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Meiqing followed dream losses are past $1 million by Sandra Fulloon, Jeff Kuan01/02/2023  

When Lin Meiqing bought an 80-hectare wine property in South Australia to grow red grapes for the booming Chinese wine market, he had no idea his cherished dream would be met by disaster.

Standing on a levee at his flooded property outside Renmark, in South Australia’s Riverland, Lin Meiqing is putting on a brave face.
He is looking out to neat rows of grape-covered vines that are turning brown in the baking summer sun, their roots submerged in flood water.

“Half the vines are already dead,” says the 55-year-old. “If the water stays high one more month, they will all be dead. A very bad year: Hopeless, hopeless yeah.”

This is usually a busy season for South Australian wine growers, with the grape harvest starting in February. Not this year, on this property.
“If the vines die on the whole block, we will need to replant. I think it will cost at least $2.3 million,” he says.

Flooded vines on the property at Renmark.Credit:SBS / Lloyd Thornton

Mr Lin’s wife and son live in Sydney, and he is surviving at Renmark using funds borrowed from extended family.
The dream of owning an Australian vineyard began while he was living in China’s Fujian Province.

Speaking in Mandarin to SBS, the businessman explains that he was successfully importing Australian red wine to China but had no experience with farming.

Full of optimism about growing a business, he decided to take it a step further, migrating to Australia in 2012 and buying Sky Road Wine Estate in 2015.

Lin Meiqing in his flooded field.Credit:SBS / Lloyd Thornton

Mr Lin says in the early days his business was thriving. At its peak, the vineyard’s annual output of 1,500 tonnes of grapes produced more than 2 million bottles of red wine, shipped exclusively to China.

However, as Australia-China relations soured in 2020 around $1 billion worth of table wine exports dried up. Mr Lin was among those severely affected.

In response, he diversified into white grapes, hoping to supply South Australian wineries. He planned to use the income to explore new export markets in South-East Asia.
However, Mr Lin’s once-prosperous vineyard and winery suffered a further downturn during the pandemic.

Lin Meiqing at his Renmark winery.Credit:SBS / Lloyd Thornton

He once employed four full-time workers, but has now been reduced to just himself working multiple jobs to save costs.
The latest setback arose as the nearby Murray River flooded, washing out his entire 2023 vintage.

While the river levels are slowly falling, the outlook for his business is not good, with financial losses soaring past $1 million.

“This year, no income because no grapes. Very hard to pay for the business, yeah,” Mr Lin says.

Lyndall Rowe is the executive officer of Riverland Wine representing 950 members, both wine growers and winemakers. She says while most along the Murray are affected in some way, Mr Lin is among the worst.

“He has lost his entire vineyard. So, he has lost 100 per cent of his income this year. He has nothing to pick, and nothing to produce.”

Flooding has followed torrential rain across vast areas of Australia during 2022.

Climate change puts growers under pressure

Australian Grape and Wine chief executive Lee McLean says prolonged rain is one of the extreme weather events linked to a changing climate, and has put many wine growers under pressure.

"In areas like the Riverina and Murray Valley by some estimates, the vintage could be down by 50 per cent,” he says.
“Farmers are having trouble getting into their vineyards to control disease, leading to rot.

“This is a very challenging time and in 2023 some growers will be considering their viability and future.”
State and federal governments have announced $126 million in funding for flood-affected communities along the Murray River.

Winegrower Lin Meiqing with Lyndall Rowe in Renmark.Credit:SBS / Lloyd Thornton

However, Riverland Wine’s Ms Rowe says the clean-up will be long and many winegrowers were already struggling to bounce back from the impacts of China bans and the pandemic.
“It has been one crisis on top of the other. Prior to the floods, the wine industry faced tariffs imposed by China, plus uncertainty in freight and increases in on-costs.

“All that has made it a really difficult situation for growers.”

'No warning from local authorities'

Due to limited English language skills, Mr Lin says he had no idea a massive flood was approaching. When his levee broke, 1.5 metres of water inundated his fields.

Lin Meiqing at his Riverland winery.Credit:SBS / Lloyd Thornton

“I had no warning from the authorities. I found out more about the flooding from other vineyard owners in the area,” he says.

Emergency authorities, including Victoria’s Country Fire Authority (CFA) and Emergency Management Victoria (EMV), are working on ways to provide translated information and warnings, especially during natural disasters like floods and fires.

Vast areas of the Riverland have flooded.Credit:SBS / Lloyd Thornton

A spokesperson told SBS News that Emergency Management Victoria is building a new language-enabled VicEmergency app that will provide critical emergency information and warnings.

A pilot will begin this year, in simplified Chinese and Arabic.

The campaign uses a range of in-language media channels to deliver information and direct culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) audiences to relevant in-language materials on the CFA’s website and campaign landing page.

Tourism dries up

At Mallee Estate Wine, also in Renmark, the Markeas family are battling other flood impacts.

Director and winemaker Dimitrios Markeas says tourists have stayed away from flood-affected areas, so revenue from wine tours, cellar door sales and restaurant trade is down by around 30 per cent.

"We geared up for a big tourism season this summer,” he says.

Dimitrios Markeas at Mallee Estate Winery and restaurant.Credit:SBS / Lloyd Thornton

“Now we have to cut back on staff, because tourists haven't come to the region. So, you have to look at your cash flow, you have to look at your business model.”

The Markeas family migrated from Greece, and have worked hard since 1968 to expand from growing mixed fruit on a small block in Renmark to running a wine and hospitality venture, cultivating red and white grapes across almost 50 hectares.

However, Mr Markeas says recent years have not been easy.

“We've gone through a world epidemic, we've gone through China tariffs, we've gone through shipping issues and now locally we're going through floods as well.

“So yeah, it has been a very challenging three years.

“But we take these challenges on and we diversify. We find new market opportunities and we move forward.

“We have been winemakers for 25 years and grape growers for nearly 50 now. And we are looking forward to the next 50 years as well.”

Lin Meiqing's fooded vines at Renmark.Credit:SBS / Lloyd Thornton

However, with national flood losses surpassing five billion dollars, and his business losses spiralling, Mr Lin's future is less certain.
“I hope to get the financial support I need to save the vineyard and start the business again,” he says.