Loss, Learning and Looking Ahead
Photo: Florence Charvin

[As published in May/June BayBuzz magazine.]

It’s a generalisation, but even before Cyclone Gabrielle hit Hawke’s Bay, things out in the vineyards weren’t fabulous. 

The 2022 harvest was hobbled by Spring frosts and unsettled weather through flowering and fruit set, followed by a bunch of unseasonal rain events, while the summer of 2023 (if you could even call it a summer) began wet and murky and stayed that way. Uneven ripeness and disease pressure meant winegrowers already knew they’d have to apply every ounce of skill and craft into getting good 2023 wines into the bottle.

Then Gabrielle struck.

We all know what happened, we were there. We grieved for those lost and those who lost. We cried, we shovelled, we worried, we donated, we were grateful, we checked on our friends, we were frustrated, we were hopeful. We bought the t-shirt.

So where to from here? If you’re reading this hoping for some hard statistics on the state of Hawke’s Bay’s post-cyclone wine industry, sorry, the numbers are still a silty work in progress. So let’s forget about stats for a second and think about the stories.

“Welcome to the apocalypse!” is what Kel Dixon yelled at me when I rolled up 45 minutes late for our meeting at what was, Shed 530 Estate on Puketapu Road. I hate being late, but trying to anticipate the post-cyclone traffic on the Hastings-Napier expressway is never a good decision. Yet it was my only option. Couldn’t take Swamp Road because no Puketapu Bridge. Couldn’t drive via Waiohiki because no road.

Speaking of not good decisions, I was also wearing sneakers. Surely six weeks after Shed 530 was flooded, the mud and silt would’ve dried up right?

Stepping out of my car, it’s dry-ish, but the place is unrecognisable from the newly re-vamped cellar door, restaurant and winery that’d only opened last December. It looks like someone’s just dropped a mud-bomb on it. There’s no landscaping to speak of. Outdoor tables? Gone. Beanbags? I saw two lodged in a hedge behind what’s left of the cellar door. And what’s left of the cellar door isn’t much. Walls are smashed in and the structure itself is buckled and on a severe lean.

“The bar in there was absolutely stunning,” Kel muses. “I actually found part of it this morning over in a neighbour’s orchard.” Mud-splattered pictures of how the platters were supposed to look are still blu-tacked to a wall of what’s left of the kitchen and a click-clack container of flour, a bag of cheese, cans of Selzer and half a jar of capers stick out of the mud beside the kitchen window.

Kel couldn’t get 4wd access to Shed 530 to survey the true extent of the damage until 4 days after the cyclone, because even by Thursday 16th the water was still up to the wing-mirrors on his ute. “When I did finally make it out and stepped into the sludge, my boots got stuck. So I purposely bought new gumboots that were too small for me so they wouldn’t get sucked off while I was trying to walk around.” He looks sideways at my sneakers as we pick our way around the property.

“You’ve got to admire the force of nature. It’s bloody unbelievable,” he says as we pass what I thought was a horse float sticking out of the silt. “Nah, it’s a coffee caravan,” he says. The property is strewn with giant willow trees wrenched from the riverbank Lorkinnearby, and a 17m long power pole lies across what was the driveway, waiting to be collected by Unison. “The Unison guys have done an amazing job of replacing (the poles) because most of them disappeared.”

Loss, Learning and Looking Ahead
Kel Dixon Photo Florence Charvin

The devastation is so confronting.

What’s also confronting for Kel, is that he and his team were just about to launch into a brand new phase of life for the property (it used to be called Moana Park) with visitors flocking to sip their wines and eat hearty Hawke’s Bay food under the shade of the historic oak trees whilst looking out over their neatly manicured vineyard. As Kel and I squelched our way around the wonky winery I couldn’t help kicking myself for not visiting back then. I assumed I’d have loads of time to enjoy it and was hoping to book a romantic afternoon with my husband for our March 11th anniversary.

I wasn’t the only one with love and affection on the brain. “The Friday before the cyclone I’d just had my shiny new effluent tanks installed,” Kel’s voice catches. Eyes mist. “This place was kitted out so beautifully, I am absolutely gutted. Everything was ready to go, everything was tickety boo. The new barrels were here, all I needed was some grapes and then nature said f**k off.”

Inside the winery brand new barrels are piled like large, wooden cake sprinkles around a forklift glued to the ground by a metre of silt. There are some barrels full of wine from last year still sitting on wobbly racks, but Kel doubts he’ll be able to bottle any of it.

To make things extra-awesome, Kel and his wife were buying a house at the time and were due to settle the day after the cyclone. But no power meant transactions didn’t occur on time. “The lawyers were getting really antsy but what could we do?” Kel had even bought a new fridge, a new washing machine, new wine fridge and a brand new table for the new house and stored them – you guessed it – at the winery. “I said to my wife, I’ve got a space at work babe, I’ll just leave everything here!”

Plans are being made to cut tracks through the silt to get to his large tanks which are undamaged, but have floated away into nearby gullies and fields. I can see them if I squint. 

