The Hunter Valley’s wine industry has faced its fair share of hardships in the past 12 months.
From drought to bushfires and a global pandemic, some vignerons in Australia’s oldest wine region have lost thousands of dollars in crops, events, and international tourism.
Rather than harbouring feelings of sour grapes, however, many of them have battled through and are now enjoying the fruits of their labour, with tourism returning bigger and better.
As domestic travel restrictions continue to ease, the region’s 150 wineries are welcoming greater visitor numbers than they have seen in more than a decade.
Bimbadgen Estate General Manager Belinda Stapleton, who has worked in the valley’s wine industry on-and-off since the early 2000s, said visitor numbers were currently the best they’d been in a dozen years.
“At first we put it down to post-lockdown cabin fever,” she said.
“That was the June long weekend. But it hasn’t stopped since then. In fact, if anything, visitation has increased.”
Mrs Stapleton, who manages the two on-site restaurants, cellar door sales and events centre at the 27-hectare, family-owned winery, says COVID-led lockdowns are now seeing a silver-lining for the industry.
Without causing too much distraction at the Pokolbin address, Bimbadgen has had time to complete a $1 million renovation of the property and take a fresh look at its business focus.
“COVID was like the nail in the coffin for a lot of businesses after drought and bushfire smoke,” Mrs Stapleton said.
“JobKeeper has helped, but we’re all still trying to catch up.
“The increased domestic visitor numbers really has allowed us to reconnect with local people.
“Overseas visitors tend to eat, drink, and leave, so this time has been a great opportunity for us to grow our brand locally.”
Mrs Stapleton added that what the wineries needed now was more staff.
“We’re sharing casual staff in the area to keep us all afloat,” she said.
“Now is the time for rebuilding and preparing for 2021.”
Degen Estate’s Jean Degen said, although drought and bushfires had been challenging at the start of 2020, autumn rains, successful winter pruning, and loyal customers ensured the success of her family-run vineyard, cellar door and luxury accommodation.
“Coronavirus brought our cellar door tasting and accommodation to a halt, however, our online wine sales grew and we’re hugely thankful to our loyal customers who supported us during the weeks of lockdown,” she said.
“Since regional travel restrictions were lifted, we’ve worked very hard to adapt to the new normal.
“It’s been wonderful to welcome guests back.
“We’re optimistic and, if you can take away a positive, the challenges of this year have meant we’ve looked carefully at everything we do and are trying to find ways of doing what we do better.
“It’s our third decade in the Hunter Valley and we’re as excited as the first day we began our journey.”
Briar Ridge Vineyard owner and general manager Jaclyn Davis said Hunter Valley wineries were bouncing back by winning awards and making changes.
“[This year] has proved challenging for the entire industry,” she said.
“But with some exciting developments in the pipeline and now recognition at the Riverina Wine Show, Royal Adelaide Wine Show and NSW Wine Awards, we feel confident in what’s coming up.”
Travel restrictions, Ms Davis said, have fuelled unprecedented local patronage at the cellar door.
“While the local ecosystem is showing remarkable recovery from crippling summer bushfires and widespread drought, we have just reintroduced an innovative vine and beekeeping experience, coinciding with the largest honey production our resident beekeeper has seen to date.
“This is not only significant for the hives here at Mount View but speaks volumes about the way the local area is recovering from what was an extraordinarily hard summer.”
Earlier this month, wine grape growers were invited to apply for grants to help them rebuild after the Black Summer fires of 2019-20 led to crop loss.
Minister for Agriculture, Drought and Emergency Management, David Littleproud, said the Federal Government recognised the unique hardships faced by wine grape growers.
“Estimates indicate more than 60,000 tonnes of wine grapes were affected by smoke taint,” he said.
“We know a large number of wine grape growers, though not directly impacted by fire, had their grapes rendered unusable for wine due to smoke taint.
“The $5 million Wine Grape Smoke Taint grant program will assist these growers to re-establish.”
Wine grape growers who suffered crop loss due to smoke taint but whose vineyards are outside of bushfire activated areas can access up to $10,000 to support their recovery efforts.
The grants may be used to cover salaries, rent, wages, equipment, and fuel.