Australian Women In Wine Awards winners: Helen Strachan and Cate Looney

Australian Women In Wine Awards winners: Helen Strachan and Cate Looney

Australian Women In Wine Awards winners: Helen Strachan and Cate Looney

December 14, 2020

In our final Embrace Difference EDM for the year, we spoke to two winners from this year’s Australian Women In Wine Awards.

Founder and Chair, Jane Thomson established the awards in 2015 and said of the event: “We were concerned when the awards opened this year that, due to all the struggles the wine community were going through, it was going to be difficult to attract the high quality of talent we’ve been used to seeing in previous years. But quite the opposite happened – much to our great delight!

“Instead we were overwhelmed with incredible stories and tales of triumph from some of the best in the industry, across all the award types. Looking at the names of the finalists, and the overall winners, demonstrates plainly the formidable female talent we have right here in the Australian wine community, and how much more the whole industry needs to sit up and take notice of them.”

Pernod-Ricard’s Helen Strachan was awarded Champion of Diversity and Equality and Cate Looney, Brown Family Wine Group, Victoria named Australian Winemaker of the Year.

Helen Strachan, Legal & Corporate Affairs Director at Pernod Ricard Winemakers

“Gender equality should be a given,” says Helen Strachan and it is from this very standpoint that she uses her position of influence to drive the culture of equality and diversity along, both at Pernod Ricard and across the industry as a whole.

In addition to sitting on the management committee at Pernod Ricard for the past four years (she has worked there for 13 altogether), Strachan has been an active board member on a number of industry bodies including Australian Grape & Wine, DrinkWise and the National Wine Foundation.

Speaking with the Drinks Association, Strachan said, “Change has to come from the top.” For her, it all really starts with a conversation, or a question. This is especially important as a Board member who is committed to driving change in an industry that can sometimes be perceived as the “preserve of older males”.

To sit on a Board, Strachan said, “It gives me the ability to be at the front of the wine industry and kicking it along a bit. It can be easier to toe the line and not be controversial… But I have the opportunity to provide a different view: to challenge, to ask questions, to be there at the time of decision making.”

But as much as change might have to come from the top, Pernod Ricard’s diversity and inclusion program, Better Balance, is embedded in all levels of the organisation with Better Balance Ambassadors on all Pernod Ricard sites.

The business exceeded its 2017 target of 40 per cent female representation in leadership roles by 2020, reporting 45% female representation in Australian leadership positions in 2019 and the scope of the Better Balance program has now been extended to incorporate diversity beyond gender, seeking to improve leadership representation of people from the LGBTQI and First Nations communities as well as cultural diversity. Strachan has also been part of the management committee that has increased parental leave access and the implemented Pernod Ricard’s domestic violence policy last year.

But the biggest focus for the business this past year – aside from the pandemic - has been to implement pay equity across the organisation. Initial plans were to have this in place by 2022, but once the discrepancy was identified, Pernod’s HR team worked hard to measure the inequity and rectify it.

“We did not want to kick the can on this one. If we say we believe in pay equity, we had to implement it sooner rather than later. Otherwise it becomes meaningless,” she said.

Of Helen Strachan being named recipient of the Champion of Diversity and Equality Award, the judges said: “She has taken on so many influential positions that have enabled her to ensure the right decisions are made around diversity and equality. It is inspiring to see a senior executive of a major corporation really fighting for what is right - rather than just toeing the line.”

“I have the opportunity to open people’s minds to what inclusiveness can be to an industry that has not always been inclusive,” she says.

There seems little doubt that Strachan will keep “asking those questions, consider things differently, and still make it work” on the road to change.

Cate Looney, Senior Winemaker, Brown Family Wine Group

Throughout her career at the Brown Family Wine Group, Cate Looney has never been bored. Innovation sits at the heart of the winery and a culture of learning and the exchange of inter-generational knowledge are just some of the reasons it remains such an enduring Australian brand and exciting place to work.

As Senior Winemaker, there are many aspects of her job that she relishes, including working with the brand managers, the new development teams, the vineyards and she is proud of the partnership with the CSIRO which resulted in the Cienna and the Tarrango wine ranges.

When Looney learned that she was the winning recipient of the AWIWA, she was celebrating fifteen years at Brown Family Wine Group at a viewing party with 20 people. Looney said, ”It’s been an amazing 15 years. It constantly changes and develops…it is always exciting and new. There is always new growth.”

She says, “John, Graham and Ross all did amazing things. They were trialling screw caps years before they became normal. John showed me how to make the Noble Riesling.”

It is one of the wines of which she is most proud.

She talks about the Kindergarten Winery, literally a “grounds to trial”, like a playground for winemakers to try different techniques and to push boundaries. For all winemakers, Cate says, it is exciting and challenging, especially when it comes to the post-vintage tasting each year.

“It’s warts-and-all,” says Looney, laughing as she recalls, “It is not just for the fantastic wines. Some of them are particularly out there. I remember an external consultant saying to me: ‘Cate, you really pushed the envelope on that one. But you probably wouldn’t do it again.’”

Her love of experimentation and innovation was a standout for the judges at the AWIWA who said: “Cate is not only a passionate and talented winemaker (who won a swag of trophies in the past year) but she also shows her creativeness through utilising innovative techniques to push boundaries and respond to market demands via new product development.”

We cannot wait to see what comes next for this talented and inventive winemaker.

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