Kel then points out a 10.5 tonne container holding a commercial kitchen inside which has been turned upside down and pushed over 50 metres from the concrete pad it was sitting on. “It’s toast,” he shrugs. “Maybe we might be able to salvage something in it, but we won’t know ‘til we get it upright.” The water came through with such speed and force that a couple of Shed 530’s neighbours were lucky to escape with their lives thanks to the quick thinking of another neighbour who’d been monitoring the rising waters with a drone. Kel showed me the footage on his phone and it’s mindblowing.

I asked what he was doing each day and he said mostly just waiting for insurance news but also keeping relatively busy with vineyard stuff. Sadly, of the four full-time employees, Kel had to restructure one out of a job. However another was redeployed to a different part of the business and another was fortunate to get work with another winemaker. 

The vineyard, save for just nine strainer posts, has literally been washed away. Shed 530 does bring in fruit from other sites all across Hawke’s Bay, but without a winery they’ve had to use the force majeure clause on some of their contracts. Thankfully Kel’s been able to sell some grapes to other winemakers. “They’re taking fruit where it’s available and paying good money which has really helped us financially and we’re very grateful.”

Shed 530 is owned by the Global Endeavours Group and despite the ‘apocalypse’ they’re super-enthused about rebuilding and are looking 50 years into the future. “We also have a bottling company and a distribution arm, so the support structure’s there to create something new and exciting,” Kel explains. And in twelve months time? “There’ll be a winery operating.”

Interview over, I congratulated myself on managing to keep my sneakers clean. Another not good decision. Taking my eyes off the ground to wave goodbye to Kel, I stepped forward and my left foot kept going. Through an inch-thick layer of silt and deep into a large, rotting pumpkin. 

While washing my sludgy shoes and feet I wondered what we, as a region can do to help our wine folk get back on their feet and roar forward? 

Loss, Learning and Looking Ahead
Photo Florence Charvin

“There’s no simple answer to that,” shrugs Steve Smith when I asked him the following day over coffee at the Smith & Sheth offices in Havelock North. For a master of wine, his coffee skills that day were average, but I let it slide. “My first vintage in Hawke’s Bay was Cyclone Bola 34 years ago,” he offers. “I’ve seen the impacts of severe cyclones on vineyards first hand.”

Steve sat on a NZ Winegrowers panel in Gabrielle’s immediate aftermath. The recommendation they came up with (which was quickly acted on) was for MPI to provide money for business advice. “A whole advisory team came in very quickly and met with people that had physical damage to vineyards and I believe MPI paid their bills.” 

Some people have lost their assets entirely and may not be able to get them back and Steve believes for many, the hardest thing will be distancing themselves from rebuilding their baby because in some cases, the sad but sensible thing may be to not do that. “The question they need to ask themselves is, do I have a viable business after going back and reinstating everything? Is my land worthy of what I need it to do? Or am I too emotionally attached to this?” 

Taking the emotion out of it is the tough part. “Winery or vineyard ownership is usually driven by passion and right now people are worrying about daily challenges and they’re also worrying about what the future looks like, which uses two different parts of your brain,” he adds. “What happens in times of stress, like we’re in now, is your brain can’t control which thing it’s thinking about. The psychology of fixing this comes from the army, where they have red and blue teams. The red team is the one that’s out there doing the damage that day, while the blue team’s planning. So they each don’t have to worry about the now and then stuff,” Steve explains. 

Even small entities, like husband and wife businesses should try to find a way to set their red and blue teams. To try and separate the challenges. “People become exhausted doing both, and you can’t make proper decisions when you’re exhausted. Whatever decisions you need to make, take some time to make them and don’t try and make them on your own. Instead try to get really, really good advice,” Steve believes our business community has an important role to play by getting in, helping out and not charging for their time. “The Chamber of Commerce should take the lead on that by encouraging their experienced members to stand up and help affected people move forward. To be that business professional that’s by their side, assisting them with future decisions.” Steve believes the banks should also step in because they have a huge responsibility. “They have access to excellent people in their networks who could be offering their time, professional services and experience to those in need,” he urges. “And it might well be that some local customers take their insurance money and run, meaning the banks only get 70% of what the debt is, but so be it.” 

If the business community shared their knowledge with those in need for free and the banks helped lessen the financial stress, that’s a great place for recovery to start. 

“The other thing to understand, and this is sort of hard for people to reconcile,” says Steve, “is it’s best for everyone if the rest of Hawke’s Bay is functioning really well. So it’s important to dismiss survivors guilt – i.e. ‘I can’t be succeeding because my mate down the road is suffering’,” he says. “You’ve gotta put that aside.” 

Steve also agrees that every local person should be encouraging their friends and family to visit Hawke’s Bay. “Come and stay, get out and go shopping and spend some time amongst the restaurants, cafes, cellar doors and art galleries,” he urges. “The rest of New Zealand needs to see that Hawke’s Bay is still rocking, it’s still here, and most of it’s still in good nick.” 

