In Their Element Science Podcast: Agriculture & Wine

Bottled botanicals

Australian botanicals in wine and spirits // Repurposing waste-fruit // Starting a business at uni // Studying viticulture and oenology, and agriculture

Brendan and Laura Carter - University of Adelaide science alumni and founders of Unico Zelo Wines, Applewood Distillery and Økar Amar

Brendan and Laura Carter

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"The fact that we come... both Laura and I actually come from a scientific background allows us to be able to approach something, and it gives us so much more confidence to make minimal intervention wines that actually are very tasty, and do achieve true levels of sustainability that are quantifiable, and we are quantifying these things. It's only because we trained at university at the end of the day. We rely quite heavily on that knowledge."Brendan Carter - Unico Zelo Wines, Applewood Distillery and Økar Amar

 

About our guests

Winemakers Brendan and Laura want to challenge your palate.

After meeting in their first year of university, this husband and wife team joined forces to push the boundaries of modern winemaking and take the practice back to its natural and historical roots.  

Using the colours, flavours and textures of native botanicals they have created their own unique blends for their wine label, Unico Zelo, and their distillery, Applewood. Their pursuit of quality has always been balanced by sustainability by using grapes that don’t require irrigation. 

They began their business in their first year of university, when Brendan was completing his Bachelor of Viticulture and Oenology and Laura was studying her Bachelor of Agricultural Sciences

Join us for this fascinating conversation with presenter Sarah Davidson where they discuss the science and art of winemaking, how they channel the Australian identity into their products and what it is like to run a business with your partner.

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  • Show notes

    Sarah:
    Welcome to In Their Element, a fascinating new podcast series offering a revealing glimpse into the unfolding careers of passionate science grads from South Australia's number one uni for science, the University of Adelaide.

    Sarah:
    In this episode, we're chatting with our first husband and wife team for the series, Brendan and Laura Carter, who are now absolutely smashing it out there in the workforce in business together with a wine business and distillery. With Laura completing her Bachelor of Agricultural Sciences, and Brendan studying a Bachelor of Viticulture and Oenology, this dynamic duo are shaking things up in the wine industry. I'm sure it will delight many of you listeners to know we will be diving into all things vineyards, winemaking, and of course enjoying fun wines. Welcome to the show, guys. You're our first couple on the show.

    Brendan:
    No, thanks so much for having us.

    Sarah:
    This will be a fun one. So, before we start, we ask every guest on the show a little icebreaker, what is the coolest scientific fact or discovery you know of that you think needs a little moment of appreciation.

    Brendan:
    For me, it's actually really quite timely. Yesterday, I was just typing in a bunch of things, and I came across a quote by Bill Mollison, and it's a bit of a contentious word to say, especially in terms of science, and particularly agricultural science. Bill Mollison was the, I guess the father of permaculture. But there was just something really awesome that... when he said, "Though the problems of the world are increasingly complex, the solutions remain embarrassingly simple." And I think that's one of the hallmarks I think of science that needs probably a little bit more attention is actually how remarkably simple a lot of the fixes to our agricultural landscape actually indeed are.

    Sarah:
    I love that from people like you who are very well versed in... It's so funny that from your perspective, it's probably quite a simple solution. From my perspective, it's infinitely complex and difficult and intellectual and amazing. I think that's part of what this show is all about is kind of demystifying the things that to the layperson do seem a bit intimidating and sciencey. But that out in practical life, it's actually things are quite simple.

    Brendan:
    Yeah, I think, obviously, a lot of it comes to do with experience in the actual field itself. We see a really sort of micro view of things, particularly because we... Look, I really only deal in the realms of viticulture and maybe sort of dabbling in a sense with horticulture. But yeah, a lot of it actually has to do with relinquishing control, and realising that especially when it comes to the natural world, that we don't actually have a fair degree of control there. Yeah.

    Sarah:
    I mean, I love that about you guys, and your story is how you have really been able to integrate everything that you know and everything that you've learned with the natural world, and the processes and cycles, and the nature of how things actually are rather than trying to force things against the grain. So why don't we kick off with your wonderful business and even more wonderful job titles Chief Doer and Chief Thinker at Team Unico.

    Brendan:
    Yeah. I think I'm Chief Thinker. I think of all the crazy ideas and create most of the mess. Laura's Chief Doer, she's the one that actually picks up said mess, turns it into an actual product and something that the customers can latch on to and ensures that at the end of the day that the ship's not sinking.

    Sarah:
    I love that. You guys just sound like the most dynamic duo and such a perfect team. I actually also am in business with my husband. And I think it only works because we have very complementary roles that we're not trying to overlap too much. So, tell us about starting the business, the two wine labels. I loved reading that one protects our farmers, and another protects our future. Tell us a little bit about how the idea for the wines came about and then moved into the distillery and then the Amaro, how that came about, and what you guys actually do day to day?

    Brendan:
    It's like too much thinking, Laura, did you want to answer that one?

    Laura:
    Yeah, sure. So, we started with Unico Zelo, that was the first thing, and that was in 2012. We did our first vintage in 2013. That was all about looking at the best possible variety to grow in Australia, and particularly South Australia. So, given that we don't have a lot of rainfall, we've got really old soils. We're quite a warm growing region compared to I guess Europe. When people think of wine, they think of cool climate, and Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir, but those varieties don't necessarily grow that well here. They need a lot of intervention in the growing process. So, we started looking towards Italian varieties, and that was the inception of Unico Zelo was if we can match the variety to the site given all of the climatic data we know, and we have can we actually make wine in a more minimal intervention style, and that's how Unico Zelo started.

