Opinion

Australia’s Fires and the American Response

An Australian importer discusses the ongoing bushfires, smoke taint, the 2020 vintage, and the outpouring of support from the U.S.

Shaw + Smith Lenswood vineyard. Photo courtesy of Shaw + Smith.

No wine-producing nation has had a more horrific start to 2020 than Australia. Record high temperatures, the ongoing drought, and strong winds have combined to make this among the worst bushfire seasons in recent memory.

More than 12 million acres have burned across the country. Vineyards in South Australia’s Adelaide Hills region have been hit hardest, with more than a third of all vines there destroyed. Some have lost irreplaceable vineyards: Kathy Marlin, the managing director of Negociants USA, reports that the Henschke winery’s Lenswood vineyard—some of the oldest Pinot Noir vines in the area—was destroyed by the flames. The Canberra District’s Eden Road winery lost vines in Courabyra that winemaker Celine Rousseau says “will need to be partially cut and grafted depending on the fire impact. So it’s a five-year waiting game.”

Others have lost everything: Tilbrook Estate’s entire winery and vineyard, first planted in 1999, is completely gone. David Bowley’s Vinteloper winery and vineyards, in the process of full conversion to organics, burned completely. Insurance in both cases will cover but a fraction of the cost to rebuild, report both owners. 

Smoke taint, sadly, could reduce yields further in Hunter Valley and other parts of New South Wales. Potentially affected blocks will all be sent for testing. Very high temperatures have slowed veraison in regions, such as Barossa, that are in the path of wafting smoke—which might afford the grapes some protection. “We may have dodged a bullet,” says Barossa winemaker Tim Smith. Again, only time will tell, but prolonged high temperatures can present their own vintage challenges.

Petaluma Wines property. Photo courtesy of Shaw + Smith.

Australians are a resilient lot, so it doesn’t surprise me to see the Aussie wine community uniting in the wake of tragedy. After all, the country is no stranger to bushfire disasters. One of our winemakers, Ben Haines in Yarra Valley, is donating the remaining stock of one of his 2019 wines under a special label to help his grower friends. Similarly, the McLaren Vale family winery Chalk Hill (branded as Wits End and Alpha Crucis in the U.S.) is holding a charity music event for their neighbors who suffered losses in Adelaide Hills at the start of next month.

American Bars and Restaurants Show Love and Support

As an Australian native living in the U.S. and an importer of Aussie wines, I have been overwhelmed by the questions, support, and genuine concern from the American community. Their compassion reveals the strong bonds within the international wine world and how interlinked we are. The outpouring of generosity to both human and animal causes—over a billion animals have died too, and special ecological sites, like Kangaroo Island, have nearly been destroyed—continues to flow.

Manhattan restaurant Crown Shy is pouring only Aussie wine by the glass for the next month and donating a portion of the proceeds to charity. Similar fundraising efforts are happening in New York City at the wine bar Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels and the boutique retailer Wine Therapy. Sonnyboy, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, is hosted a charity fundraiser to benefit producers on Sunday, January 26—Australia Day. Del Posto hosted a dinner on January 30. Bondi Wines in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, Covina in Gramercy, and the Hole in the Wall Cafe in the financial district were also involved in fundraising efforts. Rule of Thirds in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, hosted With Love from Brooklyn, an “Australian Bushfire Benefit” on January 26. 

Additional participating operators I’ve been made aware of—and this is just a sampling—include the Webber Restaurant Group in Massachusetts, the Dean Hotel bar in Providence, Frankie in Jersey City, and Vine Street Imports in Millburn, New Jersey, which hosted a fundraising dinner at Common Lot on January 24.

In Philadelphia, Khyber Pass Pub hosted a fundraiser on January 25, and Jet Wine Bar is hosting Aussie Wine Week, which started January 24; Bloomsday Café is hosting an Australian Bar-B-Que on February 16. 

Importer and distributor Martine’s Wines in California, is matching any donations their sales reps make to Australian relief funds. 

Photo courtesy of Vinterloper.

Australia’s Road Ahead

The smaller-than-average 2019 vintage, followed by this severely affected 2020 harvest, will mean lean years ahead for countless Australian growers. Support from the broader wine community is already proving essential for these businesses—and more importantly, for the spirits of Australian producers. And green shoots are already starting to poke through in some fire-ravaged areas.

What can you do from here? Support Australian wineries by talking about them, buying their wines, and visiting them; the range of Aussie wines available in the U.S. now, particularly in the big cities, is substantial. If you’ve been planning a trip to Australia—don’t cancel! “You can still have a fabulous Australian wine and food experience in the capital cities,” says Kate McIntyre, MW, of Moorooduc Estate on the Mornington Peninsula in Victoria. “Visit a local independent wine shop and buy some local wines!”

Or go to Wine Australia to for more information on how to support the recovery efforts.

Melbourne native Gordon Little founded Little Peacock Imports in 2012 with his American wife Lauren Peacock to help American retailers and restaurants offer Australian wine that they can be proud and excited to sell. Little Peacock works with distributors in fifteen U.S. states.  

 

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