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Australian Winemakers Persevere Amid Wildfire Damage and Coronavirus

In December, James Tilbrook evacuated his winery in the Adelaide Hills of South Australia. He was building a solar-powered, carbon-neutral facility beside his 10-acre vineyard when the fires came five days before Christmas.

After the blaze subsided that evening, Tilbrook returned to utter devastation. Ninety percent of his vineyard burned, as did his winery, sheds, equipment and wine stock.

The Adelaide Hills blaze damaged one-third of the region’s vineyards, 2,718 acres in all, and affected 60 producers. Tilbrook Estate, which makes 15,000 bottles per year, was among the worst hit.

“Initially, we were in a state of shock,” he says. “People asked me what they could do to help. It was too soon. And anyway, how do you clean up 20 years of hard work, memories and dreams?”

With the help of 270 volunteers, he finally began to prune and hydrate scorched vines and pull out melted irrigation lines. An electrician volunteered for two days to reconnect the estate’s power.

Many Australian wine professionals have had a particularly hard year. As they picked up the pieces from massive wildfires that ravaged 12 million acres, they were blindsided by the novel coronavirus pandemic.

In mid-March, as most winemakers harvested, the Australian government issued nationwide restrictions. Winemakers adopted strict social distancing protocols. Bars, restaurants and winery tasting rooms closed, a tough blow to small producers who make more than half of their revenue from direct-to-consumer sales.

Many winemakers are still wrapping their heads around the vintage that never was. His vineyards charred, Tilbrook couldn’t harvest fruit from any healthy vines. The estate will produce no wine from its own vineyards this year.

“We were in the impossible situation of [asking ourselves], ‘What was the priority and what was important?’,” asked Tilbrook. “All of it. But we had to make a decision, and the decision was to concentrate on keeping the vines alive and to get them to shoot again.”

Through donations from other wineries and some purchased fruit, Tilbrook bottled and sold a small amount of wine from a makeshift tasting room for a short time.

“Our sales dropped when the restrictions first started,” he says. “And then [sales] plummeted when tastings were banned.”

Wine grapes nets
Preparing to harvest Riesling at Clonakilla in the Canberra District / Photo by David Reist

The wildfires also hit Clonakilla, which produces 200,000 bottles per year in the Canberra District, which straddles Australian Capital Territory and New South Wales.

“Over the last two years, we have been through the worst drought in living memory,” says Tim Kirk, the CEO/chief winemaker. “A lightning strike here, a cigarette butt there, and the whole east coast seemed to catch fire.”

After the fires were extinguished, Clonakilla sat beneath a haze of black smoke.

“I’m told there was one day when Canberra was officially the most polluted city in the world,” says Kirk. “This in a city celebrated for the purity of its crisp, cool-climate air.”

Like many of his nearby colleagues, his crop was threatened by smoke taint, where grape skins absorb smoke compounds that bind to the sugars and create an ashy taste.

“We sent samples of a number of different grape varieties off to the Australian Wine Research Institute for analysis,” says Kirk. “When the numbers came back, we knew we were in trouble. Across the board, our various samples showed very high levels of smoke taint.”

Clonakilla was forced to write off the entire vintage.

Then, coronavirus arrived and “put a pandemic-sized hole through how we do business,” says Kirk. Clonakilla now focuses on ecommerce and wholesale, which Kirk says remain steady.

In the Adelaide Hills, Tilbrook reports sales up 50% on his website, compared to just 5% one year ago.

Rebuilding Tilbrook Estate
Tilbrook Estate has to rebuild its facility / Photo courtesy of Tilbrook

Outside Sydney, in the Hunter Valley of New South Wales, large producers like Tyrrell’s Wines and Brokenwood have claimed losses of up to 80% from smoke taint. The figure similar for the entire region, according to the Hunter Valley Wine & Tourism Association trade group.

The wildfires burned in the Hunter Valley from October until the end of January. Adrian Sparks, chief winemaker at Mount Pleasant Winery, remembers the moment in November when two fires combined into a massive blaze just seven miles from the operation.

“That was the fire that broke us,” he says. “There was thick smoke every day for over two months. Some days, your eyes would water, people would be coughing, and there were reports it was like smoking a packet of cigarettes a day.

“Black ash and debris would fill swimming pools, the sky would be orange with haze, and you couldn’t see the mountain range from less than [1,300 feet] away.”

Mount Pleasant produces 500,000 bottles per year from some of Australia’s most treasured, historic vines. Sparks and his team declared a total crop loss due to smoke taint.

“I think the decision to not pick was probably the right one for us, being a slightly larger company with backing,” says Sparks. Mount Pleasant’s parent company is McWilliam’s. “If we didn’t have that backing or were smaller, I still think we wouldn’t have picked. However, we would have looked at sourcing other fruit elsewhere to supplement the income.”

Mount Pleasant has an extensive museum program, giving them stock to sell. With the winery’s tasting room shut down, that’s more crucial than ever.

“We have lost all face-to-face contact sales,” says Sparks. “But there has been a huge shift to our website, with the online store having its busiest month since our new website went live 12 months ago.”

Clonakilla has also turned to its catalog program. “We will take other measures such as delaying the release of our 2019 reds by six months and then bringing forward the release of the 2021 vintage to cover the gap,” says Kirk.

James Tilbrook’s small-scale operation, however, doesn’t have that option. It will likely take a minimum of two years to rebuild his winery and restore his vineyards. Operations affected by smoke taint alone can likely bounce back next year, provided life returns to normal.

“Even with all the grants, all the insurance, all the fundraising, as well as wine sales, we still are worse off,” says Tilbrook. “It’s not just the financial side, it’s the emotional toll, seeing a large part of your life’s work literally go up in smoke.”

“We live in hope that the relatively low numbers of coronavirus infections and the very low death rate in Australia are a sign that the beginning of the gradual return to healthy communal life, including a restoration of cellar door tastings and sales, a favorite pastime for many Australians, is weeks rather than months away,” adds Kirk.

As winter approaches and pruning commences, field workers, who are unable to travel from abroad or even between states, are in short supply. Some wineries are training kitchen and dining staffs to perform fieldwork.

Adaptability is part of being a winegrower, says Tilbrook. “I guess farmers have always been a tough bunch of people. You have to be, with everything that nature throws at you.”