    Laura:
    We continued doing that and exploring more varieties and really refining that. And along the way, there we... Because we were so interested in, I guess, matching variety to site it's sort of interested us in broader agriculture and the implications there. So, if you were to take native Australian produce that that's going to naturally grow the best in Australia because it evolved here. We don't have a native grape variety. So, we're always going to have to use imported varieties. Whereas when it comes to botanicals that we use in gin, we can start looking at native Australian produce, and you know that's going to grow well.

    Laura:
    A lot of this produce we use in our products is naturally organic because it doesn't need so much intervention. It grows really well. It can be either foraged or it can be farmed. And it can also add to a farmer's, I guess, repertoire and what they're growing. So, instead of having a monoculture of maybe an apple orchard or a cherry farm, we can now start incorporating natives into that growing area. And all those botanicals we were able to use in gin. So, these things like saltbush, macadamias, Davidson plum, rye berries, a lot of things that people haven't necessarily heard of, but have so much flavour and intensity, and beautiful for gin. Gin was more a way to be able to take what's unique about Australia and put it into a product that customers could connect to, and it wasn't intimidating. And it was just an easy way to translate a story that we're really passionate about, but in a product that people can easily consume and connect with.

    Laura:
    The third part about business is Harvest, which is I think you referred to as giving back to our farmers and supporting farmers, and that's called Harvest. So, it's a second wine brand, and it's a grower's cooperative model. So it's more of a business model where we profit share 50/50 with local growers in the area. Everyone's within five-kilometre radius of the winery, and it's all conventional varieties. So these varieties that I've said before don't necessarily grow that well here in Australia, but this is what a lot of growers have because that's what the market has wanted with.

    Laura:
    The Australian wine industry has traditionally grown Shiraz and Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and all of these growers have invested in those varieties. But there's been an oversupply and prices have been dropping. So, we created Harvest to offer a new business model that supports those varieties, but also supports the transition from traditional varieties to new and more sustainable varieties.

    Sarah:
    Ah, this is so cool. I mean, even just as an outsider, I think sometimes particular industries, you just take for granted that there's wine, you buy it, you drink it, it tastes different, and you forget how much goes into the behind the scenes. Particularly that people like you guys out there focused on making it more sustainable rather than just the science of producing a good wine. And one of the things that I think has stood out a lot about your brands is that you assume that a business that's going into more natural wines or natural production is going to be much more expensive, but your reasonable price point and being able to keep that going while also making use of waste fruits and other sustainability practices is amazing.

    Sarah:
    You guys were also the first Australian distiller to get your B corporation certification, which is certified B corporations are businesses that meet certain very high standards of verified social and environmental performance. And you really hit those targets of sustainability as well. So, tell us a little bit more about how the sustainability practices have grown because I think that's something that most people probably don't know about that there are different ways to do things. Some that are more sustainable and others and the choices you guys have made along the way.

    Brendan:
    It's actually…but you actually made a really, really good point there regarding things like approachable price points and stuff like that. The number one sort of friend to sustainability is efficiency. The most sustainable enterprise out there really is going to be the one with the least amount of waste, which means therefore, it should be ongoing the least amount of what we call CoGs, cost of goods, therefore, either those products that are the most sustainable if they are indeed the most sustainable should actually be delivering their business owners either the biggest margins, or at least the customers the best possible price.

    Brendan:
    So, it always irks me a little bit when I see an organic thing, and it's so much more expensive, and they go, "Yeah, but there's just so much waste." I'm like, "Yeah, but it actually shouldn't be that way." You're working really, really hard to produce your organic produce, then perhaps maybe you should think about what produce that actually is. And maybe there's something else that you can produce organically that's going to be less wasteful. That's going to deliver the customer not just better value but yourself better margins.

    Brendan:
    This comes down to like the grand crux, and it's probably very controversial to say, but a lot of people are saying they're sustainable without actually knowing if they are. Without actually having that quantified and verified. It's an unregulated term. Anyone can just say, "Hey, we're sustainable." Oh, why? Because we're a bar that doesn't use any straws. We don't use any plastic straws. I'm like, "Yeah, but do you use pens?" "Oh, yeah, of course, we use pens." "Do you realise pens can't properly be recycled? Do you know a pen only writes 1.2 kilometres, but a pencil which can be recycled, which can actually organically break down writes 56 kilometres?"

    Sarah:
    Oh my gosh.

    Brendan:
    So, don't worry about your straws, worry about things like pens, and we're putting numbers and quantifying these things. And this is where B corp really comes into it. And it was actually Laura. I'm sort of hijacking Laura's part of the conversation right now because Laura was the one that really spearheaded this stuff. We both were growing quite irate that a lot of people were firstly using sustainability as a selling point. I think the traditional business concepts should still apply. If your product is at a really good price point, and represents amazing value to a customer it's going to sell. If your product is good, represents an amazing value to a customer, and happens to be sustainable, you're only as sustainable as the next person who says that they're more sustainable than you were.

    Brendan:
    B corp presented an amazing clarity for us was that it was a third party verification process where... And you have to pay to be a part of it. It's actually quite an extensive process, and it took us nearly a year to be able to get certified, and they go through everything. It's not just about environmental sustainability, which is the only one people seem to focus on. But what about social sustainability? What about the fact that we have some of the most sustainable enterprises in the world that happened to give their CEO bonuses that are in the thousands of percentages more than the least paid employees they actually employ.

