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'It would have been f***ing hot in there': Lobethal winemaker James Tilbrook picks through the aftermath

James Tilbrook surveys the damage at his Adelaide Hills winery
Sia Duff
James Tilbrook surveys the damage at his Adelaide Hills winery

The moments immediately after a bushfire hits can be raw – a mix of trauma, numbness and disbelief. But there is also a kind of clarity.

James Tilbrook is still coughing from smoke inhalation as he picks through what was left.

“You’d be right to say I’m shell shocked,” he says. “We lost everything.”

The boutique Tilbrook estate winery and vineyard lay half way between Lobethal and Lenswood in the Adelaide Hills. What started in 1999 with eight acres of chardonnay and pinot noir vines became a winery and cellar door with sweeping views of the hills.

And in a matter of hours on 20 December 2019, it was all reduced to ash. I speak to him that afternoon, just a few hours after he arrived on the scene.

The fires burned at every point of the compass. Across the Blue Mountains in New South Wales, three million hectares went up in smoke. Victoria, meanwhile, sweltered through a heatwave that catalysed a blaze that would see 700,000 hectares in East Gippsland blackened in a matter of days.

At the same time, in the Adelaide Hills, a fire that started in Cudlee Creek swept out of control. In the hot, dry conditions of early summer, it quickly tore through 25,000 hectares of prime agricultural land.

James Tilbrook surveys the damage at his Adelaide Hills winery
Sia Duff
The spread of the fire can be seen across Tilbrook Estate’s vineyards, from the burnt-out vines on the right to the glimpses of green to the left that, just maybe, have avoided damage

When the immediate threat had passed, hundreds of homes had burned along with an estimated 30 per cent of wine-producing farms in the region.

At 9.30am on the day the fire came to his vineyard, Tilbrook’s wife, Annabelle, their son and the family dog evacuated to Mount Barker. Tilbrook stayed behind to defend their livelihood.

His plan had been simple: fill a water tank on a nearby hill so that when the fire came it could be gravity-fed down and used to defend the vines.

What he didn’t realise was just how quickly the fire would spread. It was already on approach as he arrived and the authorities, watching the situation deteriorate, cut the power ahead of its advance.

With no power, the water pumps that would normally push water through the system were not working. When James learned this, he immediately understood what it meant. The views of the winery were once used to promote their cellar door. From that vantage point, he surveyed the landscape knowing there was nothing he could do.

“The fire just raced through,” he says. “Our house is on a separate property near Charleston and at about 11am I had to choose between staying to defend the vineyard, or going to defend our home. I had to make that choice. The result is our house – our home – is still standing, but the vineyard’s gone. We’ve lost our livelihood.

“Once I was safe I went to help a friend with his home. I figured the vineyard was toast, there was nothing I could do there, so I might as well go help friends.”

Tilbrook Estate was badly damaged in the 20 December Adelaide Hills bushfires
Sia Duff
Tilbrook Estate bushfire aftermath - Sia Duff 5
Sia Duff

When he returned, James found the fire had “cooked” decades-old vines and torn through the old machine shop where they made their wine. It had burned so hot, the readied wine bottles melted.

“We were only a small producer, we make 1000 cases a year, but all our stock was in there,” James says. “All the barrels of our last vintage. All our wine in tanks. All the wine in the tank is still there, but it’s probably cooked too.

“I got a photo of some bottles that were sitting on top of a filing cabinet and the bottles have melted or collapsed. Someone said to me that the melting point of glass is 1400 to 1600 degrees. It would have been fucking hot in there.”

Taking it in, the grief wells inside James. They weren’t the only ones. Neighbours who stayed to defend their properties described watching the fire approach. Gum trees lining nearby road sounded like fireworks as they exploded into flame. Others have lost their homes, their businesses. Years of human thought, ingenuity and care had been reduced to charcoal in a matter of minutes.

Tilbrook Estate was badly damaged in the 20 December Adelaide Hills bushfires
Sia Duff
The blackened insides of Tilbrook Estate’s winery

There is also a certain irony to it. For years James and Annabelle had been worried about climate change and its role in disrupting the clockwork nature of the seasons. They understood how it threatened to make everything a little worse. Bushfires would be turbocharged, while torrential rain would fall in huge, soil-eroding quantities.

As individuals, they had done their bit by raising awareness about sustainability and building their operation to be eco-friendly as an inspiration to others. The goal was a winery powered by renewable energy with no carbon footprint. As James and his family may now be counted among the first to directly feel the impact of climate change in Australia, the irony is not lost on them.

“There’s something going on, anyone with half a brain can see that,” James says. “Last winter, we got maybe half the rainfall we would normally get. The Adelaide Hills is one of the wettest parts of South Australia.

“We started watering – we normally don’t start watering until after Christmas, but we started in November. In 20 years, we have never watered in November. The ground was that dry.

“We just need the whole country to be acting on climate change, because that’s going to change things.”

Tilbrook Estate was badly damaged in the 20 December Adelaide Hills bushfires
Sia Duff
Green shoots among the ash inspire optimism, but looks can be deceptive: for grafted vines, regrowth among the rootstock just means more work

With that, James has to hang up the phone. He’s been waiting for Annabelle to return, he says, and he can see her approaching. James has told her what had happened, and she’s seen the photos he posted go viral on social media, but has yet to view it for herself. Standing in the middle of it, being able to touch the charcoal and smell the acrid smell of smoke is something else.

James likens the experience to the last great turning point in his life: breaking his neck in the 1980s. That injury prompted a change of career and of outlook. This time around, he plans something similar. The couple plan to rebuild, rip-up and replace where necessary, though this is easier said than done.

Every time he looks, James’ finds something new to fix as he picks through the wreckage. There is always something to be added to the list, which is the real work, he says. The road to recovery is long and takes time. It isn’t always easy, but one day, eventually, you look up, and look around to find everything has changed.

tilbrookestate.com.au
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Royce Kurmelovs

Royce Kurmelovs

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Royce Kurmelovs is an Australian freelance journalist and author of The Death of Holden (2016), Rogue Nation (2017) and Boom and Bust (2018).

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