Unico Zelo Wines’ Laura Carter on sustainable wine and spirits: S4E7

Adelaide Hills-based Unico Zelo Wines and stablemate Applewood Distillery have long championed sustainable practices across their businesses.

Co-founder Laura Carter joins us on the Drinks Adventures podcast to discuss these initiatives, which include selection of grape varieties that minimise water use, and the creation of innovative spirits using waste stream fruit.

In August 2019 – just like Stone & Wood Brewing Company, who we featured in that documentary back in season two – Unico was recognised more broadly for its social and environmental performance, becoming the first Australian distiller to be certified as a B Corporation.

I started this interview by asking Laura how Team Unico got inspired to follow this particular path of wines and spirits production.

Laura Carter of Unico_Zelo and Applewood Gin
Laura Carter of Unico_Zelo and Applewood Gin

Help us fund Season Four of Drinks Adventures by purchasing your limited edition drink coasters here.

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Theme music ‘Sandbox’ by Rudists.

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Unico Zelo Wines and Applewood Gin with Laura Carter: Full transcript

LAURA CARTER: So Unico Zelo Wines started in 2012. And we even had a couple of businesses before that. And Unico Zelo happened to be the one that worked. And then the distillery started in 2015.

LAURA CARTER: We came into the wine industry at a time where natural wine was growing a lot and alternative varieties. There were a lot of them being planted quite extensively in the Riverland. And that was all due to the drought during the 2000s. So, we kind of drew inspiration from both of those philosophies, I guess. Minimal intervention wine combined with more appropriate varieties. And that was really the launchpad for Unico Zelo.

LAURA CARTER: And then we just incorporated a lot of those sustainability efforts within our own business and we could see that they were making products that were more interesting and more unique and more expressive.

Unizo Zelo Wines founders Laura Carter and Brendan Carter
Unizo Zelo Wines founders Laura Carter and Brendan Carter

JAMES ATKINSON: Yeah. So tell me about the Unico Zelo Wines range, and how that’s evolved since you started?

LAURA CARTER: The first wine we produced was actually Fiano. And we both already loved Fiano just as a variety, medium weight, medium acid, quite textural as well. And really good drinking in Australian climate. We are a hot, dry climate. So more textural high acid whites are lovely. And then the other thing really was that they can be dry grown and they can be dry grown in the Riverland, which is traditionally very large commercial irrigated wine region.

LAURA CARTER: And there’s a lot of alternative varieties planted there. And the fact that you can dry grown them there in one of our most marginal wine regions, it means that you can dry grow them anywhere in Australia. So we started working there in the Riverland with Fiano [inaudible 00:01:22], and then from there we started producing single vineyard expressions out of Adelaide Hills and Claire Valley. And that was really to champion that if Australia is to align itself with a new variety, that’s not Shiraz or Chardonnay because in a lot of places in Australia, particularly South Australia, they utilize a lot of water resources. And that’s probably the greatest impact that the wine industry has on the environment.

LAURA CARTER: But if you can match the variety to the region a little bit better, it requires less water, all the wine making becomes easier, you can produce wine with a minimal intervention philosophy and it all just stemmed from there.

Unico Zelo Wines Esoterico
Unico Zelo Wines Esoterico

JAMES ATKINSON: People in Australia are creatures of habit. They like buying varieties that they recognise and it can be pretty hard to be selling something to people that they don’t understand. How have you gone about that at Unico Zelo Wines?

LAURA CARTER: Yeah, so there’s a couple of things there. The first is people are comfortable also when they can pronounce something, so, there are a lot of alternative varieties and some of them are actually quite hard to pronounce. Whereas Fiano and Nero d’Avola, which Australians have now shortened to Nero, that’s already a barrier that we’ve got going for us.

LAURA CARTER: It is easy to pronounce these varieties. There are a lot of, I guess, younger people getting into wine and this whole natural wine movement and the change in labeling on the packaging, price point. All of those things play into whether a wine is approachable or not.

LAURA CARTER: And then I guess everyone’s a creature of habit, like in most elements of their life. So it really comes down to have you positioned your wine in places where people are going to be able to be a little bit more adventurous? So partnering with restaurants or bars where they might have quite a tight wine list, which increases the chances of someone ordering something like a Fiano. And really I guess staff that are happy to take people on a journey and introduce them to something new.