    Brendan:
    B corp prevents that. It prevents us from being so greedy as owners of the business that we grow it and we don't bring along both our staff, our suppliers and our community with us. We're here to add value to those three arms external to the business. Otherwise, one could only assume that you're taking value from one thing and delivering it to somewhere else. So, unless we're adding value to the environment, our suppliers, our staff, and our community, then we technically shouldn't exist in our opinion. Yeah.

    Sarah:
    I love that you guys have been able to work in your passion for the environment and sustainability within successful business as well. I think it's so important for people to know they can do both without sacrificing on a good product and building a great community.

    Brendan:
    Oh, totally.

    Sarah:
    But you also got... both of you to sound so passionate about what you do. So when did you actually decide that you were interested in winemaking and go back to your younger selves and how you chose what you went into. Did you ever think you'd go into business with your partner? Did you always think it would be one and the environment or how did you choose your pathways and your degrees? Explain how that happened. And also when you guys got together along the way.

    Brendan:
    That's actually pretty good. Laura, you've got this one.

    Laura:
    Yeah. Well, we actually got together, I think the first week of university.

    Sarah:
    No way.

    Laura:
    Yeah.

    Brendan:
    Yeah.

    Laura:
    So, we've now known each other for 10 years. When we first met, so Brandon was already studying winemaking, and I'm sure he can tell you how he landed on that path. But I was actually studying environmental science. So right from the outset, I knew that's what I wanted to do, and I thought I would go into perhaps water management. I was quite passionate about that. But when you leave high school, really, you don't know exactly what you want to do, and you don't really know how things are going to play out.

    Laura:
    But after meeting Brendan, he taught me how to taste wine. We would go to a nice wine bar and I learned a lot about an industry that I thought was probably... Wine can be a little bit pretentious, and not super welcoming, and not if you don't know anything about it. But what I got to learn by spending time with Brendan and spending time with these winemakers and producers was that there's a lot more to it. That for the most part, winemakers are very passionate about the environment, and they do really care about how things are grown and the way things are done. And the craft and the art is so important. And now they'll make sacrifices to make sure that the craft is held high and the quality of the product is really high.

    Laura:
    So, I still didn't actually study winemaking. I was interested in it, but not enough to study it. But what I did do was I moved out of environmental science. So, I ended up moving into agricultural science because I felt that had a lot more... It was an established industry. There was a way of doing things already. And so, it was just making incremental improvements on the agricultural system we already have. So, that's what I ended up doing and I spent three and a half years doing that. So, I started with environmental science moved into agriculture. But by the end of my degree, I was working in a winery, and I was on the path to be a winemaker. Even though I didn't actually ever get qualified as one, I just learned on the job

    Sarah:
    That is also so cool for people to know. I think everyone thinks that you do come out of uni and you just know what you're going to do and then you end up doing it, but even the fact that you could swap degrees, and then you could end up doing something that wasn't necessarily the clearest pathway from your degree. I love that you were able to still build that into your time at uni, and I was reading that in agricultural sciences, there's such a practical element to there's a working farm at Roseworthy. There's so many different ways that you can get involved in the industry and figure out what you want to do from such a broad range of choices.

    Laura:
    Yeah.

    Brendan:
    I think a lot of people look at something like farming and they just go, "Oh, you're a cattle farmer." Or, you farm sheep, or you do grain. Farming is much more than that. Sure, they're the, I guess you would call them commodities of a sense, but there is so, so, so much more, than that. It's an understanding of soil, understanding of climate, understanding of water use. These are all really... We're talking about jobs that if you want job security, for example. Everyone's got to eat food. And then from our perspective, at the end of the day viticulture, it's not feeding people.

    Brendan:
    Wine is absolutely a luxury product no matter what price point, but we exist in the realms of culture. What's feeding people if they don't have any culture? And wine is sort of at the crux of that. Pretty much I'm going to say, wine, or a fermented beverage of sorts is at the crux of pretty much every single culture that we've seen around the world. And that's where we exist, and we were just remarking with everything that's going on with COVID-19, we are what we call primary producers. If we start to falter or fail, the next step is actually going on to farmers, and you can imagine your farmers are financially hit, then who is going to be feeding the nation? How is anyone going to get by?

    Brendan:
    Talking of the most critical roles in society, being a farmer, and it's actually something obviously we're really quite passionate about is getting young people engaged in farming. Make farming the coolest thing ever, and we're going to have a ton of young people that want to do it. But instead, and there's obvious advantages to obviously the lifestyle, but I don't think there's a lot of people that place a lot of value in it. And this is where Laura and I really, really exist in the realms of it. I don't think a lot of people really talk to young people the way that young people want to be spoken to. And because we started this when we were 19 years old, we have a unique perspective on how, I guess, the dirty M word, millennials, how we think, and how we like to see the world. And that gives us the ability for us to better communicate about something like wine or something like farming or sustainable agriculture. Not as a bashing the Bible, so to speak, but something that actually has substance. Something that's legitimately real.

    Sarah:
    Well, I think that's why this podcast is so important and conversations like these are so important because to the outside person like me, I hear agricultural sciences, I thought farming. But then when I really looked into what you get to study, there are things like global food shortages, and changing climate, and there's industry transforming technologies like drones. There's so many more aspects to it than you expect as a lay person.

    Brendan:
    Ag tech is one of the things that just... I'm a tech geek, and I am... Some of the stuff that ag tech is coming out with at the moment, I was involved at university something called precision viticulture where they were using drones to map out vineyards and map out what we call precise irrigation methods. It was just a really great application of technology in a... Let's face it, where have the last great innovations of agriculture ever come from? South Australia is famous for quite a fair few of them, but none of them are technological. It's not like we've innovated the tractor.

