No sour grapes as water rescues winemakers

Published: April 4, 2007 | 5922nd good news item since 2003

JESUS turned water into wine. These days, however, some people are more impressed by those who can turn wine into water.

Many grape growers – hit by the triple whammy of the recent wine glut, followed by frost and drought last year – are struggling to make a profit.

But Darren Mazza, a grower near Mildura, has found the solution. He has abandoned his 16 hectares of vines and, instead, sold his water allocation – a resource worth more than the grapes it would have produced.

For the first time in years the 37-year-old has no bank debt.

Mr Mazza declined to say exactly how much he sold his water for. “Let’s just say I got over $2000 per megalitre,” he said, adding that his allocation was “over 100 megalitres a year”.

Mike O’Malley, the Mudgee Wine Grape Growers Association chief executive, said many growers in his region had survived only by relying on alternative incomes. “Others have gone out and hunted markets.”

Lance Smith, who owns Farmer’s Daughter Wines at Mudgee, is one such grower. His just-harvested crop is down 70 per cent. He has a third of his vineyard up for sale, but has no plans to get out. Instead, he is selling 12 hectares to reduce his workload as he focuses on exporting wine to Vietnam.

Mr Smith buffers himself from the fickle economics of grape growing with income from a cellar door on his property, and three bed-and-breakfast cottages. “If you were just selling grapes you could not survive.”

In good times, he sold grapes for $1800 a tonne. That slumped to $400 during the recent wine glut. He estimates this year’s price – about $700 a tonne – would not even cover costs.

So this year he will keep his grapes and turn them into his own brand, which he will market. “The future looks good.”

Mike Stone, chief executive of the Murray Valley Wine Grape Growers Association, said the nation’s wine grape crop could be as little as 1.2 million tonnes this year. “You are talking about a 700,000-tonne reduction,” he said, tipping it would cut heavily into the billion-litre surplus.

But the president of the Hunter Valley Vineyard Association, Patrick Auld, said prices remained low because in the wake of the glut “a lot of wineries have not had to crush as many grapes”.

Mr Stone predicted more growers would, like Mr Mazza, discover their water was more profitable than their grapes.

Danny Lee, chairman of the Sunraysia Irrigator’s Council, agreed. Letting vines wither and selling water would give growers an income without any work.

Mr Mazza, who now operates a fleet of trucks and harvesters, is finished with grapes. “Absolutely,” he said. “The [Murray] river is drying up. I don’t have to rely on the weather any more.”

Published in Life
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