No hiding the sustainability mission

Former AFL footballer Richie Vandenberg is taking Hidden Sea Wines into uncharted waters in sustainability outcomes by aiming to remove the equivalent of one billion plastic bottles from the ocean by 2030.

Former AFL footballer Richie Vandenberg is taking Hidden Sea Wines into uncharted waters in sustainability outcomes by aiming to remove the equivalent of one billion plastic bottles from the ocean by 2030.

Richie Vandenberg is a man with a purpose. He is one of the two co-founders of The Hidden Sea. Vandenberg is a 4th generation grape grower with over 25 years in his family enterprise. Originally from Mildura in northwestern Victoria, he is now based on the Limestone Coast of South Australia.

“While playing AFL in Melbourne, I developed a passion for wine, particularly premium wine,” said Vandenberg. “I liked some of the cabernets coming out of the Coonawarra region. It also turns out that one of my ancestors, Ari Vandenberg, was shipwrecked off Robe in the 1850s. Our vineyards are now in Guichen Bay, creating a family tie to the region. I thought getting a winery on the Limestone Coast was a great opportunity, and we took it.”

As an avid ocean kayaker, kite surfer, and paddle boarder, he’s seen firsthand the destruction plastic waste has brought to ecosystems worldwide. The Hidden Sea mission was born from this experience. For him, it is about living with a higher purpose. When he wanted to start the Hidden Sea, Vandenberg knew it would be more than just wine.

“Justin (Moran, fellow founder) and I understood the importance of building a brand with purpose,” Vandenberg said. “We didn’t know collectively what that purpose would be, but we knew that’s what we wanted to build. That evolved because of where the Limestone Coast is and where the winery was situated. Coonawarra is effectively on the old seabed, which is the hidden sea. There’s the story of the whales, where you’ve got 26-million-year-old fossilised whales sitting below vineyards. We had this real provenance story tied to the ocean.”

Moving from a purpose to sustainability

Both Vandenberg and Moran are lovers of the ocean. Due to the amount of time both men had spent in the sea, they both learned more about the issues with the ocean.

“Over time, we started supporting several ocean-based charities, including the Lonely Whale Foundation’s Stop Sucking campaign. We really wanted to do something tangible that could galvanise a tribe of people around a goal,” said Vandenberg.

That goal is to remove the equivalent of one billion plastic bottles from the ocean by 2030. For every bottle of the Hidden Sea purchased, their partners remove and recycle ten plastic bottles (or their equivalent) from the sea. Since July 2020, they have removed over 22 million plastic bottles from the ocean through their partners.

Vandenberg acknowledges that he cannot pick and choose what they are taking from the ocean. However, he knows the importance of what he is talking about.

“We are not just taking plastic bottles from the ocean; we are taking any plastic our team encounters.”

“The reason we talk about plastic bottles is that people understand what a plastic bottle is. It makes the messaging very simple and raises awareness far more effectively. At the same time, talking about one billion plastic bottles shows a tangible volume. People understand that it’s a vast volume.”

The ReSea Project is one of their primary collection partners. It has 47 fishermen that collect plastic from the ocean every day. Those numbers are tracked through blockchain technology, where it is bagged, tagged, and sorted. All that plastic is recycled and reused in Indonesia. A recent development is that no single piece is winding up in landfills.

In terms of what they are collecting from the ocean, it is primarily plastic bags and plastic bottles. Despite the growing bans on plastic straws worldwide, this has yet to occur in Indonesia. As a result, the fishermen are also collecting a lot of straws.

How else does Hidden Sea focus on sustainability?

When it comes to waste, Vandenberg has worked hard to create a sustainable business, not just financially but environmentally. The entire winery is solar-powered and will receive its carbon-neutral accreditation soon. He is incredibly conscious of eliminating or minimising waste throughout the production process.

“We recycle all the wastewater on-site. Any water we cannot recycle goes out to water the blue gum forests behind the winery,” said Vandenberg. “At the same time, we are very conscious of how we use water, given that making wine is water-intensive. We have changed how we clean the bins and wash the tanks. We’ve introduced crossflow filters that require a hell of a lot less water.”

Vandenberg pointed out numerous areas across their winery where they look at waste streams. He cites the example of grape marc, the solid waste from pressing grapes into wine.

“We turn that grape marc into either feed for the animals or organic composts,” he said. “It’s not just about collecting plastic bottles; we have a whole sustainability philosophy. With the support of Sustainable Winegrowing Australia, we are educating ourselves on how to be more sustainable. We reflect on the last 12 months and ask if we have improved our sustainability credentials.”

Its glass bottles can be recycled infinitely, with the labels laser-printed onto them. The water-based organic inks are burned off in the recycling process. They use recyclable and sustainable cardboard cartons that are 100 per cent recyclable after use.

Sustainable Winegrowing Australia

Vandenberg talked about the role that Sustainable Winegrowing Australia can play for consumers and wholesalers. He believes they can be vital in creating a nationally trusted standard.

“They are making it easy for everyone to understand a standard to adhere to,” he said. “I think it’s an essential element of sustainability in our industry. It’s very proactive, which I commend the industry for.”

Sustainable Winegrowing Australia has more than 1,100 members, with over 270 certified members. Vandenberg believes that most vineyards across Australia are seeking certification, but it will take time and labour for the certification process to be complete.

“The most important thing for them right now is to get a weight of numbers on board, which is what they are doing. Once they’ve done that, they need to own that space and develop the trust in the mark,” Vandenberg said.

Hidden Sea has grown rapidly in the past three years. It has several other products to look at while it remains in its proof-of-concept phase. Vandenberg had to find out if enough consumers cared about removing plastic from the ocean.

“We feel like we have proven that over the past three years, we have gone from 3,000 to 90,000 cases. The consumers are speaking with their feet or their wallets. Clearly, people get sustainability, and we give people a choice at the purchase level.”

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