207: Managing Catastrophic Loss in Vineyards: Lessons from Cyclone Gabrielle in New Zealand

Extreme weather events can be devastating to a winegrowing region's infrastructure, business, and in the worst-case scenarios, human life. Emma Taylor, Viticulture Consultant with Emma Taylor Viti is part of New Zealand’s Cyclone Gabrielle recovery team, helping winegrape farmers in the Hawke’s Bay region.

When the cyclone hit in February 2023 just before grape harvest, flood waters reached over the top of many vineyards destroying bridges, leaving behind massive silt deposits, uprooting entire plantings, and cutting off power for one week. Growers had to evaluate how to handle their losses based on total damage, potential fruit contamination, and vineyard lifespan. A vital component of the recovery effort is the knowledge and experience of viticulturists who farmed in the region during Cyclone Bola in 1988.


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Craig Macmillan  0:00 

And with us today is Emma Taylor. She is viticultural consultant with Emma Taylor Viti in New Zealand. And today we're going to be talking about the terrible impacts that cyclone Gabrielle had on the North Island of New Zealand. And thank you for being your guests taking time and sharing your story with us.


Emma Taylor  0:14 

Nice to meet you and talk to you, Craig.


Craig Macmillan  0:16 

First, I want to express my sympathies to everyone in the North Island in New Zealand overall for the loss of life and tremendous devastation of property. A lot of folks were unhoused injured as well as fatalities. And we're all very saddened by the event.


Emma Taylor  0:33 

Thanks for that. It was it was quite biblical in nature, we call it you know, it was it was quite extreme.


Craig Macmillan  0:39 

Yeah. It was quite extraordinary. Well, first of all, what was the cyclone? What was what was the story there.


Speaker 2  0:45 

So it was an extratropical cyclone. That's common to New Zealand that we do get so tropical cyclones form up in the higher in the Pacific normally around the islands. By the time they get to New Zealand, they've normally decreased in intensity to the point that they are now regarded as extratropical cyclone. And that is the same with cyclone Gabrielle when the MetService started bringing up you know, they bring up these tropical cyclones in this hour, there's one to watch. And I remember when I first heard the announcement that tropical cyclone Gabriel was forming. And I remember the way that the MetService were talking about it. And I remember thinking this sounds like it could be a biggie you know, it's been a while but it's the way that they're talking about it. They're just preparing us in a slightly different way to the other extratropical cyclones. Cyclone Gabriel, it came on our horizon, you know, as one to watch maybe about a week to 10 days before it landed.


Craig Macmillan  1:39 

Okay, so there was people were aware of something was coming.


Emma Taylor  1:43 

Something was coming. Yeah.


Craig Macmillan  1:44 

How close to harvest were vineyards when the cyclone hit. In


Emma Taylor  1:48 

New Zealand in the last few years, we have been having our harvest seasons coming earlier in earlier that a climate change thing. Most likely they I used to say that harvest and Hawke's Bay started a little bit at the start of March, but you're really into it by the 20th of March. And by the 20th of April, you're over. And then you'd have a few rats and mice after then yeah, so that the 20th of March the 20th of April was hardest in the last few years. It's that chunk of time has been getting earlier and earlier to the point that in the 2022 Vintage everything was picked before we even got to April however, the 23 Vintage I remember commenting, maybe only a week before topical cyclone Gabrielle came that it looked like we're a bit more normal. And instead of a February start to have us I was hoping for a March start to harvest. However, you know, Gabrielle came on the 14th of February and we were harvesting nine days later.


Craig Macmillan  2:47 

That's what I was gonna ask was how close to harvest were vineyards. When the cyclone hit? What are the varieties that are most common in that area?


Emma Taylor  2:54 

The largest planted variety in Hawke's Bay is Sauvignon Blanc and Ginsburg however, that's because New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc right microclimates of Hawke's Bay and Brisbane and due to their warmer than what Marlboro is in both regions, there's a decent amount of Chardonnay, and Hawke's Bay, especially, we have some red variety. So we have Syrar and Merlot, Cabernet, that are grown, especially on the government gravels, which is a very stony appellation that we have here mainly Sauv Blanc, good amount of Chardonnay, and then the other little bits and pieces.


Craig Macmillan  3:27 

Now, what I'm amazed by is that you mentioned you were harvesting nine days later. So there were vineyards in some of the harder hits areas that could still be harvested.


Emma Taylor  3:35 

When the cyclone hit it was the range of destruction based on where you were and how close to a river or how close to a stop meant that breached you. The vineyards that were harvested initially were the ones that might have been flooded, but the water receded pretty quickly in most instances. And we were able to get in and harvest though. So the fruit did not like being submerged in water. Yeah.


