Tim Kirk drives Clonakilla success — how quality, persistence and pressing the flesh built a brand

We could be forgiven for thinking there were no happy stories in the wine industry. The well publicised grape surplus and a Deloitte survey indicating that forty per cent of Australia’s two thousand winemakers operate at a loss tell of the pain out there.

But within our own backyard we have one example of a tightly run small maker thriving in the most competitive wine market ever, rejoicing in a record 2006 harvest and willingly paying grape growers above market price.

Clonakilla’s success carries a message not just for local makers but also for all small makers. And the message is that commercial success comes from making wine that becomes a benchmark of its style.

And that requires vision, commitment, time and patience; continuing (and frank) benchmarking against the rest of the world; attentive, uncompromising viticultural and winemaking practice; a tight business structure; and clever, consistent marketing.

Few businesses could tick all those boxes. But under Tim Kirk, Clonakilla has done so and emerged as Australia’s most talked about shiraz viognier producer – both here and in major export markets — and one of our most respected viognier producers.

While the shiraz viognier blend, especially, has emerged as a regional specialty, Tim’s other wines, too, benefit from what you might call the halo effect – not to forget the same scrupulous attention to detail that produces flawless wines across the board.

And if Clonakilla’s tiny Murrumbateman vineyard limits production of its flagship red, Tim added commercial strength to the business by sourcing shiraz from the nearby Hilltops Region, Young.

And in Clonakilla style, this is another no-compromise wine. Tim pays over the market price for top-notch fruit from which he makes a slightly more robust red than the flagship shiraz viognier, albeit still in the graceful, savoury cool-climate style.

Even at a retail price of $25 to $28 a bottle, production of Clonakilla’s second-tier red has grown from 26 thousand bottles in 2004, to 31 thousand in 2005 to ‘probably 45 thousand bottles’ this year, estimates Tim.

Having worked in retail and media over the last thirty years it has been interesting to see Clonakilla’s emergence, initially under Dr John Kirk and now under Tim.

The wine styles emerged gradually from the early seventies before taking shape – based both on vision and what could be achieved in the district – in the mid nineties.

Even as the wine styles emerged, and particularly when shiraz viognier crystallised as the flagship, the least commented on aspect of the success – and of critical importance – has been Tim’s persistent, relationship-based marketing.

Few winemakers work media and trade relationships as personally, constantly and cleverly as Tim does. A phone call here, a sample there and press releases whenever there’s a little news all add up over the decades – especially when there’s fact and substance – rather than cant – at the heart of the contact.

What Tim has done over time is to create a global network of influential wine people who believe in what he’s doing. And consumers have responded with equal willingness to what is, finally, an exciting wine offering.

This direct access to opinion makers and consumers by the person who grows the grapes and makes the wine is one big advantage that small makers have over larger ones.

Thanks to Tim Kirk, Clonakilla has exploited this advantage to the hilt. Anyone growing shiraz in Canberra should be extremely grateful for the platform he’s built.

Ravensworth Canberra District Shiraz Viognier 2005 $30
Winemaker Bryan Martin works at Clonakilla Wines, Murrumbateman, helping Tim Kirk with the Clonakilla products and making his own wines under the Ravensworth label. Bryan’s first Ravensworth Shiraz Viognier blend improves significantly on the very good straight shirazes of recent years. It’s a seamless, seductive drop squarely in the highly aromatic, savoury, refined style pioneered by Clonakilla and glimpsed in several others from the Murrumbateman and Hall sub regions. Ravensworth is another significant wine for Canberra, cementing shiraz as the district’s great specialty. It’s wine of this calibre that’ll put Canberra on the map. Available from Bryan via ravensworthwines.com.au

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2006 & 2007

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