‘Growing up on a cane farm and losing harvests to cyclones had me mentally accustomed to loss,’ says winemaker and grape grower Tessa Brown of Vignerons Schmolzer & Brown. ‘So I’m just putting one foot in front of the other and getting on with things. I’m having a bit of fun, trying things differently and looking at the opportunities that arise from all this.’
In Australia, the summer of 2019 through 2020 is colloquially known as ‘the black summer’. More than 19 million hectares of land were burnt, with devastating impact on human and animal lives, and destruction of flora, trees, plant life and farming crops. The fires largely occurred in December and January: peak time for Australia’s grape harvest for wine production. Producers in New South Wales, and in the northern wine-growing areas of Victoria, have almost uniformly been impacted by the blanketing of bushfire smoke that results in ‘smoke taint’ – a defect that causes an acrid flavour profile that can emerge during fermentation or remains latent in wine. It renders wines smoky and, for many, undrinkable.
The smoke taint at Vignerons Schmolzer & Brown was ‘incredibly high,’ says Brown. ‘The disappointment was immediate, but then a survival mode kicked in. We’ve taken positive steps to move forward and work with our community to figure things out.’
Brown and her partner, Jeremy Schmolzer, bought their property, Thorley, in December 2012. The amphitheatre-shaped farm is fringed by native bush in a verdant pocket of Beechworth, Victoria, a prestige wine-growing region around four hours’ north of Melbourne. The duo almost immediately undertook the painstaking task of planting vines on their site, with first grapes harvested in 2015.
‘ was to be our first significant harvest from our property,’ says Brown. ‘We’d built up a respectable volume of grapes, and this season was shaping up to be near perfect for quality, too.’
After the fire, says Brown, ‘I went into a bit of a cave.’ But she realised she needed to act fast and become more agile. ‘So we began talking at length to others in the same situation, assessing damage, then spoke to friends in other regions where smoke hadn’t hung around. It was a time to quickly work out the alternative measures.’
Brown says she worked hard on bookkeeping and looking at cash flow, before starting to seek alternative sources for fruit. ‘There was no reason to abandon ambition,’ she says. In her community, she broadcast some of her successes and became a sounding post for many not only locally, but nationally, through conversations online.
Grapes were offered from other regions, and winemakers provided advice on how to handle fruit from their vineyards. ‘Initially, there was trepidation in touching fruit from regions unknown to the winemaking process,’ Brown explains. ‘A readjustment in mindset, and a personal questioning of what would I have done differently with the resources. In discussion with other winemakers, I tried to reframe the difficulties we were facing as something to enjoy intellectually and an opportunity to try different things.’
Brown oscillates between the heartbreak of loss and the optimism found through her outreach of advice to others. ‘Take each day at a time,’ she says. ‘If you want to fall in a heap that’s fine. But get up the next day and go forward with your thinking. Look to other avenues but narrow things down. Communicate as widely as possible – solutions sometimes appear. Have a go.’
Most importantly, Brown offers a takeaway missive, and focuses on her messaging that future planning and hindsight work in hand-in-hand. ‘I have always been told, and learned through farming, that preserving goodwill in the community, local and further afield, is a good measure,’ she says. ‘You can lean on it when you need it, and keep some in reserve for others when they might be having a shit time.’
After acting quickly and making big decisions, often there’s still a lot of work to be done. Moving forwards, watch things and tweak accordingly.
Find more stories about how to lead in a crisis.