Behind Every Epic #WinechickŠ—_ Irina Santiago-Brown

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The Australian Women in Wine Awards is focusing on making sure the conversation about diversity isn’t just with women.

“In fact, current stats show that women may not even be sitting around the ‘influence’ table in our wine businesses, so we need to make sure we extend the conversation to both genders, and work hard on improving unconscious bias,” says Corrina Wright of Oliver’s Taranga Vineyards. “To demonstrate how important this is, we have asked some talented #winechicks to tell us about who has stood behind them, and helped them get to where they are in their career.” Today Irina Santiago-Brown shares her story. Entries for the Women in Wine Awards close on 3 October. Visit womeninwineawards.com.au

When I was asked to be part of this series of articles to share my story and how some people, and if possible, men, have influenced my life in winegrapes I struggled. How could I clearly separate men from women in my story? How could I choose among many people that I’ve met and who have somehow changed the course of my life forever? Many extraordinary men have helped me throughout my life but I must recognise the role one woman: Dr Cassandra Collins, from the University of Adelaide. She became my Masters supervisor and a friend. She convinced me to apply for the PhD and for the scholarship at the University. She had this contagious belief of what I could achieve as a researcher. Without that push, in that specific moment, I’m not sure if I would have stayed in Australia or had the opportunity to work at the McLaren Vale Grape Wine and Tourism Association and develop SAW – Sustainable Australia Winegrowing. Without that push, I probably wouldn’t have met my husband Dudley Brown and consequently I wouldn’t be able to be part of Inkwell and Dub Style Wines. So, in spite of all amazing men that had an extraordinary importance in life in winegrapes, without Cas Collins, it is unlikely things would be like they are today. So, in this story, this generous and intelligent woman is my greatest influencer and supporter.

Let’s talk about some of the great men I had the honour to know and be kindly supported by…

At the University of Adelaide

When I arrived in Australia in 2009, I was fortunate enough to meet the first man that changed the course of my life forever: Dr Brent Kaiser. At the time, he was coordinator of the viticulture post-graduation at Adelaide University. Brent, or Dr Kaiser as I would insist on calling him, was always happy to reply to my requests and doubts with generosity and time. Through the University I met another extraordinary man, Phillip Earl, who embraced me as a friend with his family. At the time he was my classmate. Currently he manages the vineyards at Waite Campus. Phil came from the corporate world and made a decision to retire and study viticulture, his passion.  Maybe because we were some of the oldest students, or maybe because we both had a very formal previous working experience, I immediately connected with him. His corporate experience was just the right help I needed to be confident I was on the right path.

While I was a Masters student, I decided, mainly because my lack of experience in the industry, to volunteer and work in the vineyard at The Waite Campus. Ben Pike was the manager at the time and I recall lots of laughing. He very rapidly realised that I was very focused and challenge-oriented, so he would explain very clearly what he needed, give me the necessary instructions to complete the task, then he would let me figure it out. My experience with tools or farm equipment was practically non-existent, so two great lessons from my days working with Ben were: 1) if something seems really difficult, I must be doing something wrong; 2) if you’re not physically strong, you must be smart. I still remember how frustrating it can be trying to fit 15mm irrigation bits into a 13mm drip line. Ben would never say something immediately, as he knew I would not learn a thing if he treated me like a little girl. He would give me some time to think through what I was doing and eventually learn. I guess I became a good worker as he hired me as soon as a position became available at the vineyard.

At the university, I cannot forget to mention the role of Prof. Chris Ford in my life and career. As the post-graduation coordinator, he trusted and supported me to be able to work at the McLaren Vale Grape Wine & Tourism Association (MVGWTA) for two days in spite of being a full-time student at the University. He understood how essential the relationship with growers was for the development of my research topic and was one of the advocates to the Dean that I should be allowed to work there. Without this permission, SAW – Sustainable Australia Winegrowing would not exist as it is. My research would be much more theoretical only. But, as course coordinator, he and the Dean watched my course deadlines personally. I finished my PhD in two years and 364 days: one day ahead of my deadline. I could not bear the idea of losing his trust.

