Clonakilla counts its blessings

The power of narrative: part three

I’m continuing an exploration of the “founder’s story” and its role in wine marketing, so if you’re landing here for the first time, you may want to visit previous posts on the topic – here and here.

One of the most inspiring winery foundation stories I’ve ever heard is told by Tim Kirk, the winemaker and CEO at Clonakilla Vineyard in Murrumbateman (north of Canberra). If you’ve heard Tim speak, you will have heard this tale, which details a moment when his life dramatically changed course – a moment for which those of us lucky enough to have enjoyed Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier give thanks.

Fortunately, the company’s website presents a lovely summary of this tale in the history section entitled “Story” (usually, the very first place I click on a new website).

Clonakilla estate was founded by Tim’s father, Dr John Kirk, and the well-designed “Story” page provides short vignettes and photographs for each milestone in the company history, beginning in 1971 when the first vines were planted (ancient history, by New World standards).

Tim Kirk had a wine epiphany while on a prayer retreat.

The “aha” moment actually arrives 25 years later – but it marks the precise point at which Tim decided that wine was going to be his life’s work. The following text appears in a blog post, entitled: “Why do you assume it’s a distraction?”

Seven words from an elderly Jesuit priest changed the course of Tim Kirk’s life and set the stage for Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier to become one of Australia’s great wines.

“It was back in the mid 90s. I was teaching religious education at Melbourne’s Xavier College. I was well and truly bitten by the wine bug by this stage and during breaks from teaching I’d drive up the Hume Highway to work with dad at the family winery in Murrumbateman.

“Teaching at a Jesuit school I had the opportunity every year to attend a prayer retreat. During one retreat I was doing my best to pray, but kept coming up against a very particular distraction. I confessed to my retreat director that I was having a struggle. Every time I tried to reflect on the scriptures I found myself thinking about the best ways to manage Shiraz ferments. ‘What am I supposed to do about this constant distraction?’ I asked him.

“He replied, ‘Why do you assume it’s a distraction?’

“This wise response gave me the courage to stop pushing away what had become a deep desire in me: to become the full time winemaker in my family business. At that point I opened my mind to the possibility that making wine might just be part of a bigger plan for my life. Within six months I was back at Murrumbateman as Clonakilla winemaker and General Manager.”

Tim’s powerful story pretty much has it all: a quest, a character in conflict, a destiny so powerful that even the Jesuits give their blessing!

As I mentioned in my last post, a narrative that finds resonance among readers often follows one or more archetypal patterns – in this instance, it’s very much about an artisan, his journey towards self-discovery, and his mastery of craft.

Balance and purity: crucial elements of the foundation story at Clonakilla - and the wine.

Once you have read or heard this story, it’s well-nigh impossible to savour a Clonakilla wine without it coming to mind. The Shiraz Viognier is now approaching “icon” status, but the roots of its fame can be found in the wine’s balance and purity – qualities the Jesuits would surely applaud, and key elements in Tim’s foundation story.

The Clonakilla website (recently designed by Big Red Dog) is a terrific reflection of the brand, and tantalising links to this post appear on several pages, indicating a very canny  understanding of the central role it plays in the company’s marketing.



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