    Brendan:
    What we've done is admittedly, and it's not through anyone's fault…from the fact that the market demands it is we've looked to modify what we're already growing to get it to grow better. So that's in a sense trying to fit a square peg into a round hole when there are a bunch of round pegs just lying around right in front of our eyes that are like, why don't you just grow this and find a way to use that better? And that's in the case of say, natives. Whether it's native Australian millet or these other things. We have a marketing problem more so than we have an agricultural problem.

    Sarah:
    Enter this podcast.

    Brendan:
    Yeah.

    Sarah:
    So, I love that you two did actually end up studying different things at similar times and bringing different perspectives to what you've ended up doing together. So, Laura did three years of ag sciences. Brendan you did viticulture-

    Brendan:
    Oenology.

    Sarah:
    ... and oenology. Both degrees, the university is so well renowned for this. Uni of Adelaide is ranked number three in the world for wine research by any university. So guys, what about the structure of your degrees? How did it actually unravel during your three years and on which campuses and all that stuff?

    Brendan:
    Well, I started out... You do the majority of your first year actually in the city, at least when I went to university, and then ongoing we did the remainder of our university studies for viticulture and oenology out at the Waite Campus. I think there's a bit of a change because it used to be out at Roseworthy. However, I think that's largely just the agriculture, or veterinary students out that way. But now the structure was fantastic. We did, obviously, they cover all aspects. They start off with a solid basis of science though, which I think is at the time, you're probably pulling your hair out a little bit because like, "When am I going to get my hands dirty, and get dirty with some grapes?"

    Sarah:
    And get drinking-

    Brendan:
    You do indeed actually... Yeah. Well, they do the sensory study sessions, which are absolutely fantastic, and I love the fact that they put them on a Friday afternoon. It makes sense, really because it's hard to study after that. But they did just the basis in soil science, the scientific methodology that they really cram into you to be able to critically think about a lot of the stuff that you are learning and observational stuff. Having a, you've got a model vineyard that allows you to actually experience what it's like to actually do actual viticulture, sort of practicalities of that.

    Brendan:
    I actually think by far though the best thing about doing the degree, especially at the Waite Campus in viticulture is their proximity to like SARDI, their proximity to these amazing research labs, and the AWRI. And some of the technology that they actually have there, and how as a student accessible that technology is. As a student, I could just walk into the AWRI's library rather than having to subscribe to a lot of these industry journals, which are very expensive. They have been delivered there for students to be able to access ad hoc whenever they want to go through. There was a lot of times that I would just spend my lunch hours and stuff just sitting in the library just being able to read and actually make use of a lot of those resources. The plant genomics lab, the plant growth accelerator, all of these things were just amazing technologies that really framed your overall experience that you're actually going to a university that knew how to innovate agriculture, and knew how to do it really well.

    Sarah:
    Wow. That's so cool. I mean, I love that you guys have an on-campus vineyard, and studying hard for you guys is like literally just learning more about wine and becoming more cultured. That's so cool.

    Brendan:
    Totally. Yeah.

    Sarah:
    And Laura, you didn't do the same degree, but what was Agricultural Sciences like for your three years?

    Laura:
    Yeah, so first year is very similar to the winemaking degree. So, a lot of basic science at the city campus. And then the next two years of the degree was a real split between Roseworthy or the animal and animal science based courses were. And then the other half was at Waite Campus, which was all the plant health and soil, and more of the plant based stuff. But it was good to be able to kind of, once you get through the first year, you really do break away once you go to those other two campuses and you do get a lot closer to the people that you're studying with. And it all becomes a little bit clearer as well. It's putting what you did in your first year now into context and also into practical experience. And so, so much of the degree was outdoors and it was hands on.

    Laura:
    It's a good way to learn and get experience really quickly. And the fact that Roseworthy is an actual functioning farm means that... Like they're real animals, they're not scientific animals there that students are with every year like they will be selling these animals. And so, you feel like there's a bit of pressure there. Like you have to get it right. And I remember leaving the gate open one time when we were sorting sheep. That was like, straight away, it was like, "Well, I'll never do that again." And you learn so quickly, so that was really cool. And then, yeah, like Brendan said, the infrastructure that they have at Waite Campus is just so incredible, and I think it's easy to take for granted at the time. And then when you leave you realise how valuable having all that information right at your fingertips was.

    Sarah:
    Oh my gosh, it literally sounds like the University of Adelaide is like a science Disneyland where you can just-

    Brendan:
    It's a bit like that.

    Sarah:
    ... where you can just go to-

    Brendan:
    It is a bit like that.

    Sarah:
    ... the farm, and then go to a vineyard. So cool.

    Brendan:
    It's a lot like that, actually. Especially when I saw the plant growth accelerator for the first time I was just completely smitten. I thought that was the coolest stuff I'd seen in a really long time.

    Sarah:
    Oh my God, that should be the new marketing slogan. Science Disneyland here at university.

    Brendan:
    Yeah, very cool. Very, very cool.

    Sarah:
    So what about from a technical perspective, what's the actual difference between say viticulture and oenology? And how did you get your practical experience along the way of what those actually mean?

    Brendan:
    Yeah. I mean, we... Firstly the difference between oenology, ology obviously is science of wine, so the science of wine and then viticulture, which is like, think of horticulture, but with vines. So, very specific to the agricultural, practical aspect of growing vines, farming aspects, and then oenology is all basically how do you craft wine and the science of biology and the science of chemical pathways and cleanliness in wineries and things like that. But I'd say a lot of the practical stuff that Laura and I did we started a business in our first year of university.

