Wine industry’s bushfire recovery made possible by funding
Last week, winemaker Darren Golding planted his final six hectares of vines replacing those burnt in the state’s devastating 2019-20 bushfires. His story and the economic recovery of fire-impacted communities is captured in a new series of videos from PIRSA.
Golding Wines after the 2019 fire Photo: Adelaide Aerial
Winemaker Darren Golding and his wife Lucy have just finished what she calls “the final piece of the puzzle” in rejuvenating their vineyard after the devastating Cudlee Creek fire tore through on December 20, 2019.
More than 25,000 hectares of the district was burned, including their 26 hectares of vines at Lobethal.
“Some vines were totally burnt, others were affected by the grass fire that raged under the vines and essentially ring barked the vines,” Lucy recalled.
“Even though their canopy might have been only singed and not totally burned, it actually destroyed the structure of the vine in the trunk, which meant they weren’t long term vines for us.”
Golding Wines lost most of its infrastructure: pump sheds, a tractor and sprayer, the irrigation system. Darren stayed to defend the stone barn housing the offices, tasting room and restaurant, and together with the CFS and neighbours held the fire back from the building by just a couple of metres.
The Black Summer saw bushfires scorch more than 295,000 hectares across the state, almost two-thirds of which was primary production land.
PIRSA worked in partnership with industry to support the recovery of communities and primary producers in the severely affected areas of Cudlee Creek and Kangaroo Island.
Together with Adelaide Hills Wine Region (AHWR), PIRSA was immediately on the ground post-fire, coordinating the Emergency Response in Primary Industries Grants for affected producers, including the Goldings, to immediately begin the clean-up and hasten the industry’s recovery.
PIRSA launched its comprehensive Viticulture Rebuild and Recovery Grant for rejuvenation and replanting. This saw $4.5 million released to those impacted, including those in the Adelaide Hills and Kangaroo Island wine industries.
This week, PIRSA launched a series of five videos demonstrating how this funding has contributed to the long-term economic and environmental recovery.
The videos focus on the impacts of the viticulture and livestock industries in Cudlee Creek and Kangaroo Island through piece-to-camera interviews from grant recipients, government and industry.
They also illustrate the resilience and strength in the communities.
“The emotional response to having grant money like that coming in, is one of relief and gratitude,” Lucy said.
“It was just one thing that we didn’t have to stress out too much about when everything else at that point in our lives was incredibly stressful.”
The fire came within metres of the cellar door at Golding Wines. Photo: Lucy and Darren Golding
Being able to start the recovery process so quickly was “really important” for the Goldings mental health, particularly for Darren, who wanted to be busy working and return life, as much as possible, to normality.
Like everyone else, their priority was getting irrigation back onto the vines to save as many as possible.
At Barrister’s Block in Woodside, winemaker Lachie Allen’s irrigation lines “effectively evaporated” (or melted) in the worst-affected half of his vineyard, which was eventually bulldozed. Everywhere else, when the fire “crept through, the lines were broken into bits”.
Allen estimates that around three semi-trailer loads of lines were removed from between the vines, none of which escaped the fire. Planted in the late nineties, the vines were in their prime.
“The vineyard at that point was in a really good position – we were getting good production, as well as some really good quality fruit, which is really important to a wine brand,” Allen said.
“Unfortunately for us, we had to start half of it again from scratch.”
Using the Emergency Response in Primary Industries Grants, the vineyards were cleaned up and irrigation lines replaced. Exactly a month after the fire, there was water back on the vines.
“That funding really helped us power through it and get that done,” he said.
“And with the benefit of hindsight, looking at the events that unfolded after the bushfire with the COVID pandemic, the work wouldn’t have got done … because everything went through the roof, whether it was cost of product or even cost of labour.
“The funding helped us ride that out to a degree, and obviously a fair bit came out of our own pocket.”
There was a gap in knowledge regarding how to deal with fire affected vines.
“It was hard, because there’s no book to pick up and have a read and the challenge was, there were so many differences of opinion in what to do as well,” Allen said.
“I mean, people were cutting vines literally the next day and other people were telling us not to do that and just get water on it.”
This was something PIRSA and AWHR recognised as they worked to support everyone and they brought in expert viticulturists for advice.