Craig Macmillan  4:01 

No, not at all. In the floodwaters if I understand in some cases reached as high as the fruit zone.


Emma Taylor  4:07 

Oh, yeah. And over over the top of vineyards. Yeah.


Craig Macmillan  4:11 

Wow. Oh, my God, and then it receded quickly. And then obviously there will be an issue with getting in after that.


Emma Taylor  4:19 

Yes. And there's two kinds of issues with getting and there was access to the vineyard and the sense that in some instances this a few were along the Ngaruroro river. So there was three main rivers that you're probably going to hear me talk about in this the Esk valley, the to Tūtaekurī and Ngaruroro, and the Hawke's Bay, we have more vineyards along the Ngaruroro than anything, any of the other two, which is fortunate given the events that happened but if you were along the Ngaruroro and you were flooded, you didn't have a silt deposit, which is what you know, then became something that people had to manage with. So if you were along the Ngaruroro you were flooded, and then the water receded, and so your issue was accessing a Vinyard. which has been completely flooded. And so you can imagine there might be a little bit of mud and stuff like that, although, to be honest, a lot of alluvial gravels in that area as well, but also accessing the vineyard because a lot of the bridges had been washed out.


Craig Macmillan  5:12 

Oh, right.


Emma Taylor  5:14 

In the region like 60 bridges or something had or had been washed out. And clearly the priority was to get the bulk of people moving, rather than access to a remote vineyard. That makes sense. So that became an issue for people as well. The infrastructure damage.


Craig Macmillan  5:30 

I'm guessing, because we're talking about New Zealand, we're talking about machine harvesting.


Emma Taylor  5:34 

Yeah, that point was predominantly machine harvesting. I mean, there was there's always a little bit of hand harvesting, that happens. And there was there was a hand harvesting that happened on blocks that have been flooded. I'm not sure that there was to tell you the truth, I'm sure. I think it was all pretty much machine harvested.


Craig Macmillan  5:50 

What do you do with fruit that has had floods, silts contact? That's that's something that I have never imagined in my wildest nightmares. Can you tell us a little bit more about that? Because my understanding is that some that at least some of that fruit was usable?


Emma Taylor  6:08 

Yes. For a lot of people, you have to realize that a lot of people that were affected were growers, like ma and pa growers, we'd call them you know, private growers. And they have spent all their money, you know, they have, you know, what the seasons like you spend all your money on or you're pruning, you're spraying you're mowing your hand work. And they were in that point, just before harvest where you're not spending any money, and you're just waiting for the grapes to ripen. And then harvest until you get your paycheck for a lot of our members and some of our wine companies. The motivation was just to be able to give these growers some income so that they could continue. Yeah. So you know, they've clearly lost some of their crops. And so how can we have this what we can it's something that's been flooded the big thing that for other horticultural products that you have to worry about is E. coli contamination because you don't know what's in the floodwaters. Fortunately, because we're making wine, there's lots of international research that shows that E. coli dies in alcohol, MPI, which is our Ministry for Primary Industries over here they released with New Zealand winegrowers, they released a statement that said, you could have as grapes for the production of wine, as long as you had assess the risk. They were worried not only about E. coli, or, although it wasn't a big issue, but agro chemical contamination because the floodwaters had just destroyed chemical sheds on vineyards and washed through and they were worried about hydrocarbon contamination because diesel tankers and and they were just worried about anything else that could have been in that water. What we did discover though, and so we did a lot of testing pre harvest and post harvest is that while you know, the fuel Bowser that was sitting in your vineyard has gone, you don't know where it is, the volume of water that was flowing was so great compared to the potential risk of contaminants that there wasn't anything to worry about.


Craig Macmillan  8:04 

That is good news. A true obviously, you've mentioned this in many videos, this tremendous amounts of silt were deposited, which leads to a number of possible issues. Also, I saw pictures of trellises and vines that had been knocked completely over. How are growers recovering from this? Are they trying to move silt down? Are they trying to reset the floors? What happens if you have silt layers higher than the graft union?