JAMES ATKINSON: What about the actual production practices? Do you aspire to make natural wine?

LAURA CARTER: We happen to make natural wine. That was not our intention from the start, but once you take away irrigation in the vineyard, you have a lot more stability in the grape. You haven’t compromised it from that, I guess the starting point of a grape right? Your acidity is in balance a lot more, and then when it comes into the winery, you’re not having to compensate for that by adding acidity or inoculating or adding sulfur to protect your fruit before it starts to ferment.

A gimlet made with Applewood Gin, sister company to Unico Zelo Wines
A gimlet made with Applewood Gin, sister company to Unico Zelo Wines

LAURA CARTER: As soon as you remove irrigation, everything else becomes so much easier. So no, we don’t strive to be natural winemakers. What we strive to do is match the variety to the area, and if you get that right, then everything else falls into place.

LAURA CARTER: There are producers that do promote themselves as natural winemakers, but no one’s actually looking at the sulfide levels and it’s not really readily available.

LAURA CARTER: I guess you asked about the definition of natural wine. The best example, and the one that I look to, is Raw Wine. So they have a certain sulphur level that’s, I think it’s 70 parts, 70 PPM sulphur. Raw Wine really showcases this by actually checking that everyone has sulphur levels to a level that’s appropriate for what they decide.

LAURA CARTER: The interesting thing about it is it does come from a more scientific perspective. So all the wines have actually been analyzed and you need to submit your certificate of analysis. And then your wine can still be filtered. Probably not to the degree of sterile filtration. Vineyards need to be either at least organically managed, not necessarily certified. Organic certification is actually quite complicated, but as long as there’s a sustainability approach in the vineyard, I think that covers everything.

JAMES ATKINSON: Yeah. And I mean, natural wine may or may not be a reason for someone to buy your wine as well. For me, it means that I want to know firstly if it’s a producer that I recognize. Because otherwise I can feel like I’m rolling a dice a little bit and I might get something that crosses the line into being too funky for me to be able to enjoy it.

LAURA CARTER: Yes.

LAURA CARTER: Yeah, that’s definitely an issue and probably the reason why we don’t necessarily align ourselves with that philosophy. Because there are some really wacko wines out there, because they have subscribed really strictly to this doctrine of not adding sulphur and the result of that is you can get elevated VA, you can get mouse taint.

LAURA CARTER: There are lots of taints that happen by producing a wine that way. The fix for that is actually pH. As long as you have your pH right, you’re a lot less likely to get infection. It’s when we’re growing things like grenache in a really hot climate, it comes into the winery with a four pH and you don’t want to add acid because you’re subscribing to this philosophy. You are so much more likely to get an infection and the issue is that people are actually releasing those wines. We have wines that are mousy. We have wines that have elevated VA. We choose not to release them. We release the stuff that’s really good.

JAMES ATKINSON: That’s a great philosophy to have. I’ve heard Brendan say that when Unico Zelo came out, that there were some people in the natural wine sector who were a bit miffed that you’d been able to bring out a natural wine at what was quite a reasonable price point?

LAURA CARTER: Yeah, and that’s always been a point of difference for Unico, is that they are $20 wines/ because the reality is we made Unico Zelo for us. We were uni students. We didn’t have a big budget for wine. We love drinking natural wine and we love supporting small producers, but a lot of the wines that were available were $40, $50. And that’s already an obstacle that you’re putting in front of people.

LAURA CARTER: In terms of accessibility, we knew that producing alternative varieties in Australia was already challenging enough. Trying to get someone to buy a Fiano at an elevated price point was going to be tricky. So, we just decided to release them at, I think they’re $20, $25 on the shelf. Probably a little bit more expensive in Sydney. But that’s because we wanted young people to be drinking these wines and we worked backwards from there to figure out how we could do that, how we could support the costs associated with things like making natural wine.

LAURA CARTER: The reason natural wine is expensive is, yes, because it’s more intensive to make. Hand picking is more expensive than things like machine picking. Often the fruit is more expensive if it’s organically managed. And then you’ve got these losses that you accrue along the way. Certain wines that you can’t release because they’re faulty. So the price of the, a $65 wine has a lot that goes into it. The way that Brendan and I do it is that we [inaudible 00:06:55] a distillery so that we weren’t losing this wine, this wine that we can’t release into bottle. We can always just send off to our distillery.

