Water S.O.S Tasmania
Boycott by Victorian sommeliers (wine stewards)
Pulp friction - July 24, 2007

Victorian sommeliers are considering joining a wine boycott in protest against plans for a Tasmanian pulp mill, writes Jeni Port.

MEMBERS of the Victorian chapter of the Australian Sommeliers Association will soon be receiving a letter.

It will tell the group of 350 about a growing boycott by sommeliers of wine brands owned and controlled by Gunns Limited, the company behind a controversial plan for a multimillion-dollar pulp mill in northern Tasmania's Tamar Valley.

Members will be given information about the mill and invited to make up their own minds.

"We are being very careful about how we phrase it," says association president Ben Edwards.

"Gunns have got a lot of money and a lot of power and we don't. But we have the power, not through money, but through influence."

The Bell Bay pulp mill project is waiting for development approval from the Tasmanian Government.

The Wilderness Society argues it will destroy native forests in the Great Western Tiers, North-East Highlands, Ben Lomond, Blue Tier and the Eastern Tiers and cause major pollution in an environmentally sensitive area.

In response, almost a dozen Melbourne restaurant-based sommeliers, consultants and at least one retailer are boycotting Gunns-owned wines, widening the circle of a boycott that began in Tasmania three years ago.

The most high-profile brand owned by Gunns is Tamar Ridge, Tasmania's biggest wine producer, which is behind labels such as Tamar Ridge, Devil's Corner and Josef Chromy Selection.

Gunns also owns Rosevears Estate and Coombend Estate and has an interest in Pirie, a personal label produced by Tamar Ridge chief executive and senior winemaker Andrew Pirie. All up, Gunns controls a sixth of the state's wine production.

Walk into Fifteen, Bottega, the Carlisle Wine Bar, Oyster or Rathdowne Cellars in Melbourne and you will not find Tamar Ridge wines on sale.

Others, such as Donovans and the Melbourne Wine Room, aren't going out of their way to take the wines either.

"I don't need to have them," says the Wine Room's Marcus Ellis. "There are more than enough (other) makers I would like to support."

Edwards, a consultant to five independent restaurants and venues, refuses to buy the wines.

At the high-profile Fifteen, operated by Jamie Oliver's Fifteen Foundation, wine manager Dan Sims not only doesn't stock Tamar Ridge but recently refused an invitation from the company to fly the restaurant's trainees to Tasmania for a wine-and-dine "famil".

"With my Fifteen hat on . . . we are very much about organic and biodynamic wines and we didn't want to go anywhere near this," Sims says.

"From a personal viewpoint, I won't support Gunns. Tasmania is a very unique and special place that makes great wines. Why would you potentially damage that?"

Cameron Kidd, co-owner at Rathdowne Cellars, says: "I'd rather, if I had the chance, not send my money to Gunns."

The Tamar Valley is a noted winegrowing area adjoining the Pipers Brook region, home to Kreglinger Wine Estate (formerly Pipers Brook Vineyard), Dalrymple Vineyards, Holm Oak, Clover Hill and Jansz vineyards, to name a handful. There are more than 100 hectares of vines in the valley.

In Tasmania, the proposed pulp mill ignites passions on par with the Franklin River dam debate of the early 1980s.

A consumer and restaurant-led boycott has been in place for some time. Rod Ascui, of Launceston's Stillwater Restaurant, noticed consumers shunning Gunns-owned wines about three years ago, when the mill was first mooted. His restaurant joined the boycott in October 2006. His major concern? The potential damage to tourism and the Tasmania "brand".

Interestingly, this is also the message sent by Tamar Ridge's chief executive, Dr Pirie. He says he would be concerned if the boycott was "pushed further" because it would not only damage Tamar Ridge but the "growth and momentum of the whole Tasmanian wine sector".

Pirie, a well-respected winemaker who is considered a modern pioneer in Tasmania, sees no "direct impact" from the proposed mill to production of grapes in the Tamar Valley, adding that an existing aluminium smelter in the area would potentially be a bigger worry.

Wine marketer Rob Geddes says wine, like so many consumables, will increasingly be put under a moral and ethical microscope.

"There will be the question of wine as a (corporate) process and wine that is a product of the land," he says.

The cynic might question whether Gunns, often attacked by environmentalists as a vandal, is using Tamar Ridge and the wine industry's clean and green image to reposition itself in the eyes of consumers.

Few on mainland Australia recognise the connection between Gunns and Tamar Ridge. But increasingly they will.

The Victorian and NSW chapters of the Australian Sommeliers Association will become a new national body, Sommeliers Australia, in August, and then letters regarding the Melbourne boycott will be sent to more members interstate.

In Melbourne, restaurateurs such as Steven Milic at the Carlisle Wine Bar say that while the boycott is a small protest, it could be a lengthy one.

"For me it's indefinite until things improve," he says.
LINK TO GUNNS LTD : http://www.Gunns.com.au
LINK TO TAMAR RIDGE WINES : http://www.TamarRidgeWines.com.au