Touching Base with Zig Zag Rd Wines

Henry and Harriet Churchill are natural winemakers of the Macedon Ranges. This is how they're coping with the COVID-19 Crisis.

By: Worksmith

Henry and Harriet Churchill (along with their 2-year-old son Albie) are the recent stewards of Zig Zag Rd Winery located on Dja Dja Wurring Country in Malmsbury. Since taking the reigns just a couple of years ago, they have been on an incredible journey working with some of Macedon Ranges best winemakers and biodynamic viticulturists to make wine and grow grapes in a way that is in relationship with the land an involves minimal intervention in the winery. Biodynamic winemaking is a rollercoaster at the best of times. We had a quick chat to touch base with Harriet and Henry and see how they are travelling as winemakers during the COVID-19 crisis.

It's been an unprecedented few weeks. How are you guys holding up so far?
Like everyone, we oscillate between feeling fearful and overwhelmed, positive and encouraged.

But we’re in vintage and have a toddler and both those things are very grounding and remind you to put one foot in front of the other, remind you what is and isn’t in our control (including the weather that has played havoc with the grapes), that there is a lot to be joyful about, and that our 2 year old’s snacks need to be served up regardless of how we are feeling!

But we really are incredibly grateful that we can work still, (albeit without always paying ourselves), out in our little vineyard and in the winery, at times with the 2-year-old strapped on our back which makes for slower work. And we take a lot of comfort remembering that we’re all human and share the same feelings so at some points everyone feels anxious about family or friends in other places, or afraid for places that haven’t yet been affected but will be, or dragged down by unwashed dishes (!) – there’s something comforting in knowing that.

What's been the biggest challenge you've had to overcome in the last few weeks?
We hadn’t actually got round to getting our online wine store up and running, we just kept putting it off as our lives were already so full with the cellar door and winemaking etc. But this forced our hand, so here we are. It’s not perfect, but it’s a place to tell our story and for folk to buy our wine. We scrambled, like so many, to get that up and running and to iron out order issues when it’s just us, but the #winefairy – Henry – delivers wine (sanitised, gloved and contact-free), albeit looking a bit dishevelled. Unlike so many, our lives haven’t hugely changed as with vintage, we are tied to the vineyard and winery at this time of year anyway so we know others in the wider industry have had to face much harder challenges.

It's too soon to predict where this will leave us all when it's over, but what is your 'hope for the best, prepare for the worst' case scenario?
We all know, whatever happens, the world will be different after this. Our hope, and we truly hope this will come to pass, is that we realise the power of community resilience. It sounds like one of those phrases that before all this was just banded about and we dipped into it when we felt like it, but we’ve had to realise we are better together, that we need one another, that we can’t do it all – we weren’t ever designed to do it all alone. And importantly, that small and local is reliable and often more healthy and nourishing than our vast sprawling supply chains that dry up when panic sets in. We hope people realise the simple joy of soil between fingers when they finally plant out that veggie patch they’ve been meaning to do for years and buy wine from their local winemaker, our order Easter lunch from their neighbourhood café or providore. And we hope that feeling is so visceral they won’t just give up that sense of connection and security.
I’m going to stick to hoping for the best, and hope that together as a community and an industry we will be our best, whatever the worst-case scenario.

There's been a bit of criticism on the wine industry on carrying on with harvest, how did you manage to make it through the harvest period?
We haven’t made it through yet! We are still in harvest/vintage as we are cool-climate growers and officially the Macedon Ranges is the coolest climate on mainland Australia so our fruit is still ripening. But we haven’t had a great crop this year (we lost 2/3rds due to a late frost and excessive heat at fruit set) so we are able to do a lot of the work ourselves. Compared to the rest of the country who lost their crops due to smoke taint or livelihoods due to the fires, we have it easy, and we are grateful for that, and adapting to the lower yields this year.

We are an 8-acre vineyard, and small, family-owned vineyards are the norm up here so mostly we are all just doing it ourselves or where we have to get in small numbers to help with the harvest.

We’ve had to adapt like every single person in the world right now, and in our case, where we have had two or three pickers in from the community, we have enforced exceptionally strict rules about social distancing, hand washing, sanitiser and there are none of the usual community post-harvest celebrations we usually do (wine overlooking the vines or eating my terrible scones at morning tea). But picking is low risk -we are outside and separate at all times.

If you had one wish for the government, what would they do for our industry?
Support our bars and restaurants and do whatever they can to keep them running, serving the community and being creative with food and drink. If they are thriving, then so are the farmers. We are so lucky to be part of a network and a movement, and a time, when there are so many ethically-conscious, food-sourcing aware restaurants and bars.

Any helpful advice you've been given (or created) that you can share with us?
Our friend and mentor Ben Rankin from Wilimee Wines said to us the other day (over the phone) that it’s important to remember how we accept in farming that there are times of abundance and times when we need to hunker down and sit it out, and this is one of those times. That helps us remember we need to take this day by day.

What's your positive prediction for the industry once this is over?
This is such a great question to think about. We honestly believe, a bit like what’s said above, that we will be stronger. There’s nothing like going through something like this to realise how collaboration sparks creativity, is fun, and learning that when you work together towards the same goal, everyone can benefit. We all understand the concept of scarcity a little better now, and hopefully appreciate abundance more and that hoarding doesn’t work but sharing creatively does. There’s enough for us all - and the small order, the small-batch product, the single-origin produce, the family-run farm that nourishes a community, they are the little cogs that hold us together.

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*Photo Credit: INKD FOTOGRFA