2019 ASVO Viticulturist of the Year

 Dr Kerry DeGaris


Dr DeGaris encompass the values of the ASVO around encouraging, stimulating, supporting and promoting the dissemination of research or technical information. Be it though her role with the local grape growing associations, through my national role with TWE or my wider interests around water planning and management in the NRM space.

2012 was a pivotal time for me – I left a job I did enjoy (except for the people management aspect) as Padthaway vineyard manager for Accolade Wines. I was half way through completing my PhD – titled: Direct and indirect influences of water deficit on salt uptake, ion accumulation and root shoot interaction of grapevines when I realised I could no longer do both well. I moved home to the family farm to help with the day to day running of our cattle and sheep enterprise allowing me more time to spend on completing the arduous task of writing a thesis. During this time I worked casually for Treasury Wine Estates under the guidance of Ben Harris to supplement some cash flow. Additionally I worked with the AWRI and dabbled in some consultancy for local Limestone Coast (LSC) growers. I honestly thought I would cease working in the wine industry once my PhD was over, as I love farming – but something has kept me coming back.

I have been thinking about this a bit, as to what keeps drawing me back into this small, close knit community – of which many have become friends. A large part of my time spent in the wine industry (which shocked me to find out spans 20+ years) has been about extending information out to people – and trying to make it in a format that is easily understood and practical.  I enjoy the interaction between a viticultural practitioner and myself; being able to impart knowledge that potentially will be considered as part of a new management strategy or philosophy within the vineyard/s they oversee.

In 2015 I took over the role as chair of the Limestone Coast Grape and Wine Council (LSCGWC) Technical Sub-committee and still chair to this day. It is a volunteer run organisation representing the interests of grape growers across the LSC. This body consists of technically minded viticulturists and winemakers who oversee the spending some of the Wine Australia’s (WA) Regional Program funding which equates to $50K annually for our region. A major objective of the LSCGWC- TSC is acting as the body that facilitates research/extension in the region.  We meet quarterly and formulate a plan on how this money would be spent on relevant extension activities and ensuring the money is spread around the local grape growing regions.

Some notable extension activities during this time include the instigation of a project in conjunction with South East Natural Resource Management (SENRM) board to look at iron bacteria and developed fact sheets around how to identify the issue and recommended mitigation techniques. This problem is quite specific to the LSC region due to the uniqueness of our irrigation water resource and was driven from a number of growers expressing their concerns around increasing costs associated with replacing pumps and dripper tube after only a few years of growing grapes.  This project generated a lot of interest locally as well as interstate with an ABC rural radio interview resulting in a large number of national enquiries as to our findings.

Recently the coordination of the winemaking component for the Coonawarra Rootstock Trial which occurred in 2019 (after two previous attempts in 2017 & 2018) has been successfully completed. The rootstock trial is a great example of bringing together a number of bodies including Vine Health Australia (VHA), Coonawarra Vignerons (CVA), SENRM, Australian Wine Research Institute (AWRI), CSIRO and Treasury Wine Estates to maximise its potential. This project included a successful field walk in March 2019 where 40 people attended and were able to see and taste the fruit from 9 different rootstocks. The wine is destined to be used as part of future extension activities in 2019-20 including a pivot analysis trial with AWRI and a field walk/tasting in 2020.

Another large part of my role is the Wine Australia Incubator initiative which was instigated soon after I became chair. Funding regionally specific research is limited due to the voluntary nature of the LSCGWC levies and the WA Regional program is focussed around extension activities. The LSC has always struggled with our distance from major cities and thus attracting strong research based projects from the major universities/research institutions. Concurrently, I have also seen the struggles of city based early career researchers moving on in their chosen field once their PhD’s are completed. The benefit of the initiative as well as addressing a personal vision of mine is its ability to attract early career researchers to our region and address some of the unique viticultural and winemaking research issues we experience. I am proud to report that in the three years since it commenced the LSCGWC has been successful in attracting four candidates: Vinay Pagay (Adelaide Uni) – Is berry shrivel in Cabernet Sauvignon influenced by climate and does this potentially affect characteristics of the resulting wine?; Zeyu Xiao (NGWIC) – How can we influence potassium (K+) levels in the vineyard so wines don’t need tartaric acid additions in the winery, and what is the mechanism of K+ accumulation within the grape berry?  In 2019 two candidates have been successful (this sets a precedent – previously no region has been allowed to fund two projects); Thomas Lines (Uni of Adelaide): Is organic weed control beneficial for winegrape production in the Limestone Coast?; Harriet Whiley (Flinders Uni): What is the best way to treat the iron-related clogging problem in the Limestone Coast? From the first year’s results we have seen Vinay Pagay become a regular visitor to the region to conduct a number of research projects and continue to encourage future researchers (Thomas Lines is one of his post graduate students) and the findings from his work were well received at the Coonawarra Cabernet Symposium held in mid-2018. I hope the current and future incubator recipients enjoy their experiences while working within the LSC and can be retained within the Australian Wine Industry longer term.

I completed my PhD in 2016 and the outputs of this work were published in the Australian Journal of Grape and Wine Research (AJGWR) over three papers. Recently I was told that my third paper which focused on the role abscisic acid when applied to grapevine roots in conjunction with saline water can influence the ion movement within a grapevine was in the top twenty downloaded papers in 2017/18. The learnings from this body of work have been utilised through my dealings with the AWRI with a salinity webinar in 2018 and also the presenting of various Research to Practice workshops across Australia in the past 5 years. Also, as my role at TWE has been re-structured in 2018 to become a technical viticulturist for the company on a part-time basis, my knowledge on salinity has been utilised on many levels to assist company vineyard mangers with decisions around salt management. This continuing interest in water management and its implications for irrigators in the LSC lead to my selection as a board member for the SENRM in 2016 and one of my main roles is the chairing of stakeholder groups for the Tatiara Water Allocation Plan and more recently the review of the science behind the Lower Limestone Coast Water Allocation Plan.

As you can see I have remained in the wine industry – although in a different capacity to my life pre 2012. I feel I do encompass the values of the ASVO around encouraging, stimulating, supporting and promoting the dissemination of research or technical information. Be it though my role with the local grape growing associations, through my national role with TWE or my wider interests around water planning and management in the NRM space.


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