a treaty it is up to wine professionals to reach out to their local Aboriginal community. Even without a clear process, a phone call can accomplish a lot.

Aboriginal Councils like the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Corporation Melbourne and the Wonnarua Nation Aboriginal Corporation the Hunter Valley have web pages with contact numbers on the website. These councils offer cultural and language consultations and have clear guidelines about what is appropriate and what is not.

Justin James, Vigneron and CEO of Bisous Estates, in the Hunter Valley felt that as a settler Australian he had the responsibility to recognise the industry’s unsavoury history.

He reached out to the local Elders from the Wonnarua Nation. Since then he has been working with them to take accountable steps that celebrate their culture, contribution and connection to the terroir through ecotourism.

When meeting with local Elders he recommends that professionals, “discuss and agree on a plan with achievable outcomes with respect to working with them… [and] telling their story.”

James is one of a growing number of winemakers reaching out to local Elders. In asking and inviting and by asking questions and inviting consultation, this is enriching the Australian wine industry.

Source: Anna Bailey location: Blackhearts and Sparrows, Richmond, Victoria

Native Grapes and Australian Grapes: Mateship in a Bottle?

Viticulture and hospitality are professions built on listening, sharing and experimenting. Australian winemakers have much more freedom to experiment and blend than European winemakers. There is a growing interest in blending Indigenous Australian grapes with traditional wine grapes. When Max Allen travelled to Yuin Country on the south coast of New South Wales, Aboriginal Elder Uncle Noel Butler showed him some Indigenous grapes and asked him if they would make good wine.

Allen isn’t the only one who has been invited by Aboriginal Elders to discuss the use of indigenous grapes in winemaking. Gary Green and Ben Hansberry of Mount Yengo Wines were invited by Indigenous Elders in northern Australia to discuss the possibility of turning their native grapes into good wine. Experimenting with indigenous grapes embodies one of Australia's core values, mateship. Mateship is about equality, loyalty and friendship.

Although producing wine with native grapes might be a long way off, it would symbolise acknowledgement and reconciliation in a bottle.

From Grape to Glass: How Other Professionals Can Do Their Bit?

Although winemakers play a pivotal role in shifting the producer centric narrative of the wine industry, other professionals are equally important to changing the narrative. Wine knowledge is often acquired through storytelling.

Sommeliers tell the stories behind every bottle and are responsible for purchasing decisions and curating the wine lists at restaurants.Their choice of language affects how the way Australian wine story is told. The same goes for journalists and wine writers. They can choose the stories they tell and how they tell them.

Be Brave

Australia’s wine professionals are known for being brave and fearless. They have unparalleled freedom to explore winemaking and how they talk about wine. They can channel Australia’s larrikin spirit into shifting how the wine industry tells its story and make it uniquely Australian story; one that not only acknowledges its history but works with it to celebrate Australian terroir and the treasures that come with it.


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Globally minded multimedia storyteller and ethnographic photographer, obsessed with food, coffee, travelling and history, and current affairs