2020 has handed winemakers Tessa Brown and Jeremy Schmölzer – of VIGNERONS SCHMÖLZER AND BROWN in Beechworth – an unusual combination of factors.
They welcomed their second child – beautiful! – but the summer bushfires brought about the complete loss of their first significant crop from their own vineyard, and most of the other Beechworth and King Valley fruit they typically source.
They were forced to secure a reduced harvest of parcels from other Victorian wine regions in early January. And then along came the cessation of on-premise sales due to the Covid-19 shutdowns in March. This benched probably 70% of their turnover and shifted our focus sharply to retail and website sales.
We thought we’d checkin to see how they’re going.
1. What has been the biggest challenge for you both and other winemakers in your region in adapting again in the second lockdown in Melbourne and Victoria?
Although many of Beechworth wine region’s businesses share being do-it-all-yourself vignerons, we tend to have developed quite disparate markets and outreach, so there’s probably not a huge amount of commonality in how we’ve handled what has come at us. And it’s not like grabbing a beer at the pub and nattering about it has been in the spirit of the times.
Secondly, most Beechworth vineyards had already lost their 2020 harvests to smoke taint from the Summer fires. So what do you do? You dig in like an old potato and focus on the things you can do something about. Doing a primo job with the Winter pruning, tinkering in the cellar to fine tune things since you have fewer tasting appointments. Spend a lot less money, put off any capex you’d been dreaming about for another few years. We did a small direct campaign with the first lockdown and we had our second baby three weeks into the second lockdown. We in all likelihood would not have been doing much different, no matter what was going on, truthfully.
2. You welcomed a new member to your family during COVID-19 (congratulations!) what does that experience teach you both (and your first born) during this time?
Being at home with a newborn in a Beechworth Winter felt a bit like stage four lockdown anyway. Fortunately, we still had childcare for Remi, so she had the stimulation of seeing other kids and I was at home on the couch riding out the cluster feeds with Jeremy being Dad.
If anything, pushing the financial who-the-heck-knows to one side, we’ve been able to see the positive side of being able to just stay home and respond to Viola while she’s tiny and wants to be on us, and not have to try and schedule trade work, tastings, events and travel around her and Remi.
The gratefulness mindset gets plenty of press lately and that’s how I’d apply that to us. However – the time is quickly approaching where it will be good to get out and see folk again.
3. How are the four of you and your community?
I think we’re mostly ok, and I would say the bushfires were a bigger challenge than Covid-19 is now, in a purely local sense. 2020 isn’t a year that would break us in an instant – we’ll need a few years to work out if it presents insurmountable systemic challenges to our business or not. I feel like that might be similar for other Beechworthians too, although of course there will be a spectrum of challenge.
Professional isolation is a bit of a creeping thing, we’d just love to have a few barrel tastings with mates, or lunches/ dinners where you talk and debate things and their relative merits. It’ll come back gradually.
We’ve done a rude amount of wine swaps, and are just missing the friends to crack those bottles with. The community gets on with things, I mean the Beechworth facebook group got a lil testy at the start of lockdown two when numbers were much higher, but I think most have been waiting it out with as much grace as you can expect. Being a tourism town, I’m hopeful that without international travel, folks will consider regions like ours as holiday destinations. When it’s safe to intermingle, then we should be in a sound position.
If these questions were exploring the increasing regularity of bushfires with climate change then my answers would be different however. If we start getting smoked out twice a decade in late Summer, Beechworth will cease to be much of a tourist destination and wine region.