food & drink

Australia on fire

In a matter of a few hours James Tilbrook had lost his living, his way of making a living, and everything that mattered for him except life itself


Friday, 24 January 2020, 15:25


It wasn't the first time that Australian winemaker James Tilbrook had seen his future hanging by a thread, dependent on what would happen in the next few hours.


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Over the last 20 years he had watched on three occasions as flames from bush fires came close to his vineyard, threatening everything he owned. In December, when he first saw the black smoke on the horizon, he was confident that he would once again be fortunate, but that day was to be unlike the others.

As he uselessly tried standing his ground with a small hosepipe, he soon concluded that his only option was to get out of there. No time to lock up the winery.

Later, on receiving the all-clear from the emergency services, Tillbrook returned to a devastated landscape. He remembers it as an apocalyptic scene.

"Everything was black. I was in a state of shock, just as if all my family members had suddenly ceased to exist."

In a matter of a few hours he had lost his living, his way of making a living, and everything that mattered for him except life itself.

Now faced with the cost of creating another vineyard, acquiring machinery, and waiting years until the grapes would be mature enough to make a wine that could be sold, the economic effects, probably around 650,000 euros, did not bear thinking about.

In the Adelaide Hills region a third of the vineyards have been lost, representing an economic disaster without precedent. Most of Tillbrook's neighbours have seen their livelihoods ruined, including those who breed cattle.

The questionable, but normal practice of leaving the livestock exposed to the advancing fires, meant that returning farmers had the unpleasant job of counting their dead and finishing off those that were so badly burnt they could not survive.

Questions are being asked about the fundamental viability of producing wine in what is certainly becoming the hottest area of the world where grapes grow.

But wine is huge business, and apart from consuming 30 litres per head annually, it is produced in every state in the 60 designated regions, most of them in Southern Australian locations.

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