One of my favourite things to do,” says Paul Vandenbergh, “is to sit around a fire, having a conversation over a glass of wine.”
Vandenbergh is the owner of Munda, a new wine brand launched this month. It’s the latest in a small but growing list of Indigenous-owned drinks companies such as Taka Gin, Beachtree Distilling Co. and Mount Yengo Wines.
Vandenbergh is a Wirangu and Kokotha man from the west coast of South Australia and Munda means “land” in his language. It’s this word that he hopes will spark particularly profound conversations.
“In winemaking, the importance of the ground, of land, is really critical,” he says. “But Munda is broader than that. It’s also about recognising and acknowledging Country.”
Our goal is that five years down the line, we’ll have an Indigenous senior winemaker for the Munda brand.
— Damien Smith, business partner
The first Munda wine – a 2021 shiraz from McLaren Vale, made in partnership with Chalk Hill Wines – has the words “Kaurna Country” rather than the official regional name prominently displayed on the front label (“McLaren Vale” is on the back). The next release, a 2022 grenache due out next year, was made by Marco Cirillo in the Barossa Valley – or, as the front label will put it, “Ngadjuri and Peramangk Country”.
“I’m not taking anything away from what the wine industry has done in terms of [building the reputation of] McLaren Vale or the Barossa,” says Vandenbergh. “But how many people know that McLaren Vale is also Kaurna country? What does Kaurna country mean? Let’s talk about the stories of the Kaurna people.”
Vandenbergh and his non-Indigenous business partner, wine marketer and consultant Damien Smith, are not the first or only company to acknowledge Country on their wine label and website. It’s becoming common practice in some sectors of the wine industry, as it is elsewhere.
For the pair behind Munda, though, acknowledgement is part of a bigger vision for the brand. They also want to bring about meaningful change in the industry and in the culture, and they believe they have the experience to make that happen.
Vandenbergh and Smith met when they were working at Port Adelaide Football Club four years ago. Vandenbergh was the club’s director of Aboriginal programs (he’s now national diversity talent manager at the AFL), Smith was “on a hiatus” from his career in wine, managing the club’s commercial push into China.
At the time, Vandenbergh explains, he was exploring the concept of what an Indigenous brand might look like. He was developing the Tjindu Foundation to support educational, cultural and sporting activities in remote communities; he was in the process of building a yet-to-be-launched Indigenous-owned seafood business; and he was conducting cultural awareness workshops.
“I wasn’t a massive wine lover at the time,” he says. “But talking with Damien opened my eyes about the wine industry.”
The more he learnt about the importance that wine people place on terroir – on land – and how much they liked to talk about the finer points of where wines come from, the more Vandenbergh realised a wine brand could be a catalyst for broader conversations: about changing the date of Australia Day, about a Voice to Parliament, about more uncomfortable things such as language loss, even about massacres.
“We’ve got a unique opportunity here,” he says. “We can actually start to influence people’s thinking. And I’ll say this: we’re not targeting Papa and Nana. We can’t change them, right? But we’ve got a new generation of wine drinkers who are very switched on. And who believe in the journey to recognition, and what that really looks like for First Nations people.”
The broader wine and hospitality industry is beginning to wake up to this generational shift in thinking, and the opportunities it provides for marketing and selling wine. Smith says he had strong interest from retailers and wholesalers keen to take on Munda, long before any of the company’s wines hit the market; indeed, one of Australia’s leading fine wine distributors, Negociants, has just signed up the brand.
Vandenbergh and Smith insist, though, that Munda is much more than just a way of capitalising on this “thirst for change”. It’s also very much about building pathways and practical outcomes for First Nations people.
The pair have already identified young Indigenous people working in McLaren Vale and Victoria who they intend to support and mentor through their early hospitality and wine careers. They are talking to the Wine and Spirit Education Trust about supporting a wine program now running with the National Indigenous Culinary Institute in Sydney. And they are looking at ways of linking with Indigenous scholarships in wine studies being developed by the University of Adelaide, and ongoing research into Indigenous fermentation practices.
“I’ve spent 20-plus years in wine, and I’ve come across virtually no Indigenous people working in the industry,” says Damien Smith. “Our goal is that five years down the line, we’ll have an Indigenous senior winemaker for the Munda brand. That’s where we want to be.”
2021 Munda Syrah [Kaurna Country/McLaren Vale]
Vandenbergh and Smith have opted for the French name “syrah” rather than “shiraz” for this inaugural release, presumably to signal that the wine is more elegant, spicy and “European” in style (ironic, perhaps, given the boldly Australian emphasis of the project).
Fair enough, in a way: it is an attractively perfumed example of the grape, and the tannins are fine and savoury, as you’d expect from shiraz grown in the sandy soils of Blewitt Springs.
But it’s also full of the unmistakably rich, black, glossy fruit typical of shiraz grown in this part of the world – on Kaurna country. $45 mundawines.com.au