    Sarah:
    No way.

    Brendan:
    Yeah. We started... Basically, by the time that we finished, we were self-employed, and the business had already grown. We worked in a few other wineries along the way during either the off season or in different seasons if we're in a different side of the hemisphere before things just grew to become really full time and we had employees. But we had our first employee, I believe, in our last year of university.

    Sarah:
    Oh my gosh.

    Brendan:
    So, things really kicked off pretty quickly for us. And of course, when we started, we started one thing, and then we started the next thing, and the next thing. We thought between Harvest... Unico, one of them was bound to fail, and it didn't. They all grew at the same time. But I tell you what, what I did... I went to university, I think I... Gosh, when did I graduate, Laura?

    Laura:
    2013 or '14.

    Brendan:
    It was a really odd time for the wine industry because it was going through a massive transitional phase. We'd just come out of the GFC, so our exports were shot. The big companies were hurting. There was a big backlash against commoditised wine or industrialised wine production. The university programs as they tend to do struggle to actually just keep up. And so, we found we were going over similar stuff that was very quickly lacking relevance, but where there were a couple of really amazing units that we ended up doing that was trying to get us involved in it. And this is what we're talking about is the natural wine movement. And then we also had the alternative variety movement, which is sort of a cousin to the natural wine movement all happened at the same time, and no one knew how to tackle this.

    Brendan:
    University lecturers were struggling to keep up, but we had a couple that just really made the entire course for us. I definitely remember in particular, one of our teachers or lecturers, Sue Bastian was like, "Hey, we're going to bring in these natural wine guys," and basically succeeded in screwing up an entire batch of winemaking students in one afternoon because we were tasting orange wines, and having dry aged meats out of people’s cellars. And it put wine back in a context for a lot of us, and I think that's what a lot of us were actually searching for was to actually break the bounds of science and get into the art form side of things.

    Brendan:
    That being said, I rely so, so, so heavily on the knowledge that was imparted to us during that degree, particularly the scientific side, because the natural wine mandate is like a dogma, right? It's like, thou shalt not even look at the numbers. And that's where we get these basically. These very faulty, terribly made wines. The fact that we come... both Laura and I actually come from a scientific background allows us to be able to approach something, and it gives us so much more confidence to make minimal intervention wines that actually are very tasty, and do achieve true levels of sustainability that are quantifiable, and we are quantifying these things. It's only because we trained at university at the end of the day. We rely quite heavily on that knowledge. Although at the time, we probably weren't so respectful of it.

    Sarah:
    Yeah. I mean, that's the trait of a uni student, right? That you're like, "I'm never going to use any of this," but then-

    Brendan:
    Totally.

    Sarah:
    ... you end up ultimately appreciating it later on.

    Brendan:
    Oh, man, totally. Yeah, absolutely. There's the amount of conversations we have between Laura and I, we even were up late last night talking about our methods of... Different methods of farming or new world farming are actually based in amazing levels of science, of permaculture method of farming. And then some that has latched on, and have no science or very little science like biodynamics, for example. Or the different levels of organics that there are, and there are different levels based on who certifies you. There's not a lot of conversation going around about those things. But we do rely quite heavily on having either a scientific methodology or an analytical mind to be able to basically sort the wheat from the chaff so to speak.

    Sarah:
    Yeah. I definitely want to dive a little bit deeper into the actual science mainly because I'm personally fascinated about it. I'm a total wine noob, and I know that your first wine was a Fiano, and I don't even know what that is. But before we jump into that, Laura, can you just tell us a little bit about if you hadn't gone... You mentioned that your degree wasn't actually wine focused. If you hadn't gone down the wine pathway, what have some of your peers gone into for example just to show the breadth of what ag sciences can be beyond winemaking. And you mentioned something about water projects and other areas that you could have gone into. So, what have some of your peers ended up doing?

    Laura:
    So I think what was interesting about the ag degree was a lot of... It was kind of a 50/50 split. So probably half the people that were studying with me were already from farms. But they were there studying because they didn't want to be a farmer, and they didn't want to do what their parents did. And then there was probably the other half which was thinking a little bit more about what other paths were available. So, a lot of people have gone into agronomy and consultation, some into research, and also agribusiness is growing quite a lot. Those students were already able to recognise how critical that is to, I guess, rural communities and supporting farming systems.

    Laura:
    But the funny thing is for the people that would make jokes about how they're here because they don't want to be farmers, a lot of them have actually gone home and looked after their own farms. So obviously over the course of that degree, and also like when I was studying, we just come out of the millennial drought and that had really... That had framed a lot of those students perceptions on farming that it was really tough, and things could be going so, so well for so long, and then all of a sudden you have a drought happen and a really persistent drought. And there's just no way out of it. But I think after the degree that we're going back home with a lot more knowledge and a lot more, I guess, innovative spirit to be able to tackle this challenge, which is not only huge and significant, but it's going to happen more and more, so we have to find a solution.

    Sarah:
    Yeah, that's so cool. And I also read this a lot not just of agricultural farming in the way that you generally interpret it, but there's also urban farming and vertical farming and all these different ways to bring those practices more into the modern city, metropolis as well.

    Laura:
    Yes, yeah.

    Sarah:
    That's really cool.

    Laura:
    It's really interesting. We watch quite a lot of videos on... Yeah, they are urban farms, but they're in warehouses. The kind of like hydroponic greenhouse setups and they grow herbs, and I think they've got... What are they called, Brendan? They're like multi story farms.

    Brendan:
    Yeah, they're... It escapes me. But yeah, it is basically aquaponics or hydroponics.

