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Who is the greenest of them all?

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Greg Trott, the late founder of Wirra Wirra, started what became the Winemakers’ Federation of Australia (WFA) late in the 1980s. His bit of the history somehow misses a mention on the WFA website. While only a small percentage of Australia’s wineries are members, the very big ones are.

This body runs the Australian wine business.

In those early days, when there were only a few hundred wineries, the main industry body was the Australian Wine and Brandy Corporation, whose budget came half from the taxpayer and half from its members, whose voting rights were determined by the total levy paid according to the tonnes they crushed. It was well and truly in the hands of what we then called the PLO – Penfolds, Lindemans and Orlando, the biggest wine companies in Australia.

But there was an exciting new thing called “boutique” wineries: emergent premium little guys whose direction and interests were vastly different to what the ponderous, prehistoric PLO needed.

It’s like Ford, GMH and Toyota charging a fee to represent the interests of the corner lawnmower service centre.

Trott called a meeting of small producers, and about 150 travelled from the far ends of the country to McLaren Vale. He invited the cocky young star of the boutique set, Petaluma’s MD Brian Croser, to chair the meeting.

While many thought the fair cut-off point for “small” wineries was about 400 tonnes per annum, others felt that 100 tonnes was a better delineator.

As chair, in his brusque head-prefect manner, Croser immediately insisted that unless middle-sized companies like Yalumba were admitted, the organisation would have no wallop. In those days, he was busy selling his special yeast, R2, to Riesling makers, along with advice on how to best use the tricky beast. He naturally wanted business, and, like ordinary businessmen, wanted it to be bigger.

Conversely, an awkwardly-sized outfit like Yalumba would look much prettier in the market if it seemed closer in style to the new boutiques than to the leviathan plonkmongers.

From memory, I think we left that meeting having decided to form the Small Winemakers’ Association, which was open to any outfit that processed less than 10,000 tonnes annually. Before long, the body was called the Australian Winemakers’ Forum. This was then absorbed into the Federation of Australian Winemaker Associations, along with the Australian Wine & Brandy Producers’ Association and the Wine and Brandy Co-operative Producers’ Association. In 1990, this became the WFA – the Woofer – and the little guys who started it could only stand back and wonder.

From that day on, most of its presidents have been representatives of the PLO, associates of Croser or, in fact, Croser himself. Twice.

Most recently, its chair is Tony D’Aloisio, owner of the posh Oakridge Winery in the Yarra Valley and former chair of the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC), which, according to its website, “contributes to Australia’s economic reputation and well-being by ensuring that Australia’s financial markets are fair and transparent”.

On its website, the WFA says its mission is “to lead a united and diverse Australian winemaking industry”, and its goal is “to support Australian winemakers to achieve sustainable and globally benchmarked profitability through evidence-based policy and advocacy”.

I dunno who made that up. But if you want to see something sustainable, and proven to be so by peers and tough independent auditing, you should look at the McLaren Vale Sustainable Winegrowing Program.

This is largely the work of Dr Irina Santiago-Brown, the local sustainability officer. Irina is internationally respected for this system. She has had every chapter of the latest guide peer-approved by international experts in the relative fields.

“It’s one of the great stories of world wine,” says Anthony Madigan, editor of WBM – Australia’s Wine Business Magazine. “The community built it from the ground up. About 120 growers representing 50 per cent of the vineyard area support it. In 2013, 40 percent of all McLaren Vale Shiraz sold for $3000 a tonne or more.”

Many Shiraz growers in less-refined regions can expect to cross a zero off that price. The McLaren Vale system is exemplary in Australia, and an irritant to the big brutes who depend on over-supply to keep prices down and punters brimming.

“A key to McLaren Vale’s program is continued improvement. It’s part of what makes it world class”

To boast a trendy verdancy, the WFA has its own green lawbook and environmental assurance program, called Entwine. Scared to be seen ungreen, some of the biggest Australian companies buy fruit only from this; it has around 700 licensed growers.

Perhaps because McLaren Vale has out-greened it, the WFA refused to recognise the proven Vales system, holding it at bay for five telling years. Finally, after exasperated lobbying from the Vales, and diligent questioning from the likes of Madigan, the WFA hired an independent auditor, Aus-Qual – a subsidiary of Aus-Meat Ltd – to carry out a forensic independent study of both the WFA and Vales systems.

In a rather last-minute flurry, Paul Evans, WFA CEO, advised the twitchy Vales people on Friday that his federation’s board “has today approved the McLaren Vale Grape, Wine and Tourism Association Level 2 Program, which means its members meet national assurance standards and qualify for Entwine full membership”.

“Having an Entwine membership can be important in business dealings with retailers, restaurants and consumers around the world … Such accreditation recognises their environmental practices and can also be an important plank in their business endeavours as well as in the region’s marketing, both at home in Australia and overseas.”

Well, really. As if they didn’t know. They’d been the marginalised victim for years, and now they were getting a talking-to.

The main reason I live in McLaren Vale is that it clearly leads Australia in green vineyard and winery management, environmental awareness and general community feeling of ecological responsibility. It is, in essence, the opposite of the broken Murray-Darling system, from which those big guys make about half the wine in Australia as goonbag squirt, and entire communities are facing the wall as prices continue to plummet through sickening to beyond.

It was the hired independent auditor which finally forced the WFA’s hand. This must have been embarrassing. But the covering letter the WFA mob sent to the Vales, purporting to come from Aus-Qual, that very auditor, had no letterhead and seemed suss to Dr Santiago-Brown.

“McLaren Vale’s bullshit radar works,” Madigan immediately commented in WBM’s email bulletin, The Week That Was. “They phoned Aus-Qual, which confirmed a paragraph was deleted by WFA without its knowledge. A key to McLaren Vale’s program is continued improvement. It’s part of what makes it world class.”

The trashed paragraph must have really given the WFA the shits. Its own hired auditor derided its program, saying its “compliance is based on prescribed criteria and once achieved may not present an opportunity for continued improvement”.

On the other hand, “the McLaren Vale Sustainable Winegrowing Australia Program Version 4, while also having certification requirements, is annually assessed for specific criteria for the McLaren Vale region and where necessary amended to ensure continued improvement”.

So there. When Madigan finally got D’Aloisio on the phone to ask when the investigation would start into the doctoring of independent audit papers of great importance, the chairman said: “I will look at it – just so you know, I’m on my way to the airport.”

CEO Evans then issued an apologetic statement, admitting the independent auditor’s letter had been doctored.

“The paragraph in question was removed because it was deemed inappropriate and a subjective opinion that did not reflect what both organisations were looking for in the assessment, that is, an independent and rigorous review of both programs based on solid evidence,” he wrote.

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