Interview: co-founder of Indigenous-owned wine label outlines plans to increase diversity of drinks industry

April 11, 2024
By Cody Profaca

Munda Wines, a premium wine label with a majority First Nation Ownership, has been steadily gathering momentum through distributor Negociants since its launch to market in 2022. 

The venture combines the 15+ years wine trade experience of Damien Smith with the directive First Nations leadership of Paul Vanderbergh, National Indigenous and Multicultural Engagement Manager at the AFL and founder of the Tjindu Foundation.

Drinks Trade sat down with Damien Smith, Co-Founder, to discuss his thoughts on Indigenous representation in Australian wine and what Munda is hoping to achieve in the space. 

Drinks Trade: What’s the goal and concept behind Munda Wines?

Damien Smith: Very simply, the mission statement for Munda is all about starting the conversation and getting people engaged. 

We just started off with the one wine being the Munda Kaurna Syrah from Blewitt Springs in McLaren Vale, and we added the Munda Walgalu Chardonnay and the Ngadjuri and Peramangk Grenache back in June of last year.

The wines are fine wines – you can have the world’s best story but if your wines don’t back it up you’ve got a big problem. We’ve been very deliberate about what wines from what country/regions do we want to produce, what stories do we want to tell, and also what is the best story for wines in Australia as we start to take these wines into export countries.

DT: How do you start the conversation? What sort of stories is Munda sharing and how?

DS: If we put the wine side of it just to the side for the moment and look at fermentation – fermentation has been here in Australia for tens of thousands of years, and effectively that’s what wine is, right? It’s the process of fermentation, taking grapes and turning it into wines through fermentation. There’s these amazing stories within Australia that not many Australians know about. For example, down in Tasmania up in the highlands, there’s these cider gums which were tapped almost like maple syrup and then the syrup was collected and then fermented naturally [to] they believe anywhere between 3/4/5% alcohol and then used for ceremonial purposes.

[Another] very simple example, if you look at our first wine – the Kaurna Country Syrah from Blewitt Springs in McLaren Vale – Kaurna country has had people looking after country for 45,000 years. McLaren Vale, I think, has just tipped over 193 years. So when you look at, you know, the history of Australia, we’ve really only looked at 193 [years], we haven’t looked, for example, at the 45,000 [years] of Kaurna, which extends across other countries in Australia to 65,000 years plus. 

And I think that’s where part of the interest is: people are starting to go, ‘I’ve never considered that – now that I consider it, take me on a journey,’  and that’s a big part of what Munda is all about… Australia has evolved to where there’s this greater want to learn and interest in First Nations culture finally; and I think fine wine is this beautiful vehicle. 

Negociants, as our partner, are making sure that their salespeople are engaged with the stories; they’ve become our spokespeople as well. 

DT: What are your thoughts on other liquor industry brands trying to ‘capitalise’ on indigenous culture either through names or artwork?

DS: I can’t comment, but from a generalistic approach, all I can say is we’ve had many wineries reach out to us and the intent has been pure.

The people who have reached out for advice from Paul, for example, some of those questions have been very respectful in terms of what’s the best way for them to engage in this space and articulate the country that they’re making wines from.

There are [also] examples of wines that are being exported around the world which may have indigenous artwork perhaps on it. Have those brands sort of looked deeper into what they’re doing to give back in that space? I can’t answer that question.

A big part of what we’re aiming to do as well though is – if you look at the Australian wine industry/the history of the Australian wine industry – you look at a lot of indigenous words that are used be it brand [or] be it region… [Examples include] Yalumba, Penfolds Yattarna, the list just goes on and on. A lot of these brands are starting to explore what the languages and the meanings behind these words is… there’s all these words we use but can we actually understand that next layer of detail behind it? And that’s probably where we encourage people to go on that journey as well. 

Munda is this beautiful vehicle whereby you can have a great glass of wine and explore a deeper history [and] historical understanding of that particular country.

DT: You’ve emerged at a time where Australia’s wine industry is starting to show significant signs of strain? How’s it been for Munda given the current climate and what do you think’s contributed to your success?

DS: Munda’s had a lot of cut through. We’re still a very small fledgling business, so making a success out of the wine industry is certainly not built overnight. This has been years and years in the making and we still have a long, long way to go.

The mere fact that Paul and I are doing this out of love at the moment says everything about where the investment is going into this brand. 

DT: Can you explain the charity side of the company?

DS: We work with the Tjindu Foundation, which is Paul’s Foundation… [It] is a not-for-profit organisation, it’s completely independent of Munda, but what Tjindu does is it’s keeping young Indigenous kids in school and helping them find certain pathways that they’re energised about.

We work with Tjindu and that database of young kids; we’ve had them out here in South Australia learning about the wine industry, the history of the wine industry, the history of the country, the history of land and how all that works together. 

But yeah, certainly, you know, [Munda] is a commercial enterprise – it has to be because to be successful, we need to make this successful. 

DT: What are your thoughts on the First Nation Representation in what is traditionally a white-dominated industry? 

DS: So what you’re seeing within the Australian industry is very little if any indigenous representation, and that’s a big question for Munda is how do we encourage more indigenous representation behind the scenes – we want other indigenous brands entering the industry, and it’s a tough industry to enter with the barriers to entry being cost and understanding of it.

Within a certain period of time, [we] will have an indigenous winemaker who’s involved with us. We’re also working with some of the biggest on-premise groups in Australia to try and work on some programs to encourage greater indigenous representation in hospitality… We definitely want to encourage that next wave coming along, and that next wave might not necessarily be in branded wine.

That’s a big part of what we want to achieve with Tjindu is to encourage that next wave of hospitality, viticulture, be it winemaking, export, sales, marketing, whatever it may be. It’s a really important piece for Munder to change that landscape in, as you said, a very white dominated and generally male white dominated industry.

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