In McLaren Vale

My relationship with McLaren Vale started with Rae and Drew Noon from Noon wines. I cannot talk about Drew without talking about Rae as I’ve always seen them as a single unit. In a balanced way, they complement each other beautifully. While I was doing my Masters research, comparing conventional and biodynamic viticulture I had the chance to be invited by the Noons to have dinner in their home. This is a moment in life I can’t ever forget. At the time, I felt that I was so stuck with my topic, there were so many things I needed to understand and Rae and Drew shared their experience, became part of the research and available for further questions. I remember waking up the following day at sunrise and writing for the entire day, naturally and calmly. After meeting them in some inexplicable way, the research just found its flow.

In McLaren Vale, I need to acknowledge the role of David Paxton, my first employer outside of the University. David has this spirit of curiosity with the world and I always felt very welcome there to show more of myself and be open to learn. He and his team trusted me to prepare Paxton vineyards and wines to be biodynamic certified. It was a great opportunity to merge my previous working experience in Government with viticulture. At the Association I was very lucky to be supported by numerous viticulturists that supported and helped to develop SAW. I don’t have the space to write about all of them, but I have to nominate a few of them directly: Jock Harvey (Chalk Hill viticulture), James Hook (Lazy Ballerina Wines and DJ’s Growers consultants), Derek Cameron (DJ’s Growers), Sami Gilligan (Gilligan Contracting), Richard Leask (Leask Viticulture and Hither & Yon wines), Matt Hatwell (Chalk Hill Viticulture) and Giulio Dimasi (d’Arenberg). In the formal working environment, Tom Harvey, then chair of the Association, and Marc Allgrove, then CEO. Both, in different moments, were essential for the idea that SAW needed to be shared and spread with whoever wanted it. They both clearly understood that sustainability only makes sense as a shared idea, otherwise, it is just marketing!

At Inkwell Vineyards and Wines

My life and career would never be the same if I hadn’t met Dudley Brown. He always intrigued me. His sharp and smart mind, his true care for the world, his dream about only making high quality wine that he loves to drink. Four months after we started dating in 2011, I suggested to him to make a fortified Zinfandel from a patch that hadn’t be harvested during that rainy vintage. It was Easter Sunday and he and I hand-picked together for the first time. I’m sure he thought I was out of my mind as for him, vintage was already over. But, he didn’t say anything and called it “my first wine”. 2011 Black and Blue Fortified Zinfandel was born.

The first three years of my relationship with Dudley coincided with my PhD. I’m sure that this is not the greatest time to start a relationship with anybody, but Dudley was my everyday supporter, reading and discussing enthusiastically everything I was researching. As part of the PhD, we went to the US, South Africa and NZ together and the true story is: I budgeted my research wrongly and without Dudley becoming a volunteer moderator for my research groups, I wouldn’t be able to do so much with so little resource. I remember finishing chapters on holiday dates such as Christmas, while Dudley was cooking a wonderful meal for us. He and I agreed that my PhD needed to be treated as work and to be able to finish it in three years and continue working at the Association, my working week would include weekends and holidays, from 9am to 5pm.

Currently we make wine together and manage the vineyard. He challenges and supports me to try new ideas and to take risks. In 2015, I made an experimental batch of extended skin contact white wine which became our Dub Style No. 1 Viognier Tangerine and No. 1 Chenin Blanc in 2016. Dudley loved it. In 2016, I made an extended contact, off-dry bubbly white wine we put in a can called No.1 Bubbly. It sold out on release. I think he needed someone like me to push him. We both love wine and have no fear of trying very different things, if they taste great. I have equal input during the blending sessions for all of our wines. Inkwell produces Shiraz, Primitivo, Viognier, Cabernet Sauvignon and blends. Each of these wines are fine tuned to a distinct flavour story and label. Dudley has an amazing palate and more wine experience and wine memory than me, but when he is unsure, he asks “Which one do you prefer?” and he always picks the one I prefer!

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