The Australian Winemakers Pushing to Recognize Indigenous Land Names

Carey Gully Chardonnay label, from The Other Right Wines. Credit Rachel Signer.
Carey Gully Chardonnay label, from The Other Right Wines / Photo by Rachel Signer

Last month, Australia’s post office announced it would include a prompt for Indigenous place names on address forms. Brought on by a Gomerai woman’s petitions, this is the latest development in a movement to acknowledge and honor the traditional, precolonial names of destinations throughout Australia.

The wine industry is evolving in tandem. The back label of wines from The Other Right’s 2020 vintage, made from vineyards around South Australia, reads, “The vineyards and our winery are located on Peramangk and Kaurna lands. We acknowledge and pay our respects to the First Nations People, the traditional custodians of these lands, their histories and culture.”

Jauma and Commune of Buttons, two wineries in the Adelaide Hills region, made a similar change to their 2020 bottlings. Their labels now say “Peramangk Country” instead of “Basket Range” or “Forest Range.”

While some worry about tokenism, others believe these are enormously important changes. They represent not just semantic shifts, but also an effort for Australians to reckon with collective pasts—and futures.

The Other Right Chardonnay bottle and label specifying Indigenous Peramangk and Kaurna lands / Photo by Galit Shachaf
The Other Right Chardonnay bottle and label specifying Indigenous Peramangk and Kaurna lands / Photo by Galit Shachaf

When Alex Schulkin and Galit Shachaf of The Other Right arrived in Australia 12 years ago, they “had literally no idea about anything in terms of the original custodians of the land,” says Schulkin.

The couple had not heard about the Stolen Generation of Indigenous children who were forcibly removed from their parents; they were unaware of the landmark case “Mabo v Queensland,” which recognized Indigenous people as the rightful owners of Australia and asserted they could reclaim land through proven continuous presence; they didn’t realize that it took until 2008 for the government to issue a formal apology for its “past mistreatment” of “the Indigenous peoples of this land, the oldest continuous cultures in human history.”

Over time, their awareness grew.

“We started thinking maybe there’s something we could do as well,” says Schulkin. “It’s tricky; a few years ago, we realized no matter what you do it will not be enough.”

But he and Shachaf reasoned that didn’t mean do nothing. After consulting with a family friend of Indigenous heritage, they decided to add an acknowledgment to their labels. They knew it could be perceived as tokenism.

“It’s tricky; a few years ago, we realized no matter what you do it will not be enough.” —Alex Schulkin, The Other Right

“Sometimes you see a signature [with an acknowledgement] in an email,” says Schulkin, “and it’s a corporation that mines Aboriginal lands, and that’s a token.”

For The Other Right, the priority was that they add an acknowledgment with a genuine spirit.

“We consulted a few people, put some of our thoughts together and tried to phrase it best we could,” he says. Their family friend warned that “certain [phrases] should not be used—such as ‘Aborigines,’ which is a colonial word,” although Aboriginal is acceptable.

There is also an important difference to Indigenous Australians “between ‘land’ and ‘Country.’” The latter refers to “not just the land but also the culture and the history; whereas land is land, soil,” says Schulkin. Since the Adelaide Hills, where The Other Right is based, encompasses an area that was home to the Kaurna (pronounced Garna) and Peramangk cultures, both are named on their labels.

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On Travis Tausend’s debut vintage in 2015, the labels read “Kaurna Country,” omitting the Clare Valley designation.

“I originally did it because I’ve always wanted to communicate place and history in multiple different ways,” says Tausend.

Now, he writes both “Peramangk Land” and “Hope Forest,” to “communicate land and culture,” he says.

“There’s the Indigenous, or First Nations, there’s the multiple thousand years of history there; then there’s my history, my winemaking history. I’m not putting any importance on either,” he says. “The history of a place is wrapped up in the English or Australian equivalent of terroir—culture, land, my culture and the culture I come into contact with.”

In addition to sparking dialogue, Tausand hopes to generate donations. He gives a portion of his profits to Pay the Rent, whose premise is that non-Indigenous Australians should “pay rent” for the land they’re on. A council of Indigenous elders distributes those funds to First Nations people to fund everything from education to healthcare without government intervention.

“Even if it’s a Wikipedia search,” based on his labels, “it’s enough to start a conversation—and that’s the whole point, right? The wine is a liquid conversation,” says Tausend.

For Jack Buckskin, a Kaurna and Narungga man who has devoted his life to recovering Indigenous languages, traditional names add an important level of specificity.

“Adelaide is a very new name,” he says. “It’s not significant to the place. Through colonization people have put other names in places that aren’t relevant to the elder. By putting things on labels like that, it helps people realize the place they’re standing on.”

“Adelaide is a very new name. It’s not significant to the place. Through colonization people have put other names in places that aren’t relevant to the elder.” —Jack Buckskin

He mentions that early colonizers often recorded Aboriginal language as a monolith, rather than recognizing linguistic divergences between cultures. He suggests that winemakers considering adding Indigenous words should seek “consultation with your First Nations and traditional owners” to make sure they get it right. That could be as simple as looking for organizations such as Kaurna Warra Karrpanthi (KWK), where Buckskin is involved.

Although both The Other Right and Tausend use vineyards that are leased from growers, Jasper Button of Commune of Buttons is an estate winegrower.

“I don’t feel like it’s necessarily a wine-specific thing,” says Button about the impetus to add Indigenous place names. “It’s more a responsibility of land users.”

Commune wine from Peramangk Country / Photo by Rachel Signer
Commune wine from Peramangk Country / Photo by Rachel Signer

He feels that citing a traditional name calls attention to environmental issues and Indigenous communities’ incredibly sophisticated approach to land management. Alluding to bushfires that tore through Australia in 2019 and 2020, Button mentions the Indigenous practice of controlled burning.

“In Australia, we have a problem of lack of recognition,” says Button. “And a lack of public acknowledgment of the people who were here and still are here. It needs to come to the light and anyone working on the land should acknowledge the country they’re working on. That’s the beginning, there’s a lot more to learn.”

Until mid-2020, James Erskine and Sophie Taylor of Jauma Wines felt hesitant about adding “Peramangk Country” to wine labels. Black Lives Matter protests changed their perspective.

“By not acknowledging this farming and winemaking being done on Aboriginal land that was not ceded to whites, I am dishonoring, and showing my white privilege,” James says. “The action of fear is an action of white privilege.”

A name may also acknowledge the ways in which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities are still marginalized. For example, recent data indicates that Indigenous Australians are disproportionately incarcerated. As well, billion-dollar mining companies are permitted to destroy sacred sites, ignoring ongoing pleas to “Heal Country.”

“We haven’t gone anywhere,” says Buckskin. “In all these countries, you’ve got First Nations people alongside you, but a lot of people don’t want to bring them to the table. You’re disrespecting them even more. By building relationships and bringing them to the table, you’re offering respect.”

Published on August 25, 2021
Topics: Australia