LAURA CARTER: We have a lot of diversity in our business that way. And then we do also have more premium wines that support the cost of these $20 wines that we produce. So it really just comes down to your business model.

JAMES ATKINSON: Are there any savings associated with the fact that you are choosing these varieties that excel in the Australian climate, in the regions where they will grow best?

LAURA CARTER: Yes. So 2019 ventures is probably a perfect example. So we’re 50% down on water. Fiano Nero d’Avola still yielded really well. So we’re not getting these massive yield losses in drought years. We’ve still got a good supply of fruit. If you have a small vintage, but you’ve still got all the costs of running your winery as you do every year, but all of a sudden you have half the amount of wine, of course your prices are going to have to go up. Because you’re supporting a lot more.

LAURA CARTER: The ability for Fiano and Nero d’Avola to yield really well in drought conditions just means that that’s less of an issue for us.

JAMES ATKINSON: So how did you embark on the distilling thing? Was it just about finding a use for these waste streams that you had through wine making for Unico Zelo Wines?

LAURA CARTER: That was one of the initial thoughts. Yeah, we can recover some of that wine and we do actually produce a coffee liqueur that utilizes that wine.

LAURA CARTER: The other thing that we were doing was producing fortification spirit for a lot of small winemakers. So the only option at the moment to get fortification spirit is you buy it in bulk. Fortification is basically the heritage of Australian wine. That’s what we were making originally until the 1950s when we started making dry table wine.

LAURA CARTER: But before that, a lot of distilleries, particularly in [inaudible 00:08:24], actually had their own stills to be able to produce their fortification spirits. So people were making single vineyard fortifieds from Australia. And there’s been a little bit of movement back into, I guess, reviving that. And we had a 300 litre still by this point, we didn’t have enough money to start making gin or anything else, but we could do fortification spirit for small wine makers so they could have the same spirit that they fortify their wine with coming from the same vineyard and producing single vineyard fortification spirit. That was a part of it as well.

JAMES ATKINSON: And then when did you decide to go down the path of doing gin?

LAURA CARTER: So, one of our first businesses was a perfumery. And that really is, that’s oils in spirit. Gin is oils in alcohol that we drink. So there is some alignment there. So gin came about because I already had a background in agriculture. So we were looking at expanding, I guess, not just using our skills in wine and grape growing, but being able to expand that into wine and agriculture.

LAURA CARTER: In terms of sustainable agriculture, native produce is the best example you can use. And gin is such a great way to be able to use that produce, aligning with our philosophy of using more second grade produce. And I guess building that industry. And gin is such a fun way to be able to talk to people about different projects. With wine, we just work with grapes and then with gin we get to work with a whole range of different botanicals and a lot of them can be Australian.

LAURA CARTER: Applewood Distillery started in 2015, and around that time there was really only Four Pillars in Westwinds that were Melbourne gin company. They were the big ones that were in the scene. And now, there’s literally, I would say probably five distilleries opening every month in Australia. And there would be over 250 now producing gin. So yeah, it’s become massive. It’s interesting that it is massive in Australia. We do a lot of work in the US and it’s not huge over there. We really are in a bubble in Australia. But what we have going for us is we have really beautiful produce. We have really good raw ingredients, which means that our gins are exceptional.

JAMES ATKINSON: And tell me about the Applewood gin. What sets yours apart from the other Australian gins?

LAURA CARTER: There’s a couple of things. One is to do with our process, and the other thing is to do with our botanicals, of course. So a lot of native Australian botanicals. And we sifted through probably a hundred different ingredients to land on the ones that we now use in our gin. Because Australian flavors, we are such an old dry country and we have evolved in isolation for 150 million years and we have some of the oldest soils in the world. So all of the plants that we grow here natively are very unique and a lot of them are actually quite bitter, so they don’t work in gin.

LAURA CARTER: On the flip side, there are some more, I guess coastal varieties or more tropical plants that work quite well in gin, so they’re very fragrant. They’ve got lots of flavor, and they’re quite full bodied. And that’s what you need in gin.

