It’s Valentine’s Day. I’m driving along Staffords Road at Lenswood in the Adelaide Hills on my way to Geoff Weaver’s tucked-away vineyard and come across a strange sight on the side of the road.
Hundreds of tall gums blackened by the bushfire all have bright lime-green leaves sprouting from the trunks. It’s as if someone has come along and decorated the trees to cheer people up.
It’s eight weeks and three inches of rain since the Cudlee Creek fire and new growth isn’t the only activity on Geoff’s property – tradies are putting up to two new sheds to replace the ones that were destroyed.
We jump in his secondhand Prado; his new one perished along with the tractor. Geoff turns down Emmylou Harris on the radio for a vineyard inspection.
This quiet little corner of the Hills looks beautiful and green.
Geoff, 70, is his bright, happy self; at peace with the world despite the fire.
On the morning of Friday 20 December, he walked down the hill and sat next to a dam in the middle of the vineyard with a lone kangaroo. He didn’t end up getting wet. “That was Plan B.”
The next day – after driving back to the vineyard before dawn for a live cross on national TV – Geoff went shopping for sheds in Mount Barker. “I can’t operate without a shed,” he says.
Throwing it away didn’t enter his mind.
“I just wanted to get on with it. It’s cathartic. Everyone needs projects and the best ones are never-ending – like vineyards, wine and paintings. I still want to make the best wine I can and just tick along. My job is to not grizzle and just make it happen.”
Hardly any flames got in the vineyard; radiant heat was the big killer. Forty-one percent of the vines were burnt or scorched. “But that means 59 percent of the vines are ok,” says Geoff, ever the optimist.
He reckons smoke taint isn’t a big issue because the fire came and went so quickly. He’s cut the tops off the vines in the worst-affected part of the vineyard.
Geoff talks about how dark it got in the middle of the day (a security light came on in the cabin), and about seeing a tractor tyre spontaneously ignite. And the smoke. He stops the car to check on a new planting of 900 Shiraz vines.
“Brian Croser thinks I’m mad,” he says.
“Everything’s ripening three weeks earlier than it did; we wouldn’t have ripened Shiraz when we first started.”
The oak arboretum Geoff planted “for the future” is still standing.
He shows me the spot where his beloved cabin once stood. It had a new hot water service; was only three showers old. A talented artist, Geoff lost 90 of his paintings in the fire.
He shrugs. “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.”
Online sales have spiked. His cricket mates at Scotch College Old Collegians emailed all their members saying, “Weaver’s in trouble, please buy his wine.”
Geoff smiles. “They all put their hand in their pocket and bought a box of wine. How lovely is that?
“It’s my responsibility to continue that spirit of generosity when I’ve got the resources to help worthy causes.”
Geoff stands next to a red-brick dunny which survived this fire and also Ash Wednesday in 1983.
“It’s the indestructable dunny, it’s a bloody ripper.”
He has to rush off for a lunch “that could last a while” with some winemaker friends.
“I could take an old Bordeaux or a Burgundy or something, but I think I’ll take a bottle of our 2015 Riesling this time.”
And no, it didn’t spoil Christmas.
“I just revelled in the fact that we had all the family around,” Geoff says.
“We had a terrific day. I jumped in the pool and taught all the kids how to play pool cricket. I’m refusing to let this cramp my style.”
The humour is intact.
“On the day of the fire, when Brian Croser came and picked me up to take me home he said I looked like Father Christmas dragged through a chimney backwards. I stank his car out for a week.”
If you’re struggling to cope with the fallout from the bushfires and the smoke taint, or the decline in cellar door numbers and cancelled export orders because of the coronavirus – not to mention the drought and low yields – you’re certainly not alone. Hang in there.
Geoff says, “I know times are tough sometimes and you’re in pain and things like that, but if you’re alive it’s a good thing. You’ve just got to stay positive. Keep believing, keep going.”
This article first appeared in WBM – Australia’s Wine Business Magazine. To subscribe click here.