    Sarah:
    That's so cool.

    Brendan:
    ... industrialised. It's pretty cool.

    Laura:
    There's a lot of research going into it because they're like, this is the answer because the population is growing and we can't grow enough food for the amount of people. We actually need to go up. We need to build up so they're creating these vertical farms. But what they're finding is that because they don't have natural soil there, there's something missing in the growing process, and they're actually struggling to make it work and they can't at the moment, they still can't explain why. And all they can say is that there is something about actual soil and growing food in actual land that is making a difference between the growing patterns of this food.

    Sarah:
    Oh my gosh, it's so fascinating. There's just such a huge world of science and farming and agriculture out there that like, oh, I just... Oh my god, I could talk to you guys for ages. But back to wine making because I feel like I should really just let you go to town on explaining to... Assume that I know nothing because I don't. Tell us about the actual art of making a wine. I think there's a lot of consumers out there, and I love hearing that you did get to taste wine as part of your studies and that was actually research for you guys.

    Brendan:
    Yeah. Legitimately.

    Sarah:
    But in terms of making it and the spectrum from a dry to a full bodied wines, what are the kinds and how did you choose which ones you were going to focus on? And then also, how is technology in the industry starting to change, and open up new possibilities for you?

    Brendan:
    Yeah. Wow. Okay. So essentially with, in terms of wine, and I can only really speak from an Australian perspective, most wine that is consumed out of Australia typically is either from two particular varieties, the red variety would be Shiraz, and we're unique that we call it Shiraz. It's actually technically called Syrah and white variety typically Chardonnay. I'm really talking about the... We're talking about big numbers right now. We're a majority export industry by a fair proportion. Most of those grapes who have Wine of Australia printed on the side have not actually come from our quality regions or what we call cool climate regions of say Yarra Valley, Mornington Peninsula, Adelaide Hills, but most of them, in fact actually come from the part of the Murray River System. So, that would be Riverina, Murray-Darling, and Riverland across the three states of New South Wales, Victoria, and South Australia respectively.

    Brendan:
    They're heavily, heavily, heavily irrigated. And when I mean heavily irrigated we're talking about this year we heard numbers of upwards of 15 megs per hectare. Now, just 2.9 megs corresponds to an Olympic sized swimming pool.

    Sarah:
    Oh my gosh.

    Brendan:
    And we're talking close to I think it's like 79,000 hectares, and that's 15 megs per hectare, so it's, and... Now, grapes aren't necessarily the thirstiest things either. They're absolutely not. There's way more thirsty things out there. Grapes are actually on the good end of the spectrum, but our position was why do we even irrigate that at all? The reason why is a couple. Well, firstly, the market demands we built a really good reputation for Shiraz and Chardonnay internationally, and that's where most of this wine goes. And you've got to make more of it. If there's a market for it, you've got to make more of it. So, you plant in the only place that you can find, and find cheap land that has access to outrageous sums of water because you're going to need it.

    Brendan:
    When you take a grape variety that comes from a very wet, cold place, it doesn't have a lot of sunshine. So, where Shiraz and Chardonnay comes from, you're really looking at 150 to 180 days of sunshine a year, and around about one and a half to two meters of rain a year. And you go and plant it in the Riverland that that has... This year was less than 300 mil of rain making it a classified desert according to FAO standards. This grape variety in particular, firstly, come from very wet place. You put it in a very dry place. So, it's actually evolved to be very wasteful with water. It's not what we call very water use efficient.

    Brendan:
    So, you need to top up the water in the profile. But what it has become very efficient is actually using sunlight because it's come from a place that has no sunlight, you're putting it in a place that has lots of sunlight. So, it's churning and burning through photosynthesis at a crazy rate and you have to actually water it to about four times the cost quantity just to have the same effect. And there's a myriad of different issues when it comes to that. When it comes to salt damp rising, ruining soil structure, and stuff like that.

    Brendan:
    When we're talking about wine in Australia, that's sort of the situation that we're at about maybe 10 years ago, and largely a little bit are now as the dollar is... It's really actually quite related on our dollar rates for the US because we send so much wine to the UK and the US respectively. And now that our dollar is quite weak it makes our exports look really, really healthy overseas.

    Brendan:
    The way that we decided to actually tackle this was to go to that same area and look at grape varieties that use next to no water or zero water entirely. So, we were looking at... Firstly, if you turn the tap off on Shiraz and Chardonnay, they will just die. And I'm like, well, that means that you have a grape variety that requires the intervention of a human being just to live. That's a bit much. So, why don't you try and find a grape variety that grows as it would grow in a wild manner. That was how we ended up landing on the grape varieties that we focus on. Fiano, which is a white grape variety from Southern Italy, and Nero D'Avola or just Nero for short, which is from Sicily. And they require a fraction of the water. We're talking one to two megs per hectare, and that's in a desert region. When you start to get up to places like the Adelaide Hills we're talking dry grown. We're talking no irrigation-

    Sarah:
    Oh my gosh.

    Brendan:
    Yeah. In Australia, you can actually grow things without having to irrigate them. That sounds very crazy, right?

    Sarah:
    Yeah. Fascinating.

    Brendan:
    Would you believe that the vast majority of grapes grown in France and Italy are not irrigated?

    Sarah:
    Oh, my gosh.

    Brendan:
    Would you believe that they are so adamant about that, that they're actually protected by law. It's called AOC or DOCG. You might actually see these little stamps when you buy a bottle of Italian wine. It's this government stamp to reach that level of quality of which not by volume, but the vast bulk of brands will reach that. It is illegal to irrigate. You will go to jail.