So that means ramping up our enthusiasm, our ambassadorship and our business activities to get Hawke’s Bay humming. Book those weddings, those family reunions, business meetings and conferences. “Giving nice donations to flood fundraisers, dinners, or charity events is fantastic, but the best thing is to actually come here,” Steve says. 

But what if this happens again? “Gabrielle happened because we’re in the third year of a La Niña weather pattern (where severe storms can happen due to temperatures being warmer than normal in the South and cooler than normal in the North) which is really unusual and that made us predisposed to a significant storm event,” he explains. “What climate change brings with it is the risk of them being a bit more intense and happening more often. But I think we’ll soon be back to an El Niño system (where stronger, more frequent winds from the West come in summer and encourage dryness in eastern areas) and that risk will disappear for a while.” 

And, some more good news. There’s no reason why, with the relatively dry March and April, that 2023 could not in fact, produce some really good red wines. 

While every local winery was negatively impacted by the weather in 2022 and early 2023 (to different degrees), everybody wins if people buy Hawke’s Bay wines. “Just buy the booze,” says Kel. “I don’t even care what they do with it!” he laughs. “That’s what needs to happen.” 

So if you’re out on the town and looking to choose a glass or a bottle, maybe make it one from Hawke’s Bay instead of one from overseas. If everybody did that, it’d be excellent for the health and heart of our region. 

STORIES FROM THE GABRIELLE GRAPEVINE…  

No story caused more gasps than the shocking damage unleashed on Petane Wines and Zeelandt brewery owned by Philip and Christopher Barber in Esk Valley. Christopher’s harrowing rooftop escape with his young family and the heartstoppingly emotional reunion with his brother Philip was front page news, as it should have been.

Then images washed across our screens in the days following the disaster, of the brothers chainsawing their way into winery buildings to rescue, wash and sell any surviving silt-crusted bottles, of them digging out treasured Kingswoods and VW Combis. Across the road, Chef Greg Millar from Valley d’Vine restaurant at Linden Estate gave harrowing Esk Valley updates during radio interviews when phone connections allowed. Linden’s beautifully upgraded site is now silt-clogged and Greg’s restaurant closed until further notice.

Ben Poulter, whose family bought the much-loved Sacred Hill business back in 2021, lost one of their most treasured vineyards. It sat right at the confluence of the Mangaone and Tutaekuri rivers, two usually pretty, tree-lined trickles that on Feb 14th roared down from the hills and became raging, metres-deep monsters. Nothing stood a chance at the point where they met, not even the bridge to the old cellar door. “It’s not a vineyard anymore, it’s essentially just a pile of sand and a pile of trees.” 

Ben’s adamant they’ll rebuild “because that’s just what we do, but it’s going to be very expensive and a lot of work,” he said in an interview for the Hastings Leader. Their Riflemans vineyard, atop the famous White Cliffs (a New Zealand heritage vineyard site), was completely cut off. Ben believes they’ve lost around 20 hectares of vines and 200 tonnes of grapes. 

Alchemy, one of Hawke’s Bay’s lesser-known wineries and best-kept secrets, is owned by winemaker Neal Cave. Since 2010 he’s been crafting chardonnay, rosé and merlot-based reds from vines which grow (grew) on Omarunui Road, near Puketapu. “We’ve had extensive damage to our vineyard and home,” offered Neal in a recent email. “Probably not in a position to talk about much yet.” Like so many others, at the time of writing he was still waiting to hear from their insurers about their options to move forward. “Haven’t got much wine to sell at present either, as my clients have been on an ordering spree over the past month to support [me].”For Neal at least, that’s some positive news. 

I went to order something online and the words “The vineyard is blessed with the perfect site. A marriage of soil from an old river floodplain” still sit, with heartbreaking irony, on Alchemy’s website.

Radburnd Cellars in Bayview was badly flooded, with winemaker Kate Radburnd making the decision to can the 2023 harvest and to try to find a new home for the winery. It would have been her 41st consecutive vintage. And if it weren’t for Cyclone Gabrielle wiping away any chance of harvesting grapes or making wine for John Hancock, of Hancock & Sons, he would have been launching into his 51st consecutive vintage. Now he’s not sure he’ll ever make wine again. 

Followers of their active, post-cyclone, Instagram account will have witnessed Peter and Sharron Robertson and their team at Brookfields in Meeanee, working non-stop to rescue what bottles they could, and to repair the badly flooded winery to where it could process what fruit they might salvage come harvest. The first grapes (pinot gris) arrived on March 25th and they haven’t stopped. “The hardest thing for Mum and Dad was 19 days without power, that almost broke them,” said Rachael, their daughter. “It’s incredible how hard Dad’s been working for someone starting their 46th harvest.”

And there are silver linings. Peter’s apparently very happy with how the reds are looking and, by the time you read this, it’s hoped their cellar door and restaurant will be back in action after their kitchen was badly damaged. 

Now that’ll be a good news story. 

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