LAURA CARTER: And then in terms of process, we’re using a grape based spirit for the [inaudible 00:11:08]. And then we actually distill all of our botanicals together, rather than doing individual distillations and then blending or using a gin basket, which other distilleries might do. We actually distill everything in the still, on botanicals, we leave it for 24 hours beforehand before distillation. So the gin is quite botanically rich, it’s very full bodied and textural.

LAURA CARTER: A lot of that profile is to do with our wine making experience. When you’re looking at wine, you’re looking at not just what it smells like, but how does it feel? And what’s the finish, and what’s the length? All of those things. And that factors into how we make our gin.

JAMES ATKINSON: Earlier this year you Unico Zelo wines got B Corp certification. For those who don’t know, what is B Corp and what was involved in getting that certification?

LAURA CARTER: So B Corporation is, the full name is Benefit Corporation, and it’s based in the US. It’s a stamp of approval or a certification that you are aligning your business with, not just building profits but also working towards more positive impact in environment, community and employees.

LAURA CARTER: So looking after staff, and making sure that they have benefits. The easiest way to explain it is it’s like fair trade for coffee except for businesses. And I guess this touches a little bit on the natural wine thing is you could be producing really sustainable wine, but if you’re not paying your growers on time and you’re not paying fair prices, then are you really actually having the impact that you want for your business? B Corporation is a way to be able to check at every level that you’re being as ethical and moral as possible.

JAMES ATKINSON: And was that a big undertaking going through that certification?

LAURA CARTER: Yeah, it was massive. A lot bigger than we expected, a lot more time consuming than we expected. And I also learnt a huge amount. There were a lot of things that our business didn’t have ready and that’s why it took us about 12 months to get through it. And it will, we get certified every three years, so every year I’ll have to review it and it changes all the time. They’re always incorporating more and more, I guess, research and statistics and new standards and criteria that you need to meet.

JAMES ATKINSON: Yeah, and to my knowledge, Stone Wood and Four Pines are two breweries that I know have B Corp certification. I don’t think it’s very common in wine. What about distilling?

LAURA CARTER: Distilling? We’re the only ones in Australia. I don’t think there are very many in the world at all. I mean the challenge is that we’re producing alcohol. That’s, I guess, a bit of an ethical dilemma. But the reality is we also work with agriculture, so our ability to have positive impact in the ecosystem and how we’re growing all of our produce, which we actually can have a lot of impact by being a distillery

JAMES ATKINSON: How sustainable do you think gin distillation is generally, and what are some of the practices that you have that try and improve that sustainability?

LAURA CARTER: Sourcing your botanicals is a huge one. So knowing essentially where your produce is coming from. And as a part of B Corporation, we actually had to go out, we need to visit all of the farms that we get our produce from. Or at least, 80% of them.

LAURA CARTER: We visited our primary supplier, so our importers within Australia who import the produce for us and we need to check with them things like water use, organic certification or payment of employees, safety of employees. All of those things need to be checked. Within Australia, we have been to about 80% of our farms, which we needed to for certification. And we’ll need to do that every three years to make sure that they’re all up to the standard that we want.

LAURA CARTER: The other thing is just the operation of your business. What is your packaging made from? What’s the life cycle of your packaging? We used to use synthetic stoppers. We now use cork stoppers. We have moved to a lighter weight bottle so that our carbon impact is less, in terms of shipping. And at the end of the day, is it actually a sustainable business? Is your business going to survive? Because we can go through all of these sustainability endeavors, but if in the background we’re actually not operating our business to produce profits, then we’re not going to be around for the long term anyway.

JAMES ATKINSON: And I believe there are some products that you’ve distilled using waste stream fruit. Can you maybe tell me about those?

LAURA CARTER: Yeah, so we do a limoncello. That was the first product that we started doing and that utilizes secondary lemons. And Unico Zelo Wines has just recently released a Unico Mando, which is an, it’s actually a Sumo mandarin liqueur.

LAURA CARTER: And then our coffee liqueur, which I mentioned earlier, is a, that uses second grade wine spirit. But the inception of that is really that distilleries exist to be able to support agricultural systems. So they, in the 1800s distilleries were formed as agriculture was booming. And in years where there was excess produce because maybe they had a really good rainfall that season, a lot of it would actually be diverted to distillery. So that what went on the market to be sold, the prices were maintained.