    Sarah:
    That is fascinating.

    Brendan:
    But in Australia, we do the opposite, and it's because we're growing the wrong stuff here. We're growing this stuff here that actually, that we can sell, but not necessarily the land can support. This isn't just about viticulture now, this can be applied to a lot of agriculture and a lot of horticulture. I'm going to say, the vast bulk of all of it, but we have an answer. You just change what you put in the ground, and you drive them, and you change the market, and then it'll start to value it. So, the plants that have evolved here due to geographic isolation are really, really special to this plot of land.

    Brendan:
    We have such a little volcanic activity. We have little movement of earthquakes and folding of land. We have one of the... We do have the oldest patch of dirt that human beings get to exist on it four and a half billion years old. Our average soul ages 250 million years old, which is about three times the age of California's landmass, about four times the age of most of Europe as an entirety. So, we exist on one big old sponge as an island, and big old sponges aren't really great things to grow stuff in. But fortunately, over the course of 150 million years, a lot of native ingredients have actually grown here without humans even being a part of it. And if they are typically it's been fire that's actually terraformed our landmass.

    Brendan:
    Now, the thing is, you start looking at things like native ingredients, and maybe if I asked you. I was like, "Hey, man, we're going to season this lamb at the back was in salt bush. We've got a bit of like a raw berry jam going on. Do you guys prefer... Do you guys like Davo plums?" "Yeah, absolutely." ... plums.

    Sarah:
    Kakadu plums.

    Brendan:
    Want some Bunya nuts with that thing? Want some river mint, or do you want some wild thyme. Most Australians can't really reconcile with that sort of stuff because to be honest, we've been kind of ignorant of it. But also because of being ignorant of it, it means it isn't worth anything. No one wants to buy that stuff from farmers. So our job is to actually monetise that stuff for farmers so we can incentivise more farmers putting it in the ground displacing things that are chewing up most of our actual resources, natural resources.

    Brendan:
    And so, we sort of managed to find a really interesting avenue outside of viticulture. Going right into the realms of native Australian agriculture when it comes into the realms of spirits. But when you actually think of wineries, wineries have always evolved to utilise by-products of the fruit industry. And then spirits have actually... Distilleries, for example, have evolved to use the by-products of the wine industry.

    Sarah:
    That's so cool. I mean, I think one of the things that people forget is that scientists are not... I think we get this image of the crazy scientist in the lab, but really out in the real world, and the application of all the things that you're learning is science, it just solves problems. It just sees a problem in society on a mass scale, and someone uses science to solve that problem. It's amazing.

    Brendan:
    It's basically observation.

    Sarah:
    Yeah, I also love how you guys have been able to make it a very light touch. Like it's science, I think we often think that it's very interventionist, into nature. Like to intervene in things that we want to make better or genetic modification and all that kind of stuff. But science can actually be working out how to have less intervention in things. But are there some examples out there in society that we might recognise and not really appreciate come from science that are a little bit more, I want to say hands-on in terms of solving a problem. So for example, I read that you guys were recently affected by that the January and February bush fires. But that science has been able to come in and measure smoke contamination and help you know how to react and respond to those impacts. But there are also satellites now that measure moisture in soil. There are so many ways it can intervene a little bit to give us a better picture and more information that can help us make better choices. What are some of the applications of tech in that way that you found really cool?

    Laura:
    Yeah, I think like you mentioned, data collection is probably the biggest thing is that all the decisions that we make, whether... Yeah, and it's hard because I think a lot of what we do instinctually is what we've learned from experience by doing this over and over, which is literally the definition of science. So now we can talk from experience and say that this is how our wine is made. And this is what happens if we pick up this date versus this date. But the reality is, it all comes down to numbers and data.

    Laura:
    So, I guess the tech application in our business is data collection and trying to learn as much as we can from numbers. So we do analyse all of our wines, and we do analyse all of the water moisture in the vineyard. And that's only going to get easier and easier. And the challenge now is actually making the investment in that to get the quality of the data really good to be able to get that infrastructure out to grow it so that they can use it to make good decisions.

    Brendan:
    Yeah, I like the concept of say for example, the way that wine is made, basically get a bunch of grapes, you crush them up, get the juice out. Or if it's red wine, you leave it on its skins. That's how it gets its colour. And basically microbes come along, particular microbes, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, yeast, chews up all the sugar, spits out alcohol, and a bunch of carbon dioxide because it's naturally the process of rotting, essentially. And we stop it at a particular point when it's really tasty, let it settle, bottle it, and that's how we make wine.

    Brendan:
    Now, to determine what... We have a self-imposed, I guess rule here, which is what we call wild fermentation. We don't inoculate our wines with any yeast. We just let it ferment naturally of whatever yeast are in the vineyard or in the winery at the time. Now, and this is something that we actually learned at university was that pH, the pH of a particular solution will largely determine the environment or is the environment that microbes can possibly grow, and you change the pH you completely changed the microbes. That's why when you wash your hands with soap, for example, drastically changes to an alkaline pH and that pretty much nukes most microbes, and that's why soap is so damn cool.

    Brendan:
    With wine though, wine that's heavily irrigated. Grape vines that are heavily irrigated, you see massive, massive really high spikes of pH, which means that you need to adjust it by adding acidity, and then you would use a bit of Sulfur to basically nuke everything that could potentially have grown in that wrong pH environment. And then you would inoculate it with a new yeast out of a packet. We don't have that luxury. And when we started to measure things like pH instead of sugar levels because sugar levels has always determined what has been most sellable of a wine. It doesn't have good nice high alcohol and has a really deep rich colour. And just hitting the volume up button on every aspect of that wine. Therefore, derived, gives you more value.

