TUMBARUMBA, Australia: Tears come to Adrian Brayne’s eyes as he talks about what little he managed to save when flames engulfed his rural property. His dog is safe and so is a small jar of soil, collected from his grandfather’s vineyards.
“It’s a bit silly. But these are the things that matter,” he says. The winemaker in the Snowy Valley of New South Wales has lost a lot over the past few weeks.
The region has been punished by a devastating bushfire season that has had local communities on edge, and under siege, for weeks. Tumbarumba, a historic timber town, found itself wedged between two large fire fronts that slowly but destructively merged together into a mega fire that on Monday (Jan 20) was still more than 332,100 hectares in size and uncontrolled.
Brayne’s 10-hectare vineyards are just a small fraction of the vast swathes of bushland and forest - as well as more than local 100 homes - that have burned since the blaze ignited last month. But for the 35-year-old, the personal loss is shattering.
“It ripped up the back of the farm, came through, took out my house and then pushed at the winery. Basically any equipment that wasn’t in the main building is gone. All my possessions, the house, it’s all gone up,” he said.
The gentle hills of eucalypts that surround his vineyards now resemble a crude and blackened moonscape. The fire came through with such intensity and heat that Brayne’s tractors have been left as piles of melted metal.
“The vineyard is heavily fire impacted to the point of being unsalvageable. To resurrect this is to start again, replant and go from there. It’s about five years for this site to be back to reproduction,” he said.
Brayne’s operation - called Obsession Wines - is boutique. He is one of a handful of cool climate growers in the area, producing and cellaring a variety of grape varieties, uniquely including tempranillo. Many of the vines on the property were planted in the early 1990s but have been completely destroyed.
He predicts that he has been left with only about five per cent of his crop. Promising harvests of chardonnay, pinot gris, viognier, and pinot noir planned for February are no more.
“Things were looking really good actually. We’d put a lot more work into here. It was a lot of time, a lot of money and a lot of love that’s gone into the site. And to have it ripped out like that, it’s pretty hard to take.”
Official wine industry groups have been at pains to emphasise the limited impact of bushfires and residual smoke on Australia’s wine production. But while only a small fraction of the country’s vineyards have been impacted, those affected have been hit hard.
In the Adelaide Hills, a premier wine growing area, bushfires in late December have left many growers reeling. In one night, about one-third of the entire region’s vineyards - approximately 1,000 hectares - were hit as some 200 different fires burnt across South Australia.
“Some individuals, businesses and communities have suffered dreadful losses and this must not be downplayed. However, the actual fire footprint to date covers less than one per cent of the total vineyard area in Australia,” a spokesperson from Wines Australia, a government body responsible for wine research and development, exports and marketing.
“The extended exposure to smoke is a concern – however the geographic spread of the wine sector means that while some areas have been affected the majority has not. Even though smoke haze looks and smells bad, the greater risk to vineyards comes from fresh smoke close to a fire,” the spokesperson said.
Grape growers throughout fire affected areas will be encouraged to have their grapes tested for smoke exposure before they are used for winemaking. But the process is currently lengthy, expensive and comes late in the season for growers, leading to potentially long periods of uncertainty before their grapes can be passed as useable. Smoke taint is damaging; the cost to the industry is assessed at about US$275 million since 2003, according to Wines Australia.
“Laboratories are already braced for an unprecedented level of testing,” the spokesperson said.
Vineyards like Cathy Gairn’s Courabyra Wines in Tumbarumba are among those unclear about this season’s harvest. A “beast of a fire” forced Gairn and her husband to evacuate their property, but the flames skirted the fringes of their property, only scorching fruit on the perimeter of the 27-year-old plantation.
“The fire was coming right over the back and we could see it coming. It was pretty horrific actually. I am absolutely terrified of fires and when we saw that coming I panicked a little bit,” she said.
“We don’t know if we’ll even pick anything this year. We’re hoping. Our income has been greatly affected. We’ve got 10 staff who are all out of work at the moment.
“That’s going to be a long road back for us.”
The worsening effects of climate change have also posed extra challenges to those in the industry; trying to reestablish vines throughout a prolonged drought will be tough.
“If we’re in drought, the whole country is just about buggered,” Gairn said. “We’ve had good irrigation so our wines are good at this stage but in the future, who knows. Water supply is getting harder and harder.”
While the federal government has pledged some financial support and mental counselling to those affected, growers like Adrian Brayne says it is local communities, under strain but in solidarity, that are helping ease the burdens for now.
“We’ve all had losses of various degrees but there’s always someone that’s had it worse than you,” he said. “Everyone is so generous and we’re all about that. Because without a community, why have a business?”
A proud man, he says having to reach out for help - for even the most basic items - has been one of the most difficult obstacles of this episode. He has no home right now and sleeps on a couch with a blanket inside his winery building.
“I’m not one to ask for help. To ask for a handout is pretty tough and probably the hardest thing was going into one of the disaster centres to get a shirt on my back. I didn’t think I’d experience that in my life.
“Not having a place, not having a sense of going home. That’s a hard one.”
Communities right through the Snowy Valley are hurting, with industry, agriculture and tourism coming to an abject halt. The fire threat continues to hang over to an exhausted population. But when safety and some normality returns to what is a spectacular part of the country, locals hope visitors will too.
“As soon as the people can come in, come. Come spend money in the town, experience what’s here. The biggest thing is the air. It’s so fresh and clean. It’s a beautiful part of the world,” Brayne said.
As he speaks, rain starts to steadily fall on the ashen fire ground. It is a small moment to savour after weeks of pain. He looks to the skies, smiling.