In McLaren Vale’s Tatachilla subregion, Dudley Brown and Irina Santiago-Brown’s Inkwell Vineyards is a model vineyard operation with sustainability as a driving principal. Certified organic since 2017, the vineyard has been managed with strict organics since 2008. From an existing young vineyard planted solely to shiraz, the varietal mix has been tweaked since 2011 to include climate-apt grapes like primitivo, grillo and arinto, while the viticulture has been continually tweaked to improve soil health and reduce water usage. The property also houses an off-grid luxury hotel and significant biodiversity corridors. All wines are made onsite and range from varietal expressions of regional hero varieties to orange wines and preservative-free offerings.
Dudley Brown and Irina Santiago-Brown work hand-in-glove on their Inkwell site, dedicated to making wine with a vineyard-first philosophy and sustainability at the core. But it’s no exaggeration to say that Santiago-Brown wrote the book on sustainability in this country, with McLaren Vale’s pioneering Sustainable Australia Winegrowing program built around her research. (That program was then taken up into a national program, now called Sustainable Winegrowing Australia.) Both Brown and Santiago-Brown not just live by the tenets of that research, but they’re on a never-ceasing quest to improve upon it at all levels.
“Since 2003, we have managed our property using the triple bottom line [environmental, economic and social sustainability] with continuous improvement as the backbone of our business philosophy,” says Santiago-Brown. “Our practice has evolved substantially over the last 18 years, and this is part of the plan: do, assess, improve, cycle, journey.”
This process of action then observation is critical for the pair. “We believe that in agriculture we cannot change all variables at the same time,” she says, “otherwise we don’t really know what makes a difference. We tend to make meaningful changes one at a time and trial them before we apply it to the entire business. As an example, when we decided to introduce a mix of different plants and grasses to replace our single variety cover crop, we did it in every other row instead of in two of our blocks. We loved the results and are now applying it to the entire vineyard.”
Prior, the mid-row was a grass monoculture, which needed to be slashed, where the new multi-species sward is crimp-rolled, which ensures the soil remains covered and therefore cooler. Brown notes that it also “enhances the environment for soil life and increases nitrogen and carbon levels, helping our vines to be more resilient in case of extreme weather events and allows us to harvest at full ripeness but lower Baume [the measure of sugar ripeness, which translates to potential alcohol].”
Santiago-Brown readily admits that they are still on a learning curve about their site and business and how both will respond to their actions, but she’s convinced that diversity will be at the heart of all their positive changes. “Diversity in cover crops, diversity in clones of the same variety, when possible, diversity of varieties. Diversity in people, from diverse origins to age, that work with us – at a certain stage our main team had representatives of all continents! At Inkwell, diversity is our mantra!” she says.
“We believe that in agriculture we cannot change all variables at the same time, otherwise we don’t really know what makes a difference. We tend to make meaningful changes one at a time and trial them before we apply it to the entire business. As an example, when we decided to introduce a mix of different plants and grasses to replace our single variety cover crop, we did it in every other row in two of our blocks. We loved the results and are now applying it to the entire vineyard.”
That varietal mix has seen the site evolve from having just the one variety to having eight, some on own roots and some grafted. The shiraz vines were planted in 1997, 2000 and ’03, with primitivo, mataro, grenache, cabernet sauvignon, arinto and grillo either planted or grafted from 2011. “We are a source block for three heritage clones of shiraz for the Vine Improvement Society of McLaren Vale,” adds Santiago-Brown, “demonstrating that our vineyard management and biosecurity practices are working, as our vines are virus free and healthy to be propagated in other properties in our region.”