Emma Taylor  8:30 

There are so many issues and there's no one single way to solve them as every situation is, you know, as often the case, like I was mentioning the East Valley and the Tūtaekurī rivers, there was a lot of salt deposits, and some vineyards were completely buried. So once the flood water receded, you couldn't see the vineyard anymore. We called those catastrophic vineyards. They are catastrophically affected, they needed to think about what they were now going to do with those that land use. For those ones in one regard, it's easy, because you're not saying to them, you can recover your vines. You're saying, Okay, you no longer have a vineyard, but for the ones that were in between. So they had a silt deposit, but it wasn't catastrophic. So there's two parts. Your question here that I think I'm asking is the ones that had the silt deposit, but it might have been above the graft union. And so we then urged those growers to contemplate the lifecycle of the vineyard and where they were sitting. So is the vineyard getting towards the end of its life, say 20 to 25 years old, because in New Zealand, especicially Sauvignon Blanc vineyards we manage very hard for trunk disease, but can 30 years old or so a vineyard will have a lot of trunk because they've done it. So if your vineyard was 20 years old, and you probably only had 10 years of useful life yet. We were saying you could probably leave that salt and place it flatten it out to the point that you can now grow on it but you can leave that because you're probably We'll get you we'll get scion rooting. But the phylloxera will take a while to reinvest in the vineyard, the roots of your original vine is still there, the scion roots have to take over the phylloxera has defined, you've probably got seven to 10 years before you're even seeing the first signs of phylloxera damage on your vignette.


Craig Macmillan  10:17 

And there is phylloxera in those areas?


Emma Taylor  10:20 

Because 95% of vineyards in New Zealand on grafted rootstock, we don't know. We have not studied phylloxera in New Zealand for a long time.


Craig Macmillan  10:32 

That's a good thing because I was afraid I was gonna have to apologize on the part of all growers in North America for going back going back to the 1790s, or whatever it was.


Emma Taylor  10:41 

We love the American rootstocks. Yeah, you American rootstocks? Yeah.


Craig Macmillan  10:45 

Well, I don't think America can take credit for everything. I think the French and the Germans and the Italians have all done a great job to,


Emma Taylor  10:52 

We don't know what the phylloxera status is, we have the the vineyard and goods board that I know about that is on its own roots. And it's, I don't know, 30 years old and still going strong. And then there was a nursery and Bisborn that was trying that tried to put its mother vines on own roots to try and keep the integrity of the plant. And they started seeing phylloxera in that planting seven to 18 years after planting. So we know it's still there. What we did discover throughout this whole process is that phylloxera research has kept continuing overseas, especially in Australia. And there's lots of species of phylloxera and we don't even know what species we've got. Because we haven't done a survey for the last surveys in New Zealand were done in the 80s I think it is.


Craig Macmillan  11:36 

Talking about catastrophic losses, is there an estimate of like what percentage of some of those areas or what how many, or how many hectares were lost completely?


Emma Taylor  11:46 

So there's about 4000 to 5000 hectares and holes, and depending on how people are choosing to manage and it's still coming out as, as we come through the season, there's about 300 hectares that we think will be lost completely. So it's not a huge amount in terms of the region, but it's one of those things, you know, it's a different scale of damage that you've had. And for some people, it means that they just lost the vintage from 2023. And now they're moving forward. But for the people that are the catastrophic so as the one you know, everyone's recovery is at different stages, depending on the scale of the damage and those that are worse affected obviously are still in a recovery phase with those that are were affected but not so badly. They've you know, got to the point they've prune the vines they're looking for forward to bad break this year. And it's it's move on and forget that cyclone.


Craig Macmillan  12:37 

When would bud break be expected.


Emma Taylor  12:38 

I saw bud break last week. Oh, wow. No, it's too early.


Craig Macmillan  12:44 

Of course, it's too early No, but like, just just as a time point, it is August 8 2023. Today, which is your early spring.


Emma Taylor  12:53 

So when to really the ski season is in full swing down here in New Zealand, we had a bout of warm weather, which got some the set flows going and a little bit of early bad breakout and Bayview. But we've now into some beautiful frosty morning and blue sky days. So that'll slow things down. You're saying it's the ninth of August. So hopefully, it'll be the end of August before we see too much more about movement.


Craig Macmillan  13:20 

We're talking about Sauvignon Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc very prone to Botrytis and other fungal diseases. I'm not sure what your fungal disease situation is like where you are. Was that was that an issue? Was there a big explosion and fungal problems with that nine or 10 or 14 days before you get in?


