It’s dry, but thirsts still quenched

Veteran winemaker Leigh Eldredge casts a nostalgic eye over the empty, parched hole in the ground outside of his Clare Valley cellar door and remembers the good old days.

The day when a speedboat raced recklessly from one end of this landmark dam to the other; the day he tried to water ski behind a jet ski before tearing a hamstring and having to abandon the idea; the days when cellar door visitors would strip off and go for ill-advised swims late in the afternoon or the hazy, lazy days spent fishing for the trout and Murray Cod he’d introduced.

It all seems like a long time ago now.

For the first time since Leigh and wife, Karen, built this place in 1993, the dam, a drawcard for thousands of visitors to this award-winning winery, has run dry.

“I remember it got pretty low for a while in the mid-2000s,” Leigh said.

“But it’s never been this dry and never for this long.”

The sad state of the Eldredge dam, which ran dry in December 2019 and hasn’t recovered since, is a bleak microcosm of the challenges facing the entire drought-ravaged Mid North.

“Every repeat customer that comes in here asks ‘what has happened to the beautiful dam?’,” Leigh’s daughter and winery general manager, Skye said.

“And then they talk about how dry everything looked on their way up here – how bleached everything looks – because it’s gone past dry now, it’s not gold anymore. It’s just grey and brown and dead and very dusty.”

The Eldredges also lost three mature trees from around their dam last year, after they became too stressed and succumbed to borers.

“We have this view off the deck,” Skye said.

“It looks over vineyard, some gums, a bit of bush – all of it is just looking so sad.”

The good news for Eldredge Wines, now a highly sought-after destination for a wide range of functions and events, is that business has not been affected. There’s a backlog of weddings booked in after COVID stopped them last year and they’re expecting another big Gourmet Festival, where they’ll host an evening Gourmet event for the first time – an 80s party paying tribute to the ABC’s Countdown television show.

“The dry dam is a pity but it’s not the be all and end all. We soldier on and still have really good bookings,” Skye said.

“The building itself is still pretty, it’s a wonderful part of the world and we have a good product (wine) so that’s always worth coming for!”

The Eldredges were thankful for a mild summer which saved their 2021 vintage. Leigh was slightly disappointed with riesling haul but excited about the quality of his red wines.

“If it had been stinking hot, we would have been in deep trouble,” he said, noting his yields had fallen from a 220-tonne high in 2017, down to 75 tonnes last year before rebounding to 120 tonnes this year.

“We’ve had four really dry years.

“Riesling can normally get going when it gets tough, but this year I reckon it just said, ‘stuff you’. There’s just no sub-soil moisture and even though we irrigate, you can’t beat the natural sub-soil moisture and the natural rain.

“We’re hoping for a really wet winter where we get a couple of inches at a time so it gets the creeks flowing and we can get some water back in the dam.”

But if that doesn’t happen and the dam stays dry, the larrikin in Leigh has a contingency plan.

“I’m thinking of levelling it out, painting a few lines on it and making a volleyball court,” he said.