The Seven Brothers of Sevenhill

The Seven Brothers of Sevenhill

In the history of the Clare Valley’s oldest winery there’s more than one spirit involved.












Published Selector Winter 2009

It’s a bit of a misnomer to put Sevenhill Cellars under the Wine Dynasties banner. ‘Dynasty’ implies power, wealth and superiority; anathemas to the Sevenhill philosophy.

Owned by the Jesuits, a Catholic order, this humble winery is a Not for Profit organisation. Any surplus money they make from the sale of their wines goes into the funding of Jesuit works. These vary from schools to drug rehabilitation and fighting for social justice and their efforts benefit communities all over Australia.

Also, past articles in this series have celebrated traditional family dynasties, where the winery business has been passed down through the generations.

With no such tradition in the Sevenhill history, how do they fit in? The man who holds the key can be found in a quiet office in the Sevenhill winery, or twice a week guiding visitors around the historic property. His name is Brother John May and he’s the seventh Jesuit winemaker in Sevenhill’s 158-year history. Although they don’t have any genetic connection, the Brothers belong to the family of the Catholic Church and they’ve passed the winemaking tradition from one Brother to the next in much the same way as any other family business.

Jesuit beginnings

Brother John decided to devote his life to Christ in 1949, choosing a life of poverty, chastity and obedience. The course of his journey would be decided by necessity, guided by the promise made by all Jesuits, to be a man “on the move, ready to change place, occupation, method… to do anything or go anywhere to teach Jesus Christ and preach his Good News.”

This way of life began over 400 years before Brother John embarked on his novitiate. It was inspired by the epiphanous experience of Ignatius, the saint formerly known as Inigo Lopez de Loyola, who was born in Spain in 1491. A self-described fan of “warlike sport with a great and foolish desire to win fame”, Loyola paid for his rash ambition by way of a cannonball to the leg at the Battle of Pamplona.

During his long, painful convalescence, Loyola was given a copy of Life of Christ and a book on the Saints. Multiple readings of these works were followed by an intense period of reflection on the error of his ways. Complete spiritual conversion eventually came in a vision of Mary with the baby Jesus.

Abandoning his quest for renown, Loyola decided to devote himself to helping those in need by offering his life to Christ. While studying for the priesthood in Paris, he found a group of kindred spirits with whom he took a vow of poverty and chastity and formed the Jesuits. Official approval came from the Pope in 1540 and today it has 19,000 members worldwide.

The Australian connection

In 1848, two Austrian Jesuits, Aloysius Kranewitter and Maximilian Klinkowström, arrived in South Australia. Like the Lutherans who settled in the Barossa, these Jesuits and their followers were escaping religious persecution in their homeland. Their trip was funded and led by Franz Weikert, a wealthy Silesian farmer who hoped to establish a Catholic community in South Australia.

Kranewitter ended up moving to rented land in the Clare Valley with Weikert and his family. The following year, two more Jesuits, Brothers George Sadler and John Baptist Schriener, joined them and they began farming the land.

By 1851 Kranewitter was able to buy 100 acres through the help of a German Mission Society. He named this land Sevenhill after the seven hills of Rome and it became South Australia’s first Catholic community.

Naturally, this new Catholic flock needed a regular supply of altar wine. Supplies had been brought from Europe but these eventually ran dry, necessitating Brother Schreiner to turn his hand to winemaking, fulfilling his Jesuit promise of being “ready to change occupation”.

By planting the first vines at Sevenhill in 1851, Schreiner established the Clare Valley’s oldest winery. Under his winemaking leadership, which continued until 1884, an underground cellar was constructed and a wine press built.

Although the Brothers may have made some table wine for their own consumption, altar wine was the mainstay of the business as Brother Lenz (1884 – 1889) took over from Schreiner, followed by Brother Storey (1889 – 1915), then Brother Boehmer (1917 – 1924).

This brings us to Brother George Downey who took over in 1925. According to Brother John May, Downey was “a man of vision (who) started the commercialism of the winery. He sold claret to Myers in Melbourne by the barrel.” Downey also built a distillery and crushing area and installed slate tanks.

This all paved the way for his successor, Brother John Hanlon, who took over in 1952, to further expand the business.

Following the war people began to travel more and consequently there were more visitors to the Sevenhill cellar door. Combined with the boost in trade from workers on the nearby Morgan-Whyalla pipeline, the business grew and according to Brother John May, Hanlon “got a reputation for making big, bold, energetic reds.”

Brother John May joined Hanlon at Sevenhill in 1963 and spent the next seven years as Hanlon’s assistant before being transferred back to Melbourne in 1969 to become Assistant to the Master of Novices. However, a Brother never knows what’s around the corner and when Hanlon died suddenly in 1972, Brother John May found himself back at Sevenhill, in his words, “as winemaker, manager, everything.”