Emma Taylor  13:36 

Actually, so one of the issues we had in Hawke's Bay this year, and especially, you're talking about Sauvignon Blanc, but I suppose and other varieties, which was more more prevalent was we had downy mildew, we've not really experienced a lot of downy mildew in New Zealand. So whereas this year, I did see canopies that were completely defoliated. And partly that was a response to what when the cyclone happened and those first 10 days after the cyclone. We were still in a state of emergency, the bridges were down, communication was down because the cellphone towers all went out power was down for Napier, which is the urban environment that was down for a week and so people couldn't get on if your vineyard was a later ripening variety. So a Sauvignon Blanc or or red, Chardonnays earlier if your vineyard was a later ripening variety you couldn't get on and do some of those last protective sprays that showed in some of the canopies.


Craig Macmillan  14:34 

I worked in the Central Coast California and I've only seen Downy Mildew once and it was it was amazing. It was really scary does tremendous damage and quickly that's the other thing downy mildew can strike and really do a lot of damage really fast. What about vines that were knocked over, or those vines salvageable. Can you push them back up?


Emma Taylor  14:53 

Yeah, you can and this depends on how much silt you have. So if they got bent over and then there was a lot of silt that was a little bit trickier. But if they were bent over and you might needed to replace your posts, then that happened and those vines are actually that was where there was a little bit of hand picking that happened to tell you the truth. Yeah, they were salvageable. So get in quick, lift them back up again. And nets it we found that Vinyard nets, they often acted like a giant sail. If you were perpendicular to the river with a net on, you're almost guaranteed to be flattened.


Craig Macmillan  15:28 

And so I'm guessing that that work started right away. And then there probably were vines that were just completely ripped out at the root.


Emma Taylor  15:35 

Vines that were completely ripped out tangled mess with the nets, the posts, the wire, the irrigation. And so actually dealing with the waste of that became a big issue because we don't like burning waste in New Zealand. We only like to recycle. Telling someone that that big mess of nets and posts and wire you need to sort through and pull it out for recycling. That wasn't


Craig Macmillan  15:57 

No Yeah, no, that's a really difficult thing to do. There's no doubt about it. And then if it's an older vineyard, and if it was twisted around the cordon and wire then can't chip it and on and on and on and on and on. This is not the first I'll call it a super cyclone that's hit before. In 1988 There was a Cyclone Bola  and it also did tremendous damage to vineyards I understand as well as property in human life.


Emma Taylor  16:24 

Yes, and that cyclone and it hit slightly further north. So Bisborn was worse affected than Hawke's Bay, and back then in 1988, Bisborn one was New Zealand's largest wine growing region, and that hit later hit March. Oh, it really March. Sorry, the dates just elude me now. But it hit early March. So the vines were further closer to vintage. Yeah, had a had a very catastrophic, catastrophic effect. But it was 35 years ago. And it's amazing how much we had forgotten.


Craig Macmillan  16:57 

That's what I was going to ask were there lessons that were learned?


Emma Taylor  17:00 

What I've since you know, what I said, to add a grower meeting the other day of what we've learned is a cyclone is a cyclone and actually, some of the damage was pretty similar in some of the things that we're having to deal with in cyclone Gabriel, we had to deal with in cyclone Bola. Cyclone Bola in the 1980s. It was very much especially in New Zealand and mentality, we just got on and did it. And there wasn't a lot of reflection afterwards about what worked and what didn't work. And there was certainly no record keeping. After 35 years, one of the first things we did is that we called all together on a Zoom, all of the viticulturists that were around, in Bola. And we said can you remember what you did? And actually getting them together on a team's call was one of the best things we could have done. And because they feed off each other now that's right, we did this and yeah, so it was a different slightly different time. You know, because harvesters in 1988 weren't four wheel drive where they are now. And they were towing harvesters through vineyards to try and get the fruit off.


Craig Macmillan  18:02 

Is that turning into outreach to growers today?


Emma Taylor  18:07 

Lessons learned from Bola became a factsheet that was distributed to members. I think we managed to get it out nine days after the cyclone we had a grower meeting, we handed out to them and said this is what happened in Bola. We can't guarantee that this is exactly what's going to happen this time. Because the 1988 Bisborn, I think the largest variety planted was Monukka. Yeah. Yeah. So yeah, we didn't have the rootstocks in New Zealand like we had back then. And all that kind of stuff. So we're like, we can't guarantee this is what's going to happen. And to tell you the truth, we're going to be monitoring this spring, just to see if our predictions that the vines will be okay. Fingers crossed, is correct, because it's what happened in Bola. But everything else that we learned from those people, from those viticulturalists from Bola has happened so far. And so that was a very worthwhile thing to do.


Craig Macmillan  18:57 

You mentioned we, who's we?