LAURA CARTER: Of course when there’s a massive grain crop, prices are going to drop. So distilleries actually carve off a part of that so that what’s released onto the market, the price is sustained.

LAURA CARTER: It’s the same thing in like, we’ve got a lot of orchards in Adelaide Hills, we’re literally surrounded by orchards. Lemons, figs, cherries, all sorts. And so you might have a season where it’s a good season, but it just means prices are low and everyone, the farms don’t actually make that much money.

LAURA CARTER: And then the other thing that can happen is you might have a extreme natural weather event. You might have hail, you might have frost. And that can take out a lot of your crop. And you end up with a lot of second grade produce, and it doesn’t really have a home. It can be juiced. But again, the prices aren’t very high. It still needs to be picked for the plant to actually keep functioning. Distilleries can utilize that produce and especially for us, things like limoncello are the perfect product to make because we’re not worried about how the fruit looks, we just want the flavor. So we purchase all of that for the same price that they would sell their first grade fruit and then it goes into a limoncello, or a mandarin liqueur or Carter’s Coffee, whatever it is that we want to make.

JAMES ATKINSON: You’ve got some pretty interesting products in that spirits portfolio. They’ve got interesting stories behind why you’ve made them. Do you think that those sorts of stories are resonating with drinkers? Is that the feedback that you’re getting?

LAURA CARTER: It is. We have a, we’re lucky enough to have a cellar door now and so a lot of our marketing is done face to face, and that’s how we gather our feedback is literally talking to customers and this whole, I guess, farm to table thing was starting say 10 15 years ago and now that’s really translated into beverages as well.

LAURA CARTER: Probably not at the pace that I would like, like you see people purchasing organic foods, but then they might be taking a commercially produced wine. That hasn’t necessarily connected yet. The more producers that are talking about it and the more producers that are talking about sustainability and to be honest, the more certifications that are out there for people to actually have a clear definition and understanding of how what they’re consuming is made. That’s also going to be really important.

JAMES ATKINSON: Are there any products that you Unico Zelo Wines has released where you’ve been surprised by how successful they’ve been?

LAURA CARTER: Probably the standout one, and this year was the perfect example, was our Unico Zelo Wines Esoterica, so our orange wine. It’s a blend of zibibbo, muscato, giallo, and Fiano. Again, this is one of our $20 wines. It’s a orange skinned contact white that we’ve made, and it comes from 80 year old bush vine zibibbo, in the Riverland. And prior to that, that specific vineyard, the fruit from that vineyard was going into cask wine. We’ve gone in there and decided to do something completely crazy with it. We really didn’t think it was going to work.

LAURA CARTER: When we first made it, it was like half a pallet, so it’s easy to sell half a pallet of wine. And now we’re producing a little bit more, but we still sell out every year. There’s nothing like it available. In terms of wine categories and food pairing, there’s nothing like orange wine. So we can pair with things like spicy Asian fruit. Traditionally you might go to a Riesling for that, but orange wine has like this tannin and this intensity and texture to it that works really well with food styles like that.

JAMES ATKINSON: Now you guys have a pretty big innovation pipeline from what I’ve seen. There seem to be new gins coming out left, right and center with different venues, and that type of thing. What’s coming up in the next few months for Unico Zelo Wines and Applewood Gin?

LAURA CARTER: So we’ve just released our Navy Gin, which was really the thing that we’ve been building up to this year. It’s the first core product that we’ve released for Applewood since the signature gin, almost five years ago. And then we’re finishing our single botanical gin releases in December. And then in January we’ve still got five of those to go. They’ll all be coming out. So we’ve got Strawberry Wax, we’ve got Rye Berry, we’ve got Geraldton Wax, they’re all coming out. And then in terms of wines, we’ve got a few just small batch wines coming out towards the end of the year. And then, of course, we roll into the new vintage in 2020.

JAMES ATKINSON: Fantastic. Well, Laura, we might leave it there. Thanks so much for joining me on the podcast.

LAURA CARTER: No worries. Thanks for having me.

Author: James Atkinson

Journalist specialising in the food, drink, travel and hospitality arenas. Australian International Beer Awards 2017 Media Award Winner and Certified Cicerone®.

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