While the duo scrutinise every element of their vineyard and business to be more effective and sustainable, their gaze extends well beyond their fence line. Brown founded the movement that brought about the McLaren Vale Character Preservation Acts, limiting urban sprawl into the winegrowing region, with a planned 6,000-house suburb now being developed for vineyards using reclaimed irrigation water. He also received a $4-million grant to establish the McLaren Vale Mains Water Substitution project, which swapped mains water out for reclaimed wastewater to use for irrigation, “ultimately saving one gigalitre of potable water annually – enough drinking water for all of McLaren Vale,” says Santiago-Brown. “This had the flow on effect of reducing wastewater to the Gulf of St. Vincent by one gigalitre per year in perpetuity and saving as many as 70 growers from bankruptcy when mains water prices increased 350 per cent shortly thereafter.”
From raising money to buy generators for burnt out Kangaroo Island farmers to donating six tonnes of grapes to help raise $50,000 for the homeless, the pair are constantly working to improve their part of the world. “We live in our vineyard, and we understand that there is no business without people,” says Santiago-Brown. “We believe in giving people opportunity, protecting our community and region and above all education.”
Inkwell also has gender parity across their business. “In the last two vintages, we decided to have female cellar/vineyard hands to show that women are strong enough to be useful in a barely automated hands-on winery,” says Santiago-Brown, who also notes that they employed recently settled refugees from Myanmar this season to pick their harvest. “They had never picked grapes before, and we needed a reliable group to pick our fruit: win-win.”
The pair also maintain a contract pruning crew of both experienced hands and those learning the craft. Those older workers, 70 years old and greater, mentor the newer arrivals, while the flow of work to the senior contractors can be regulated to give them as much or as little work as they need. NDVI surveys (Normalized Difference Vegetation Index, which consist of aerial/satellite images that chart the density of vegetation to show how plants are performing) are also employed to map vagaries in vigour across the site to allow for targeted viticulture with appropriate compost and water applications and canopy and yield management for specific areas. Soil monitoring probes, which have been used since 2004, add another layer to the precision viticulture approach.
“All around, our decisions start with soil health and enhancement of microbial life and diversity everywhere we can,” says Santiago-Brown. Around 20 per cent of the Inkwell site is devoted to biodiversity corridors planted across the middle of the property connecting with bushland beyond their fences, which creates both a sanctuary and a pathway for native fauna and insects that help regulate invasive populations. Those corridors no doubt also enhance the experience of guests at their luxury off-grid hotel, which is built from recycled shipping containers, run on solar power and serviced with filtered rainwater.
The vineyard that Brown bought in 2003 was a far cry from this ideal, with the site “poorly managed”, but by ’07 the fruit was “receiving the highest guaranteed price for shiraz” in the region. “By 2008, we completed the shift to organic practices,” says Santiago-Brown. “In 2009, we switched from potable water to reclaimed water for all vineyard irrigation. In 2017, we were certified organic. In 2018 we were the first ‘beta’ customer for now industry leading vineyard mapping software company PlatFarm.”
The pair are also switching their vehicles away from diesel to electric, with their ATV and forklift already upgraded. The next plank in that plan is to replace the old Fiat tractor, but they have to wait for Monarch electric tractors to become available in the country. Unsurprisingly, Inkwell is the first agricultural business in Australia on the waiting list.
The rigorous focus for the pair also naturally extends to their onsite winery. “Because of the viticulture practices and because we have never used commercial yeasts in our winery, we have an entirely unique yeast in our winery finishing our fermentation,” says Santiago-Brown. “We are presently in year five of a project with geneticist Anthony Borneman at the AWRI to isolate (done) and culture (not done yet) a non-saccharomyces yeast called schizosaccharomyces that occurs on our property and naturally completes all our ferments. It is the first time this is demonstrated in the world.”
Santiago-Brown notes that they still learning precisely how this impacts their wines but believes it contributes a uniqueness – a reflection of the terroir of their place through locally specific yeast – which works in concert with their viticultural and winemaking practices (which includes no additions bar sulphur and sometimes none at all) and the varying geologies, from deep white sands to clay on limestone and ironstone, to create singular expressions. “All of the above leads to what we call the ‘fingerprint of the place’ at Inkwell,” she says, “which, in our wines, translates into freshness, high but balanced natural acidity, smooth tannins and usually lower than regional average alcohol content in fully mature fruit.”