Twelve days after record heat helped spark a wave of devastating wildfires across Australia's southern state of Victoria, milder weather is helping firefighters win the battle against the remaining blazes. Meanwhile, the wine industry is beginning to come to grips with the extent of damage to vineyards, wineries and lives.
The official death toll hit 201 on Wednesday, making this the most deadly bushfire disaster in Australia's history. A further 7,500 people were left homeless by 24 fires that have devastated more than 1.1 million acres of land. A number of arrests have been made and at least one man has been charged with arson causing death.
The forested mountain areas north of the Yarra Valley were the hardest hit in terms of lost property and lives. The Australian wine industry is mourning the death of highly regarded wine distributor Rob Davey, who perished in his home with his wife and two young children in the fire-ravaged town of Kinglake.
Bushfire damage to vineyards was most severe in the northwest of the Yarra Valley, affecting the St. Andrews, Diamond Creek, Steels Creek, Dixons Creek, Chum Creek, Yarra Glen and Coldstream areas.
"We estimate that about 350 acres of vineyards have been affected," said Yarra Valley Wine Growers' Association vice president Graham Van der Meulen. That's almost 4 percent of the 9,000 acres planted across the valley. "The impact of the fires on Yarra Valley vineyards and wineries has been far less than might have been expected."
"Regrettably, the Yarra Yarra and Roundstone wineries were destroyed," Van der Meulen said. The association is currently aware of 29 wineries that suffered damage to buildings or equipment. Punt Road winery lost a machinery shed, Domaine Chandon had some warehouse damage and Immerse winery had three accommodation buildings and a barn burnt. "Thankfully, much of the valley was unaffected and most wineries are open for business again," he said.
Contrary to early fears that vines would not survive, there was now some hope that vineyards will recover within the next couple of years. "I don't think the vines are dead, they've just been burnt," said Steve Webber, chief winemaker at De Bortoli, who had fires tear through 5 acres of vineyard. "It's only burnt the weeds, a few posts and the vine leaves. We've been irrigating and it wouldn't surprise me if the vines start shooting green shoots again soon." Roundstone vineyard, the worst affected in the valley, is also expected to recover.
Fruit from vineyards directly hit by the fires has been unsalvageable. "Tests this week on juice samples show that there is smoke character in grapes from fire-damaged vineyards," said Dr. Tony Jordan, president of the Yarra Valley Wine Growers' Association. "These grapes won't be harvested. Similar sampling from a number of vineyards across the valley that were not fire damaged showed no smoke taint." A wind change just hours after the fires started was praised for quickly clearing smoke from the valley before these grapes were affected.
The fires coincided with the start of harvest in the Yarra Valley. "Our harvest is full-steam ahead with 80 pickers and we're hand-picking the lot," Webber said. "If I thought it might be smoke-tainted I wouldn't go to that trouble."
As of Wednesday, fires continue to burn to the north and the south of the Yarra Valley, with smoke in some areas. But even though most fruit escaped the smoke, record heat wave conditions diminished the crop through leaf burn and grape shrivel. "We hand-sorted 50 tons of fruit yesterday," said Webber, who estimated that half of his crop fell victim to the heat. "The fruit looks pretty good after the heat-affected grapes have been removed." Jordan estimated 5 percent of the crop was lost due to heat across the whole valley.
In the northeastern part of the state, at Beechworth, fires have been brought under control as of Wednesday, with no reported damage to vineyards. "The fires came within five miles of Castagna Vineyards," said Carolann Castagna, the winery's viticulturist and production manager. "It was very scary, but we were fortunate that our vines were untouched. We haven't had any smoke taint at all."
In Heathcote, where it was widely reported that Rupert's Ridge Vineyard had been destroyed, it is now believed that the vines will recover, thanks to the efforts of dozens of locals who turned out to remove melted bird nets, reconnect melted irrigation lines and remove damaged fruit from the vines.
The vineyards of Shelmerdine Wines in Heathcote were saved at the last minute by a sudden wind change. "We were very fortunate," said chief executive Stephen Shelmerdine. "And I can confidently say that there has been no smoke taint in Heathcote.
For those less fortunate, gestures of assistance have poured in from around Australia and the world. The Australian Red Cross has raised more than $65 million for fire victims. Wineries have lent assistance of their own, offering barrels, fermentation space, fruit and even staff to affected wineries. A fund-raising auction started by Melbourne retailer WineStar had to stop accepting prize donations after more than $30,000 worth of wine was donated.
In San Francisco, Chuck Hayward of the Jug Shop is assisting Wine Australia to put together an auction to raise money for the victims. Among others, Penfolds chief winemaker Peter Gago has donated a 1962 Bin 60A and Wine Spectator editor at large Harvey Steiman has delved into his own cellar to contribute. (The event will be held at Crushpad in San Francisco on Friday, Feb. 20. More information can be found at www.thejugshop.com.)
Stories of generosity have emerged even from those affected by the tragedy. When Sydney wine retailer Andrew Kemeny put out a call to wineries for donations of wine to be sold at a fund-raiser, a small family winery in the Yarra Valley responded, "We have just come back from Healesville and it looks like 60 to 70 percent of our fruit is lost either due to heat damage or fire, so it's a hard time. But our loss is negligible compared to so many others'. We only have 20 dozen [bottles of] Pinot Gris left now, so we're happy to donate that. Please take our donation as we would like to help where we can."
The Australian spirit of mateship is alive and well in the midst of the most traumatic of circumstances.