By Aimee Knight
“It’s a proper Willy Wonka factory today,” says Brendan, gesturing to the grape-crushing, gin-distilling, rosé-bottling bustle consuming his revamped 1920s cold store. As (one of) the brains behind such tasty treats as Espressocello, Chai Eau de Vie and Berry Blossom Nebbiolo, his nod to pop culture’s favourite candy man is apt. But where Wonka relied on pure imagination, Brendan embraces 50,000 years of Australian history.
Under the gums in Gumeracha, Brendan Carter – plus business partner and wife Laura – cultivates Ochre Nation. It’s a beverage-centric group of businesses, home to wine labels Unico Zelo and Harvest, and spirit purveyor Applewood Distillery. They celebrate “the sights, soils, lifestyle and culture of Australia,” Brendan says.
Originally from Queensland, Brendan is a viticulturist by trade. Laura was raised overseas by South Australian parents, and has an agricultural background. The couple lives, works and plays onsite, busily renovating their workspace, cellar door and tiny house. While thirty square metres may sound squishy for living quarters, it’s the perfect size for “doorbell and chief protector” Truffles the Dachshund, who completes this power trio.
At work, the Carters are driven by the ‘concept of belonging’. “That’s the slogan on our products: from the land we belong to,” says Brendan.
On building a home and business in South Australia, Brendan says, “I wish I could have spent my entire life here,” citing great local produce as the key factor.
“Whether it’s grain-based, grape-based or fruit-based… all that produce has been in such close proximity for a long time. People have an appreciation for really great produce,” he says. Ochre Nation wants to keep that proclivity sustainable.
“What we do revolves around permaculture. Big business is largely about monoculture, where you take from the earth and don’t put back. Sustainability is pretty epic here.
“Unico Zelo, that’s our jam, the original winery. You won’t find shiraz or chardonnay or sauvignon blanc. You’ll find nero d’Avola or nebbiolo – grape varieties designed to be dry grown in South Australia.
“We’ve gone to the Riverland – a place that gets 200 millimetres of rain a year – to dry-grow it as much as possible. [If] you can put a grape variety somewhere like a classified desert, there’s no excuse for irrigation in areas like the Adelaide Hills. We’ve got more than enough water to grow a luxury product using one of our most finite resources.
“That’s not just environmental sustainability,” Brendan says, “but sustainability for the entire wine industry.
“Now I can say, ‘We make Aussie wine.’ We don’t try to make French wine or Italian wine in Australia. We find the best our land can possibly give us.”
Closer to home in Gumeracha, Brendan recalls the devastating bushfires that wiped out the Adelaide Hills’ bumper grape crops in 2015. In response, he co-founded the grower co-op Harvest. Now any grower within five kilometres can drop their stock off, and Brendan, Laura and co. will “give it a good, hard crack to turn it into quality wine.
“If it works, it goes into the Harvest brand. We give [growers] back fifty percent of the profit. If it doesn’t, we have Applewood Distillery,” which has created liquors like Esoterico Eau de Vie from the lees of Unico Zelo’s 2014 white blend. Ochre Nation won’t waste a drop of wine nor water.
“We go to cherry growers using five megalitres of water a year and say, ‘Why don’t you plant some riberries?’
“They say, ‘What are riberries? Who’s going to buy those?’
“I say, ‘I will, because I’ve created a product that demands twenty-two tonnes a year.’”
An Australian native commonly known as ‘Lilly Pilly,’ riberries “taste like pure Campari: clovey, dry, rich sour cherry and plum,” says Brendan. “Why aren’t we making drinks from these? Why aren’t we encouraging growers to plant stuff that is particularly adapted to our climate?”
Ochre Nation, as the name suggests, is a vocal advocate for using Australian native botanicals (and, occasionally, insects). “That’s where we really start to explore expressions of lifestyle and culture,” says Brendan.
“When you go to Thailand, you see the expressions of the people, you see their culture, how ingrained it is. You don’t go to Thailand to eat Italian food. You don’t go to Italy to eat Indian food. I’ve tried it, it’s terrible,” he laughs. “So when people come to Australia, what do they eat? What are they tasting? It’s not Australian food. Not yet, anyway.
“We’re using natives with a great perspective,” he says, honouring Australia’s rich indigenous history. He returns full circle to the ‘concept of belonging,’ where “the land is boss.”
“At the end of the day, we’re just making booze. I want to be able to do it in the most sustainable, impactful way possible. I don’t want to be a beverage sausage factory. I want to do something good; something other people will listen to and remember.
“Ochre Nation is a realisation of Australian culture. It’s easy to listen to our land because of its uniqueness.”
Virgin Australia flies to Adelaide from all major Australian cities. Most major hire car companies are located at Adelaide Airport.