Grower Q&A: Dudley Brown of Inkwell Wine

Inkwell Wine is Australia’s first regeneratively certified vineyard.  In 2023 Dudley and Irina obtained their Silver ROC certification, the highest possible in the first year.

“If I had a superpower, it would be to see in real time what is happening in the worldwide web of mycology and bacteria in the soil. That would be handy. And, really cool”

Dudley Brown & Irina Santiago-Brown, Inkwell Wines

What was your ‘Aha!’ moment for regen?

The big Whoa! moment! was when a section of Shiraz that, after 20 years of hard work and no fruit (we had tried everything), suddenly started growing in the middle of summer. Unusually, this was where cover crops medic had dominated through the winter months for a few seasons. Now this area is almost uniform with the rest of that block with almost as much fruit.

The other big one is a decrease in fruit baumés by at least 1 baumé. We regularly pick intensely flavoured but lighter Shiraz in the 12’s now where before we were in the 14’s. The conventional wisdom about cultured yeast being what is pushing alcohols higher doesn’t seem to be the whole story. Fertilisers, herbicide and soil life seem to be a big part of it.

What’s the most important change you’ve introduced?

Armouring the soil with diverse cover cropping is sequestering carbon, making the vines more resilient to pests and disease and extreme weather events, improving water retention and reducing soil temperatures dramatically. Bare midrows here used to hit 65°c on 40° days.

Who do you turn to for support?

It depends on the subject:  there aren’t many folks with a long experience of regen in vines. A lot of specialised knowledge needs to be sought out and adapted. We have some “deep organic” suppliers who are incredibly helpful on nutrition and biology. On cover cropping, our old friend and researcher Chris Penfold is an amazing font of knowledge.  When thinking (broadly and deeply), we rely heavily on re-reading Gabe Brown and David Montgomery plus Jon Kempf’s interviews. On the practical front, our friend, contractor and local regen pioneer Richard Leask is a great sounding board.

Is there a regen practice that turned out to be super easy and cheap?

Increasing the biodiversity of flora – for under $500, we buy and plant 100-200 seedlings of local native trees and bushes each year. After 5-10 years, these really add up in bringing in diverse fauna and insects. It has been proven that flying pest problems can be eliminated with diverse enough insect populations and healthy plants. And, again, armouring your soil with diverse and green manure cover crops are dead cheap compared to the costs and benefits of compost and mulch.

What’s your top tip?

Read a lot, be open to thinking differently, try different things at small scale before going all in. Cut fertilisers and herbicides by 1/3 each year in transition over three years. Radical change is a mistake to be avoided (we learned this the hard way going organic). Building soil life doesn’t happen overnight.

What would you tell a younger version of yourself?

Listen to your gut, measure everything you can (e.g. soil and tissue testing), observe your crops during their growing seasons (what grows where?, why?), make lots of notes, take lots of photos, trust yourself more, distrust chemicals that “solve” things, read more.

What would a ideal version of your vineyard be like?

It would enable grazing during spring and summer to better control summer grasses and incorporate organic nitrogen inputs nearly year-round. It would need a large off farm grazing area for the rest of the year. Paicines Ranch in California is pretty close to perfect.

How do you control fungal diseases?

This season we did not spray sulphur or copper despite it being a tough disease year in McLaren Vale. We increasingly focus on plant tissue deficiencies and use sprays to ameliorate these to increase plant resistance first, then add beneficials like Trichoderma, Bacillus subtillis, even milk to address infection areas. We also use an external agronomist to spot pest and disease to avoid perception bias from us. We had losses below 1% and no widespread infection areas. But, we didn’t feel we had earned the right to try this approach until 5-6 years after we began using regenerative management.

What are you most pleased to have encouraged to your land?

Birds, bees and butterflies. The increasing number of flying species is the most visually pleasing, but it is the life we don’t see in the soil that has had the biggest impact (and it is what the birds are mostly after). After not spraying sulphur or copper this season, the insect diversity went bananas…stuff crawling and flying everywhere!

How do you control ‘weeds’?

Successively planted diverse cover crops increase fungi in soils so a lot of weeds just disappear. On the other hand, “weeds” like marshmallow are signs of soil disturbance or toxicity – they are the first to show up to work in these places, have deep tap roots and are bringing needed minerals to the surface. While we don’t see many marshmallows anymore, we increasingly see exotic plants (but considered local weeds) like Scabiosa – Pin Cushion Daisy – as part of a solution for our need for summer broad leaved plants in the vineyard and flowers undervine. Increasing the number of diverse families of plants (most important part of diversity is plant family diversity) in the vine root zone area provides competition to other things that live there that we would prefer didn’t.

What have you done to slow down and store water on your land?

Keep all the soil covered with diverse plants (even “weeds” help) that can respond to rain at different times of year. Build soil carbon. Soil carbon holds at least four times its own weight in water.  Different plants have different canopies that slow the speed of rain hitting the ground and different sizes and types of root pathways allow water to be absorbed quickly to different depths. Plant swards and areas of indigenous trees and bushes are also a big help.

What’s your most expensive mistake?

Buying a vineyard!