Access to water becomes difficult as a vineyard succumbs to drought

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Lack of water has killed mature vines from the Bebrew Estates vineyard (Image by Marie-Claire Colyer)

As a vineyard slowly dies from drought, the owner provides access to water for the rural community, writes Marie-Claire Colyer.

BEBREW ESTATES is a small boutique vineyard in Australia’s Upper Hunter Valley. Established in 1971, it provided a welcome escape from the city and a labour of love for our family. Weekends were spent pruning, picking grapes, caterpillars and weevils. An organic vineyard for most of my youth, as a child I remember the hours combing the serrated leaves for hawkmoth caterpillars; those lime larvae that would stare with fake eyes as they wagged their spike in impotent warning.

There were years of dry weather, brittle grass, patchy rain and droughts that stretched like the far fields to the swell of the horizon. Flash floods that roared like express trains down the deep-cut banks of the creek. I remember the water flowing wave-like into the rows, undercutting the humped earth so that children could float buckets in channels that filtered out into the dam.

Then the nematodes took up residence, attacking the roots and the Chardonnay vines withered. We potted vine arms for grafting onto Ramsey rootstock. Plunging small hands into sand and clay soils, sifting it through our fingers. I recall the knobbed and ridged backs of the grey elephant weevils that began to proliferate, their larvae gnawing tunnels through healthy stock. And so, the chemicals were sprayed as the weevils burrowed. Poison sifting down onto leaves and water tanks. And potable water was carted 280 kilometres from Sydney to Gungal, just so we could drink and the vineyard be irrigated.

The tractor shed behind the desiccated vineyard (Image by Marie-Claire Colyer)

Through all this, the trunks grew thick, knotted beneath a canopy that each year hung heavy with tight-bunches of fruit. The aged aromas of spilled wine fermenting in the concrete, the tart smell of sulphur, the woodiness of oak. These are the scents of my youth.

And then the drought came once more. Sapping moisture from the land. Baking it. My father knows what it is to tackle drought head-on. Having experience of the harsh realities of living on the land without access to water, he decided to do something about it.

Facing the loss of his own vineyard and knowing the needs of the community, as a designer and manufacturer, John Colyer created a solution. Without access to local water, farmers and producers were hauling in water over long distances to feed livestock and irrigate crops. What was needed was local access day or night; bores and town water that was available to everyone, from tanker drivers to individuals.

The occasional sprig of green shouting like a semaphore amid the desolation (Image by Marie-Claire Colyer)

From necessity comes invention — water filling stations paid by credit card. There are now hundreds of machines installed throughout Australia. John believes that “access to drinking water is a right and should be available to anyone, anywhere and at any time”.

A machine has been installed in Merriwa (15 minutes from Bebrew Estates). But having nursed his vineyard for 49 years, even with three dams and the local creek, it has all but succumbed. Row upon row of grey trunks stand like a testament to aridity. Their bark peeling in strips, the occasional sprig of green shouting like a semaphore amid the desolation.

From lush greenery, the vines on Bebrew Estates are now desiccated, gnarled trunks. Before the rains, the dams became sunken plains of cracked mud and the creek flowed deep beneath the sand. Looking at photos of the rows of dead vines, it is easier for those with the privilege of access to clean water to gain an insight into the calamity that has befallen much of the rural community. Ann Stokes was due to retire two years ago but stayed with John’s company to do her bit to assist. Every week she is out on the land, providing relief by delivering these means of accessing the artesian basin.

Drought grips the area surrounding Bebrew Estates (Image by Alison Chan)

For my father’s vineyard, it is too late. The wind soughs in the once-verdant arms and the dust clouds kick up the tangled roots of parched grasses. In summer, there was earth cracked into hexagon plates and dry grit. When rain fell it wet the surface, bringing an illusion of green. There was not enough to fill water tanks or dams, to saturate the thirsty soil. There was heat and even now there is still the drought.

But John is providing a means of hope to at least provide public access to what water remains. Like the many machines being installed throughout Australia, if you drive through Merriwa now, you can see it. A slender green rectangle, perched on the side of the hill. And others, wider with more capacity, serving the lines of tankers and the solitary farmers in their utes in other desiccated states.

Perhaps it is this that we take away from the devastation of one of the many small businesses to succumb; it is in times of crisis and in this perhaps the cruellest drought on record, that we as individuals come together.

It may be that our children will work the remnants of Bebrew Estates. It may be that their own children will help dig out dead vines and plant new ones to augment the matured vines that survive. That they will snip and tie up arms, nurture with diligence as their grandfather did. That they will breathe deep the aromas of heated juice as it ferments sticky on their hands as they pick. That one day perhaps they will fill up their water cubes from their grandfather’s machine and be proud of what he’s done. As I am.

Water filling station providing 24-hour access to water in Merriwa 15 minutes from Bebrew Estates (Image by Marie-Claire Colyer)

Marie-Claire Colyer is both a writer and nature artist. View her website on

Carting water from Sydney when the vineyard was lush (Image by Marie-Claire Colyer)

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Access to water becomes difficult as a vineyard succumbs to drought

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