the NSW winemaker turning wine into water

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“It’s a really community-focused project,” says Vinomofo wine buyer  Charlotte Cels. “We can often be seen as just a retailer and this allows us to immerse ourselves in the wine industry, to be among the grapes, and be among the community, which is great.”

In the Hunter Valley, winemaker Matt Burton of Gundog Estate has developed a partnership with Newcastle homeless not-for-profit, Path 2 Change. As well as raising $13,000 from wine sales for the charity so far, Burton has established work experience placements at Gundog’s cellar door for young people at risk of or experiencing homelessness.

Vinomofo CEO Justin Dry picking grapes in the Yarra Valley for the Homeless Grapes Project label. 

“As owners of a small business you travel a challenging personal journey,” he says. “Suddenly you reach a point where you realise how privileged you are. Once you realise that, it becomes a really obvious path to find a way to give back to the community.”

While these initiatives certainly contribute to a company’s sense of community engagement – and fulfil their corporate and social responsibility – not everyone believes the sale of alcohol should be associated with certain kinds of fundraising.

This year, Canberra entrepreneur Ben Osborne launched a vodka called Cheers Mate. Describing his new product as “the world’s most ethical vodka”, Osborne donates the $10 profit from the sale of each bottle to mental health support networks working with the hospitality industry.

The Homeless Grapes label has four wines and is “a community-focused project,” says wine buyer Charlotte Cels. 

The chief executive of the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education, Michael Thorn, has been scathing in his criticism. In a comment piece on the DrinkSpace website titled “Ethical vodka? You must be taking the piss!”, he described Osborne’s initiative as “incredibly misguided” and “tone deaf”, failing to make the link between alcohol, depression and suicide.

“You wouldn’t support the thousands of people injured and orphaned by exploding landmines by selling them landmines; no matter how lucrative,” Thorn wrote.

The Woolworths-owned liquor chain BWS faced a similar backlash by partnering with the Dry July Foundation: critics such as Thorn felt it was highly inappropriate that a charity raising funds for people with cancer should associate itself with a company selling alcohol when alcohol is linked to more than 5000 cases of cancer in Australia each year.

Some might argue there is a certain contradiction, too, in raising money to secure a water supply in another country with wine made using increasingly precious irrigation water in this country; or raising money to help homelessness, when alcohol so often plays a role in causing that problem in the first place.

How do the people on the frontline of the fundraising feel about such criticisms?

“We do understand there is an association between alcohol abuse and homelessness,” says Vinomofo partnerships manager Rosa Nguyen. “We also acknowledge that there are a multitude of reasons why homelessness occurs … ‘Do Good’ is actually a part of our company credo and homelessness is the key focus of this charity arm of the company, as it’s something that we’re passionate about, especially our CEO and founder, Justin Dry. Justin has been involved with this cause for more than a decade.”

Gundog Estate’s Matt Burton says the partnership with Path 2 Change has been rewarding for both parties. 

Gundog Estate’s Matt Burton says both his staff and Path 2 Change’s clients have found the experience of working together very rewarding. “One of the most significant aspects of this partnership has been the establishment of communication lines which allow everyone involved to see how the funds are being used, and the profound impact our support is having on the lives of vulnerable young people.”

Melbourne support centre St Mary’s House of Welcome will be pouring Vinomofo’s Homeless Grapes Project chardonnay – along with a dozen other Victorian wines – and encouraging people to buy it by the case at their annual Degustation for Dignity fundraising dinner on October 25 (disclosure: I helped select the wines to be poured at the event, and will be MC for the evening).

I asked St Mary’s chief executive, Robina Bradley, how she felt about selling wine to raise money to help people whose own relationship with alcohol is often very damaging.

“All the guys here know exactly what we do with our fundraising,” said Bradley. “They know it involves alcohol, and they all assure me they’re OK with that.”

St Mary’s House of Welcome’s annual Degustation for Dignity, a seven-course fundraising dinner with matching wines from top producers and a silent auction, is at Collingwood Town Hall, Melbourne, on October 25. Tickets are $165 a head. For more information and to book, go to Degustation for Dignity

Worthy wines

2018 Little Ripples Chardonnay [Tumbarumba]
The Little Ripples winemaking team sourced chardonnay from the high altitude cool climate of Tumbarumba, NSW for this crisp, fruity young white with its lively flavours of green melon and juicy yellow nectarine. $23

Drops for good from Little Ripples, Homeless Grapes Project and Gundog Estate. 

2018 Homeless Grapes Project Chardonnay [Yarra Valley]
Made from grapes donated by De Bortoli, TarraWarra and Rochford, this is a good example of the modern Yarra chardonnay style: savoury and refined, with lemon pith and wheatmeal flavours, fine-textured and elegant on the tongue. $25

2019 Gundog Estate The Chase Semillon [Hunter Valley]
This excellent young white was made using grapes grown in the old Somerset vineyard, one of the finest sites in Pokolbin: super refreshing and snappy now but with enough concentration to evolve into a classic bottle-aged Hunter semillon over time. $35