    Brendan:
    We don't have that luxury. And in fact, when we started to not irrigate vineyards, we started to see the pH is naturally dropping, and then to the winery and we're like, "Wow, actually, we don't need to adjust the pH. It's already perfect." And then it just started fermenting by itself and it fermented all the way through. So, we were making this concept of what's known as natural wine. And there are varying degrees of, I guess, naturalness when it comes to natural wine. It's a controversial term in the industry. We weren't making it because we wanted to, we were making it because... Well, I mean, why would you over acidify if it's already got the perfect acidity? Why would you inoculate it if it's already fermenting fine by itself? These are all happenstance things based on a bit of cultural decision we made of right variety, right place, no irrigation or low irrigation. And bring the result of that back into the winery.

    Brendan:
    We also naturally lower alcohol levels as a result too. We often talk about how alcohol levels are rising in wines because of global climate change, which indeed is happening, but I would say that they're rising because of change in viticultural methods in response to a grape variety not even belonging there.

    Sarah:
    Oh my gosh.

    Brendan:
    We're getting 11 and a half percent without even trying, and that's an imperfect numbers that are fermenting just fine, and this is not dissimilar to what you see out of Europe on a yearly annual basis.

    Sarah:
    Ah, you guys are such a cool example of the ways that you can use science out in the real world. And I think a lot of people will have had their minds opened to just the thought and detail and level of innovation that goes into bringing the wines that we I think take for granted that come to our table. So, last two questions for each of you. What is something that you would love to see science make possible in your industry? So, for like the medical guests we've had on, there's obviously been cure for cancer. In your world, what would your ideal scientific discovery or problem solving be? And the second question is, what would you say to people who think science isn't for them?

    Brendan:
    First off, the two things I'd like to see not just one thing or two things I would like to see science eliminate irrigation from all forms of anything that we grow. That's obviously an agricultural based one. Second thing would be a more mechanical based one. I'd like to see science actually fix up our... And this is like, they go hand in hand, technically. Science would need to come up with a better way to or carve a neutral way to be able to move produce from one point to another.

    Brendan:
    So basically, you can achieve something where you actually... I know we're talking about decentralisation because that's safe, but it doesn't really work that way. If you could centralise your food. So grain grows, where grain is meant to grow, but you just find a very carbon neutral way or very carbon positive way, in fact, to be able to move that produce to a city centre. That means you don't need to actually decentralise and then have to irrigate, and have to add these things to try to fit square pegs in the round holes. You can go harvest square pegs where square holes are and harvest round pegs where round holes. And you just use a very efficient way to be able to bring that to a city centre or you grow your city centre out where those are.

    Brendan:
    And for people that aren't into science. It's not for everybody, but it's an understanding that science isn't just a field by itself. You look at music, for example, that is true art form, but it's ground in a basis of science. Science is a method of thinking, a method of observing the outside world. It's not... Just because you put an 'ology' at the end of something doesn't necessarily mean you're a scientist. It's just a really amazing way to critically think about the world around you and to be able to observe and improve it.

    Sarah:
    Amazing.

    Brendan:
    So, everyone's a science person unless they really don't like to...

    Sarah:
    That flips it in a way that I think lots of people will be wanting to identify themselves as scientists now. What about you Laura?

    Laura:
    Yeah. I definitely agree with Brendan that science is more perspective in a way of observing things. And the great thing about it is there's just so many fields. Like we've spoken about agriculture, and farming, and winemaking today, but science covers so many different aspects. And even if you do study science, it's not... You don't necessarily have to go into that particular field that you studied, but those skills are so transitional even if you're not working directly in science.

    Laura:
    And then in terms of innovation, I think I would love, and we've spoken about this pretty much from the start of the business. Certainly, when we started the distillery was, and it's a bit of a theme in Australia at the moment about waste produce. So, only about 50% of what's actually grown on farm is delivered out to consumers. And there's a lot of produce that doesn't meet quality grades and what can you do with that produce. Within our own business, we use second grade lemons to make Limoncello. We use second grade wine to make a coffee liqueur. But that's not enough.

    Laura:
    There needs to be some other backup industry, and one of the ideas that we've brainstormed is, could you actually turn all of that produce... Could you ferment it, turn it into a wine like product with alcohol and then distill that, and then could you use that spirit to either, again, have carbon neutral vehicles that are running on bio ethanol or bio fuel, but actually still have this beautiful produce that is available to us in supermarkets but find a way to be able to build in support mechanisms for the produce that doesn't leave farms, and try and find a way to monetise that. But there's a microbiology element missing there to make it efficient and economical, which is why no one's done it yet. So that would be cool if we could find the... efficiency improvements to make that happen.

    Sarah:
    Well, I feel like if anyone's going to make it happen, you guys will definitely be at the forefront of those discoveries. I absolutely have loved learning about how your minds work, and how you've been able to put everything you've learned into such a beautiful practice in your business together. Thank you so, so much for joining, and sharing all the amazing things you're doing and I can't wait to see what you guys do next.

    Brendan:
    Thank you so much.

    Laura:
    Thanks for having us.

    Sarah:
    Thanks, guys. Thanks for listening to In Their Element. It's been an absolute pleasure bringing it to you. If you enjoyed what you heard, be sure to subscribe to the series and we'll send you an alert the moment our next episode drops. And more importantly, if the career path you've heard about here appeals to you, jump on the Uni of Adelaide website today to learn all about the science degrees that can get you there. Until next time, bye-bye.