John’s winemaking education was limited to that of an assistant who, he says, spent “seven years on the end of a shovel, shovelling skins out of tanks.”

He therefore had to rely on the strengths he already possessed to pick up his new trade. He explains, “I had a lot of God-given gifts with my hands. I’m a really good carpenter and I’ve done welding, concrete technology, mechanics, interior decorating and painting so it all really helped with my skills.”

John also fondly remembers the generosity of the local winemaking community. “The industry was close-knit in those years, you could share everything. I didn’t know much about the science so I would take the samples up to Jim Barry or Tim Knappstein who would say, ‘put x amount of sulphur in.’ And when it came to bottling the wine, the fining and any additions, I’d do it with those men, they’d help me.”

John must have been doing something right because when he entered his first wine show in 1973, his Cabernet won Gold.

Between 1972 and 1990 John increased production from 190 to 500 tonnes, expanding the winery as more grapes came into production. His plantings were prolific and included Riesling, Shiraz, Cabernet, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Ruby Cabernet, Tokay and Semillon.

In 2008 John celebrated his 45th vintage at Sevenhill. To commemorate this great achievement, a premium wine was produced in his honour. The Brother John May Reserve is a limited release Shiraz from the 2004 vintage. Only 3600 bottles were produced, each one individually numbered and collared with fabric reminiscent of the robes worn by priests in St Ignatius’ era. Reflecting Brother John’s quality contribution to the wine industry, this wine has won numerous Gold medals.

A new direction

The run of Jesuit winemakers at Sevenhill came to an end when Tim Gniel was appointed in 2003. Tim was at the winery until 2006 when current winemaker Liz Heidenreich took over.

However, Brother John, who now holds the title of Winemaker Emeritus, is optimistic there will be a return to the Jesuit tradition. “I’m a great believer in what we call divine providence. If the Lord wants to keep it going he will. There are a lot of winemakers of Catholic persuasion so you never know, someone might feel his niche is here. While there’s life there’s hope in my terminology.”

This is not to say that John thinks Liz is a second-rate choice, quite the opposite. He explains, “Liz was the first woman winemaker and I was delighted. You’ve got to break the mould occasionally. Last year and this year Liz was selected as an associate judge of the Adelaide Wine Show. That speaks volumes for her gifts.”

Liz’s respect for John is mutual and her words reveal the privilege she feels to be the current caretaker of such a long winemaking tradition. “It’s an amazing place to work and Brother John is fantastic. He was very generous with all of his knowledge and he was very inclusive, very welcoming. I think all of the staff here really look after the philosophy. You’ve got something that’s pretty special to look after and it’s entrusted in the place.”

This is a sentiment echoed by Sevenhill’s General Manager, Neville Rowe. Like most of today’s staff at the winery Neville is not Catholic but has great admiration for the Jesuit philosophy. His interpretation of their brand of Christianity is that they “were at the coalface, wherever there was trouble the Jesuits were there, wherever there were sick people they were there, wherever there were poor people they were helping out.”

The Jesuit influence has resulted in a workplace culture that embraces their three guiding values – “welcoming, discerning, courageous.” Brother John plays an important role in reminding the staff of this philosophy, most famously through his compulsory daily morning teas. Liz thinks these are “terrific because you could easily fall into the pattern of just staying in your own work area but we all come together at 10 o’clock every day and it’s a really important 15 minutes.”

Another more tangible aspect of the Jesuit tradition that continues is the production of altar wine. Comprising 30 per cent of Sevenhill’s output, their altar wine is sold throughout Australia and exported around the world to Christians of all denominations.

For Liz, making altar wine was a new challenge but one she’s come to enjoy. Ignorant of what it was when she arrived, the first explanation John gave was, “it’s got to be sweet, red and fortified. It represents the Blood of Christ, it’s got to be good wine and it has to comply with Canon Law.”

This means following a simple set of rules, the most important being to ensure the fortification is undertaken in one step. As Neville explains, “the chief winemaking criteria is that the wine’s purity is preserved.”

As well as their altar wine exports, Sevenhill has started exporting its table wines to America. Early results are positive and add to the steady success the winery is enjoying.

The 40,000+ visitors to Sevenhill every year are not just attracted by the quality of the wines. They’re drawn by the history, beauty and above all, the sense of the spiritual, with its beautiful church and spirituality centre. So whether or not another Jesuit winemaker emerges, the tradition created by the Sevenhill ‘dynasty’ looks set to succeed well into the future.


Reproduced with the kind permission of Wine Selectors.

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