Emma Taylor  18:59 

So the New Zealand winegrowers got funding from the government. Not not not a lot of funding but funding from the government straightaway, to get a group of viticultural experts together. And we went round, and I was lucky to be part of this and we would go around to the growers and visit them and, and help them out and, and give them ideas or just listen to them really just to reach out and see that they were okay. It was a very interesting process, because at the start, the people that wanted to see us were the ones that were flooded and they weren't sure if they could pick. It was definitely the first lot of visits were definitely focusing on what we could still harvest what we could still salvage any income we could get for the grower. And then the second stage was the people that couldn't harvest but they knew the vines were going to be okay for this vintage and it was how to manage those to best prepare them for the season. Next season. And then the last lot of visits we did were the catastrophic owners. That links So how the individual growers were coping with the stresses as well, at the time, it was a really good support to provide to the growers.


Craig Macmillan  20:09 

That is so important. And I'm very happy to hear that folks immediately went back to the, what we call embodied knowledge. You know, it's experience, I lived this and it's vivid, some of its vivid, some of its not, but that I lived this and then being able to share that, and then being able to continue that process forward. Because you now have been really, really good about connecting with the community. And everybody's learning from that, you know, you're having that you're having that translation of experience now across all kinds of folks. And that's just absolutely critical. And I think it's fantastic. And I hope that that kind of thing continues for all kinds of things. I mean, we have that we have that with all kinds of pest issues as well. Sometimes the best thing to do is just get a bunch of growers together. Tailgate meetings and conferences and coffee meetings, we've we've had a number where it's just show up at Joe's diner, and we'll just talk about whatever you know, and it is really beneficial.


Emma Taylor  21:07 

It is. One hundred percent agree and it's part of that very expert group says exactly what what are the series was we called them, shed had meetings, and they were located in all the different sub regions, and people could just come along, we feed them and we gave them drinks and just that connection.


Craig Macmillan  21:23 

Food helps bring people out. I've learned that, If there was one thing one takeaway from this whole experience for growers around the world we have we have listeners from all over, what would it be what what one insight, idea piece of advice observation would you have.


Emma Taylor  21:40 

Because it had been 35 years since we had had cyclone Bola in New Zealand. And I don't know if this is globally, but in New Zealand, we had got a little bit relaxed about areas that might be deemed as flood prone or have a risk of some sort. That is because for the most part in New Zealand, we deal with drought. You know, two, three years ago, if we've just had three kind of wet seasons prior to that, if you had to talk to any grower one of the big concerns, they would have said water, we're we're worried we can't get enough water. And so we had got a little bit relaxed about some of our planting places. After looking at the cyclone. I still think some of these places, they are still good for planting. But be cunning and be intelligent about how you plant if you're planting close to a river, plant with the river, not perpendicular to it, put your frost machines on plants, bury your irrigation don't have a very expensive shed down there. Keep your tractors and equipment on high ground. Some of them are the best soils, right, which is why we're tempted to plant on them. Because yeah, it's right. But be be wise, when you're doing the investment, that would be one of the things that I would say.


Craig Macmillan  23:01 

Yeah, so this kind of thing is just another factor to take into account when you're designing a vineyard.


Speaker 2  23:07 

Yes. And if it's only once every 40 years, it makes it a little bit harder to remember. Yeah, because we've certainly had planted on areas that had been destroyed and Bola, and they leave, they will leave fallow for a few years while people were like, oh, you know, they were hit by the site. And then all of a sudden someone's like, oh, that's some pretty cheaply. And I can put a vignette in via and then the venue does well. And so therefore it raises the prices of the land and everyone plants and we forgot.


Craig Macmillan  23:28 

Well, I want to thank you for your time. And thank you for sharing your story. We wanted to talk to you because this kind of thing is probably going to happen again, in other parts of the world. So it might have been 40 years between those storms, there may be major storms coming to other places. Doesn't hurt anybody to kind of think about that as a possibility. I mean, we have as growers, we have plenty to keep us up at night already. But it is something to think about.


Emma Taylor  23:54 

Yeah, I 100% agree. And even looking at how this impact of Cyclone Gabriel was further down in New Zealand, you know, into Hawke's Bay more than Bisborn just shows that that's the trend that's happening, isn't it? Climate is changing. And so it doesn't take long to think gosh, that'll just go a bit further south and it could have happened in Marlboro. So that's the same I agree with you about it'll happen in other regions of the world too.


Craig Macmillan  24:18 

Well, I want to thank our guest, Emma Taylor, viticultural consultant with Emma Taylor Viti, thanks for being on the podcast, Emma.


Emma Taylor  24:24 

You're welcome. Nice to talk to you, Craig.


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