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"There’s no alcohol available for sanitiser": SA winemakers with a new task at hand

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With their business suddenly turned upside down, the owners of Sidewood Estate winery are thinking laterally – they’re branching out. But red tape and a crucial supply shortage are making the transition tough.

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If there’s a product in shorter supply in Australia right now than toilet paper, it’s hand sanitiser.

It’s also a product everyone from health professionals to the general public desperately need during the Coronavirus pandemic – and an Adelaide Hills wine-maker says he’s perfectly positioned to manufacture it.

But for one thing.

“There’s literally no ethanol or isopropyl alcohol available in Australia to make hand sanitiser,” says Owen Inglis, owner and vigneron at Sidewood Estate.

“It’s like one step forward, two steps back at the moment.”

The seeds of the venture were sown two weeks ago, when the winery held its final cellar door opening.

“It seems a while ago now,” Inglis muses.

“We were trying to protect staff and patrons of the restaurant and cellar door, and also our staff within our offices.

“Like everybody else in the country it seems you can’t get sanitiser for love or money – but we have a lab, a bottling plant and a winery, so we can quite easily blend up sanitiser and get it bottled… so our idea was to try and make it and get it out to our staff, and then that we’d try and sell some of it at a reasonable price.”

They had some ethanol alcohol on hand, purchased under a concessional licence obtained through the Australian Taxation Office, and were able to create a limited supply using aloe vera gel bought from local chemists.

Because Aloe is difficult to source in SA in commercial quantities, Inglis hopes to use a Glycerin blend instead in future, with “a bit of lavender” thrown in.

“We were only able to make around one dozen 500mL bottles, which were for the cellar door and office,” he says.

Murphy’s Law struck first when Inglis realised that the winery’s concessional licence was about to expire.

The licence “allows us to buy 200 litres of alcohol a month, which we use in our labs” – Inglis says they would usually purchase a tenth of that amount, at most.

The tax office told them a backlog would mean their renewal was unlikely to be processed for 28 days.

“It was quite frustrating because we were trying to make some to get into public hands if we could, like some distilleries have been able to do,” Inglis says.

He sought help from local Liberal MP Dan Cregan, who he says intervened to get the approval fast-tracked.

Cregan told InDaily he sought advice from the Attorney-General’s office about how processes could be streamlined for a range of Hills businesses, given “tails from spirit distilling can be used to make high-quality hand sanitiser”.

Red tape has since been further cut for hand sanitiser production to try and feed high demand in the health care system, allowing wineries and boutique distilleries to shift into production as the Federal Government tries to shore up supplies.

Hand sanitiser can now be made without approval or notification to the Therapeutic Goods Administration, as long as producers follow one of two recipes developed by the World Health Organisation and endorsed by US authorities.

But for Inglis, Murphy’s Law struck again.

Inglis with his bottled sanitiser.

“We renewed our licence for 200L – but having then achieved that, we went to try and buy some alcohol… and that was the next barrier,” he says.

He said major producers of isopropyl alcohol such as RecoChem and Tarac Technologies were “out of stock”.

The former told him “they should have about 30,000 Litres for SA in May – with the chances of us getting an allocation extremely slim, because of all their existing customers who are all screaming for alcohol”.

Tarac currently has a banner on its home page warning it is unable to provide any alcohol for the production of hand sanitiser.

The Tarac website notice.

“It’s not acceptable that this essential product is not available to the public,” Inglis says.

And he speaks with some authority.

Inglis was born and bred in Hong Kong, and was running factories manufacturing bags in the south Chinese province of Guangdong during the 2003 SARS outbreak.

The vast majority of the 8000 who worked there lived on-site in dormitories.

“It was quite bad… we were right in the middle of it,” he says.

“SARS wasn’t as infectious as this one but it was more deadly.

“In very quick order everyone had face masks and a bottle of hand sanitiser – you couldn’t walk into a commercial premises anywhere without walking past four or five bottles for everyone to use…

“The chance for viral spread was obviously enormous [but] we didn’t shut down… all of our workers were provided with masks and hand sanitiser [and] we didn’t have one case of SARS in those tight conditions.

“I put that down to hygiene.”

Inglis says they hired extra workers to constantly clean the factories.

The government, too, reacted quickly, ramping up production of masks and sanitiser.

“Nobody’s said anything about why there aren’t strategic reserves of commercial materials anywhere in western economies,” he says.

“Obviously it’s a real problem not being able to get sufficient supplies out to the public.”

He wants the Government to direct distillers such as Bundaberg to “stop making rum and go flat out for ethanol”.

Sidewood’s Restaurant and Cellar Door are now closed until further notice, amid increasing curbs on social activity.

Inglis has now repurposed the “Apple Shed” at the front of the restaurant site as a seven-day “Sidewood Takeaway”, offering freshly-made meals from chef Ali Seedsman.

That venture has allowed them to retain six permanent staff, for now.

“If you include casuals, 75 per cent of our workforce would either be laid off or reduced in their hours – I think our sales are probably down at least 50 per cent, probably more,” Inglis says.

Add to that customers, including restaurants, who are themselves unable to pay for products already sold.

“They’re not paying anyone because they can’t get paid, because all the restaurants are closed… it’s a real difficult time – and I’m sure it’s a similar story right across the country,” he says.

“We’re trying to do our bit to keep our own people as employed as we can in these really difficult circumstances, and try to do something for the community at the same time.”

He says blocked distribution networks Australia-wide are also a major headache for small wine producers.

“That’s a channel that’s at serious risk – and I imagine considerable people won’t make it,” he says.

“The whole industry is in desperate circumstances… wineries are pushing hard to sell direct to customers [and] that will keep some going.”

He’s determined to find a solution that will allow Sidewood to supply hand sanitiser to the market.

“We’re not giving up,” he says.

“We’re trying to work with small distillers… we know how to make it – the only thing we don’t have is alcohol.

“If we can get large quantities of alcohol we can convert it within a day… I don’t know whether it’s a solvable problem – but we’re still working on it.”

– Additional reporting by AAP

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