When prompted to elaborate on exactly how unique the culture of South Australia’s Wirra Wirra winery is, CEO Andrew Kay hesitates. Not because he’s unsure – he knows it’s different, the word tribe is mentioned often – but where do you start?
Is it the hurling of watermelons from a medieval trebuchet? Or perhaps the donning of inflatable horse costumes and prancing around an imaginary Melbourne Cup track? Then there’s the bell ringing; a three-quarter tonne Angelus bell bonged across the vale, thanks to the gusto applied at the end of its rope.
Of course, you could keep it simple and just enjoy shiraz matched with handcrafted local chocolates, or quaff the infamous cabernet, shiraz and merlot blend, Church Block – arguably the winery’s signature tipple for nearly half a century.
It’s hard to determine with Andrew at the helm. “Anyone who spends time working here becomes part of the Wirra Wirra tribe. The culture of the place is special, and attracts people who not only love wine but also see life a little bit differently. There’s a sense of celebration and inclusiveness where people treat the place as if it’s their own. They tend to stay, become part of the place and make it their home.”
Evidently, they do, with a quarter of the ‘tribe’ having offered 10 or more years of service and another 15% catching up with more than five years under their belts.
Wirra Wirra, about 40 minutes south of Adelaide, is deep in the heart of South Australia’s wine region in McLaren Vale, where grapes are used to craft the winery’s award-winning reds. The cooler climes of the Adelaide Hills produce the company’s whites, including sauvignon blanc, riesling and chardonnay.
Wirra Wirra’s own vineyards include Chook Block (near old chicken sheds), Nocowie (a dislike of cows) and Scrubby Rise (ironically flat and bereft of scrub). The winery itself is flanked by ancient gums, hence its Aboriginal name ‘among the gum trees’, with original ironstone walls harbouring Harry’s Deli, the award-winning Cellar Door and meeting rooms.
The winery was founded by Robert Strangways Wigley, an eccentric state cricketer who planted his first vineyard in 1894 to export wine to England.
It was abandoned after Wigley’s death in 1926, but resurrected in 1969 by neighbouring orchardist and vigneron Greg Trott, who was central to developing McLaren Vale as a premium winemaking area. He and his cousin restored the derelict building, stone by stone, to establish Wirra Wirra.
Mr Trott passed away in 2005, but at the entrance to the winery his philosophy on life is inscribed to remind everyone what making wine at Wirra Wirra is all about: ‘Never give misery an even break, nor bad wine a second sip. You must be serious about quality, dedicated to your task in life, especially winemaking, but this should all be fun.’
It’s a mantra taken seriously by the Wirra Wirra tribe, and one that Andrew draws on when he reflects on the company’s rich heritage.
“During my first year at Wirra Wirra, I asked myself what our unique proposition was, and what we had that other wineries couldn’t lay claim to,” he explains.
“The culture of the place is special and attracts people who not only love wine, but also see life a little bit differently.”
“What kept coming back to me was the DNA that came from the story of Wigley and that maverick visionary Greg Trott. We have celebrated those two lives this year – 125 years since Wigley founded the winery and 50 years since Trott put Wirra Wirra on the map. Those stories are our key point of difference, and we must keep reinforcing that legacy because no-one else can own it.”
While Andrew’s own history with Wirra Wirra stretches a mere 13 years, much has been packed into his tenure, with a shift for the business into wine tourism, the launch of the cafe, Harry’s Deli, and securing investors for a five-star boutique hotel to be built next year.
“It will be a wellness resort with 32 rooms and a presidential/bridal suite,” Andrew explains. “Believe it or not, given all the wineries in South Australia, none has an integrated five-star resort of any scale. It’ll be a first, not just for the region, but for South Australia.”
In 2016, Wirra Wirra also celebrated its first acquisition, Ashton Hills, one of Australia’s finest pinot noir producers. Andrew saw it as a logical expansion for the business and chance to ‘test the water’ with a manageable purchase.
“We are fortunate when considering any large projects that we have an empathetic partner in the ANZ bank. They have a firm understanding of our industry and are an excellent sounding board for making things happen. Instead of second-guessing you, they work with you.”
It’s no wonder Andrew’s nose is as finely tuned to a marketing opportunity as it is to a good wine, having completed a Business Degree majoring in Marketing, an MBA in International Business, a Company Director’s Course, and the Key Executives Program at Harvard University.
All these qualifications are matched by his practical experience, comprising nearly 25 years working in the beverage and dairy industries, including six years with Orlando Wine in both Australia and Europe, and five years as a Director of the Winemaker’s Federation of Australia.
Andrew chairs the Adelaide Botanic Gardens Foundation, is a board member of South Australia’s Botanic Gardens and State Herbarium, and Board Director of the Centennial Park Cemetery Authority. In between all this he pursues his passion for AFL and the Adelaide Crows, cricket and playing the guitar “very badly”.
“Music is a real outlet for me, and I love sport,” he says. “We’re the wine partner for the South Australian Cricket Association, and we sponsor the Adelaide Strikers in the Big Bash League, so we’re heavily involved.”
With Wirra Wirra a small to medium player in the Australian wine landscape, it’s all hands on deck with Andrew’s level of involvement extending from overseeing sales and marketing to grape growing and production, and dealing with key suppliers.
“Is Wirra Wirra my dream job? All my friends tell me it is,” he laughs. “Someone told me early on that working in wine is not a job, it’s a lifestyle. You have to commit to it, but never forget the sense of fun that Greg Trott created, and remember that we’re not saving lives here; we’re just making wine. That’s the view we take, and it’s served us well to date.”
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