At Barrister’s Block, Allen elected to wait until July 2020 before reworking the salvaged vines by cutting them back to about 30cm above the ground and waiting for new shoots to emerge from the original rootstock.
His team were rewarded with a small, first crop off those vines last year and expect to achieve normal production by 2025. The half of the vineyard that was replanted is expected to start producing the following year.
“We think we’ve actually improved our growth back by leaving that crop there [to be reworked].
“But again, it’s all learnings that hopefully we can share and pass it on.”
With an agtech grant from Wine Australia, many of the impacted growers installed weather stations and moisture probes in their vineyards to capture a ‘live snapshot’ of climate, improve decision making and build more resilience into the industry.
The experiences of Allen and the Goldings are captured in PIRSA’s new videos, as are those of Simon Tolley, winemaker and owner of Simon Tolley Wines.
One of his vineyards was almost totally impacted, the other saw about 40 per cent under fire.
The lesser affected vineyard is also where Tolley’s home is located and, prior to the fire reaching Woodside, he turned on the bore pump and strategically placed sprinklers around the house. The fire burned right up to the sprinklers.
In the vineyards, the impact varied. In the worst affected one, which is now also home to the winery’s cellar door, around 20 per cent of the vines needed to be pulled and replanted. Another third was “cut back to the ground”.
“We were very, very grateful for the money we received, it gave us a lot of confidence to stay in business and put the hard work in, backed by the government,” Tolley said.
Being able to see the project further into the future – he is aged in his 40s – was also a factor.
“The vineyards are such a long-term return on investment and we are lucky to be young enough to be able to reap those rewards,” he said, adding that lots of work has been done over the three years.
“This is our first year where we were back to where we were before the fire.”
The grant funding went towards vineyard infrastructure, new vines, machinery and contract labour to train the vines over the posts.
“We worked pretty hard in the vineyard to make big decisions on what we were doing,” said Tolley who, like Allen, put water back onto the vines as quickly as possible and then waited until mid-2020 to decide which ones to pull or save.
“The hardest thing [about waiting] was watching other people go to work pulling vineyards out, cutting vines back, training vines up.
“I can’t describe the feeling. Anxious, I guess, was the word.”
That second guessing was alleviated somewhat by sounding out a friend whose vineyard was burned in Victoria’s Black Saturday fires in 2009.
“He didn’t offer a lot of confidence, but he was good to talk to.
“He basically said, once you’ve got a fire, you’re committed to rebuilding – you can’t do anything other than spend money and get it back working or rip it out.”
For wineries impacted by the Cudlee Creek fire, PIRSA and the Adelaide-based Australian Wine Research Institute provided smoke taint testing, which included mock fermentations.
“We basically worked out that anything going to ferment on skins wasn’t going to make good wine,” Tolley said.
“What I also learned out of it was if you could ferment off the skins and press really gently, you could salvage the wine – and I wish I did more of that, but it just comes with experience.”
His winery did manage to save around 30 tonnes of that year’s grapes, selling the resultant sauvignon blanc to a bulk wine buyer.
The wine went through an assessment panel and did not register for smoke taint. Tolley said investing in its production was “a gamble” but if it happened again, he would risk it with 100 tonnes.
He also supplied grapes for a post-fire brandy initiative from the University of Adelaide, the smoky notes being sought after in the brandy, which is set to be bottled next year.
Since the fires, all of the winemakers have ramped up their fire preparedness: Tolley keeps firefighting units filled and ready to go on fire ban days and has registered his vehicles with the CFS; the Goldings opted for steel posts rather than timber in the vineyards; and Allen has added sprinkler systems on the vineyard perimeter fences as a first line of defence.
At the launch of the videos earlier this week, Minister for Primary Industries and Regional Development and Minister for Forest Industries Honourable Clare Scriven recognised PIRSA’s recent win at the state Resilient Australia awards, winning the State Government category.
Allen also believes grant funding and coordination of support and services by PIRSA were pivotal to the region’s recovery from the 2019 bushfire.
“In all honesty, I couldn’t speak more highly of what PIRSA did and how quickly things were implemented at that point in time,” he said.
“It probably saved the entire region from becoming a bit of a ghost town and got it back on track to being a really great viticultural area.”
These projects have been jointly funded by the Commonwealth and South Australian Governments under Discovery Funding Arrangements, including the Local Economic Recovery Program.