Swan Valley's grapes of wrath

Headshot of Kate Emery
Kate EmeryThe West Australian
Swan Valley grape grower Harry Grette among the grape vines he plans to tear out because they are no longer viable.
Camera IconSwan Valley grape grower Harry Grette among the grape vines he plans to tear out because they are no longer viable. Credit: Megan Powell/The West Australian

Battle lines are being drawn in the Swan Valley ahead of legislation aimed at safeguarding the character of the region and its $200 million wine industry.

On one side are those who believe the State Government's plan to tighten restrictions on development, including subdivision, is needed and overdue.

On the other are those with reservations, either because they fear it will stymie tourism potential or because they see it doing little to help embattled farmers being squeezed by rising rates and land prices.

Half an hour's drive out of Perth, _The West Australian _ found a tight-knit community with a diverse range of views. Rows of flourishing vines on grape grower Harry Gratte's 10ha property conceal the grim reality of a business he says is no longer viable.

This year's crop is destined for Houghton Wines but, in February, Mr Gratte plans to pull out the vines and try avocados.

"Houghton's paying us a good price given the market conditions but it's not enough to be viable," he said. "I'm not bitter with Houghton but it's not enough."

A horticulturalist with the Department of Agriculture for 14 years, Mr Gratte describes himself as a prisoner of the tourism industry - unable to expand to take advantage of economies of scale because of fast-rising land prices.

"There's two industries: one is growing wine grapes and that's not viable," he said. "The other is making wine and if you've got a good outlet for your product, you'll do well.

"We're within 15km of the CBD and that's the real problem. Its location is fantastic for tourism but it's made the land very expensive, so farmers can't expand."

Robert Sorgiovanni was the grape grower representative on the committee that helped create the existing Swan Valley planning policy, which he believes has been a failure.

"We want the policy abolished," he said. "It's an experiment that's failed from our point of view.

"All we're doing is just losing real estate value. To strengthen the policy would just be a faster death, I think, of the industry."

Swan Valley and Regional Winemakers president Duncan Harris acknowledges that it is "a changing world for a lot of people in the Swan Valley".

He believes the Government is moving in the right direction with its review of the Swan Valley Planning Act and its rhetoric that the area's character needs protection from competing development and commercial pressures.

"We're at the end of the spectrum where we'd like all the land held for agricultural purposes," Mr Harris said. "There's plenty of examples of switched-on grape growers who are setting up little cafes and bringing people in and they're the ones who'll be the survivors."

Plenty of people believe that when the Swan Valley's wineries do well everyone benefits. As local restaurateur Allain Gaudet put it: "If they're healthy and thriving, it will attract tourism to the valley."

Allan Erceg's Mandoon Estates, which had its official opening last week, is seen as an example of tourist development done well.

But in the early stages, Mr Erceg said people were not so sure about his plans, which included a winery, microbrewery, function centre and restaurant.

"You've got to be a little bit cautious in rejecting proposals that are proposed for the valley," he said.

"People don't like change." At the same time, Mr Erceg is fiercely protective of the region he considers akin to a national park.

For example, he backs preventing further subdivision that will allow residential encroachment and does not buy into the argument by some who say they want to be allowed to subdivide their blocks to leave to their children.

"You need a certain critical mass to have an actual State brand, an agricultural region and if you cut it up any further you lose that impact," Mr Erceg said.

More contentious is whether there is a place for tourism in the Swan Valley that is not agricultural-based.

In the past two years, a $1.5 billion theme park and integrated resort, a $70 million water park and a $4 million dinosaur museum have been proposed for land in and around the Swan Valley.

Ken Robinson, the man behind the museum, is frustrated by the cool reception he has received from "a pack of people that don't want change".

"I don't think the Swan Valley can last for ever on grapes and wineries," he said. "They're slowly dying out, they're slowly pulling the grapes out and eventually they'll need new things to attract people."

Swan Valley Progress Association chairman Rod Henderson is a self-confessed "lifestyler" who has been there for 24 years.

Mr Henderson is one of those who has been pushing for change and believes the existing planning regime is in dire need of an overhaul.

"If you want to do something in the valley, build a five-star hotel for example, you might as well just pull your teeth out," he said.

The former City of Swan councillor said the Government would miss the mark if its policy review did not include roads, water and easing the financial burden on growers. "If the Government doesn't get real about this, they're going to see the base of the area fall away," he said.

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