‘Wine is my connection to a father I barely knew’

MW student Jane Dunkley shares a moving account of how she was subconsciously drawn to a career in wine, one that brought her closer to memories of the family cellar with her late father

Words by Jane Dunkley

Margaret River flowing out to the Indian Ocean in Western Australia

As part of our partnership with The Institute of Masters of Wine, we asked current candidates to submit to us a love letter to wine – on a person, region, grape variety or other topic that has inspired them on their journey and studies – and we were blown away by the submissions. Here, we publish the first of two personal essays that most impressed the Club Oenologique editorial team. This one is written by Paso Robles-based student Jane Dunkley in dedication to her father.

Wine is my connection to a father I barely knew. In the heart of a rural landscape, far removed from the polished sophistication of the old world, my father journeyed to these distant lands through the medium of wine. Nestled three hours from what claims to be the most isolated city in the world, our lives as farmers seemed worlds away from the cultured elegance associated with the art of winemaking. Yet, in the rustling leaves of surrounding trees, with their companions felled to sustain our existence and the unyielding soil beneath our feet, wine emerged as an unexpected bridge to distant places, cultivated landscapes and a lineage marked by premature departures.

Cabernet Sauvignon grapes growing in the Margaret River region

My father’s life, like his father before him, was cut short, leaving behind an indelible imprint on my childhood memories. In the haze of recollections, I find fragments of tall tales, a passion for British cars, aviation adventures and a unique appreciation for the world of wine. The key to unlocking these memories lay hidden in an underground stone cellar, hewn from rocks quarried mere steps away from our home. Moss-covered and permeated with the scent of dampness, it was an enchanted realm where my father and I embarked on explorations together. Wooden cases and single bottles stood as silent witnesses to our shared adventures, surrounded by seemingly ancient jars of canned apricots and preserves, testament to the privilege of consuming the fruits of one’s labour. Some 30 years later, the taste of a wine from the same distant lands my father dreamt of resurrects the echoes of those shared moments. The same producers, with wines feasibly crafted from the very same vines, offer a mouthful of tenuous but profound connection.

The stone cellar was an enchanted realm where my father and I embarked on explorations together

Growing up, my mother shouldered the responsibilities of managing a farm and raising four children. He was barely spoken of, leaving me with a scant and fragmented knowledge of the man who was my father. He had persuaded a friend to plant grapes along the river meandering through our farm and our occasional visits to the winery became cherished memories. A shed filled with barrels, carved into the gentle slope down to the river, emitted a familiar damp yet delicious aroma, akin to the scent of our home cellar. The cellar door, devoid of the contemporary glamour seen in today’s wineries, housed a table in the corner for tastings, transactions, and the occasional acquisition of a case of wine, concealed like treasure in our cellar, to be drawn upon with friends at a later date. Behind closed doors, my brother and I listened to the laughter of dinner parties, the sound of crystal glassware and the pouring of wine from a decanter etched with the word ‘Claret’. It was here, in these memories that the sensory journey of wine became a ritual for me, a bridge to the memories of my father.

A photo taken near the famous Caves Road (Photo: Russell Ord)

The subject of my father’s involvement in Margaret River’s nascent viticulture, particularly at the birthplace of Vasse Felix, puzzled me in my youth. Unrelated to his region or profession, he accompanied a teacher from his past on a journey that would shape the wine landscape of the region. Only in later years did I learn about viticulture in a geography class, becoming enamoured with the subject. I immersed myself in the world of wine during school holidays, working in the vineyards of Margaret River and closer to home, eventually studying it at university. A textbook, coincidentally authored by his teacher, Dr Gladstones, revealed a connection to my father that I had never fully grasped. Working at the very winery whose cellar door we frequented, I pruned the same vines that bore the wines he savoured, an unexpected yet deep connection through time and earth.

Wine’s power lies not only in its ability to connect people to the environment but also in its potential to forge relationships between seemingly random people. Studying wine at a university on the opposite side of the country, I joined a disparate group of students for occasional face-to-face sessions, united by a shared love for wine. Many with vast collections of aged bottles to share, others with wine freshly hand bottled from their places of work with handwritten labels and never meant to be for sale. We should have been divided by age, status and vast spans of deserts and ocean. Instead, lifelong friendships blossomed, the common thread of vinous passion weaving through our differences.

I find solace in the fact that wine, the silent conduit to my father’s legacy, has shaped my journey

Contemplating life’s choices, I find solace in the fact that wine, the silent conduit to my father’s legacy, has shaped my journey. Would he be proud? The answer is perhaps less crucial than the realisation that my brothers, each carving their paths, reflect similar threads of connection in their choices. One, a pilot advancing professionally far beyond our father’s small planes, and the other, farming the same land and residing in the same house, treading the familiar stone steps to the cellar. For me, it’s through wine that I’ve discovered a world of community, creativity, adventure, grit, and (perhaps most unexpectedly) love. While the wines I craft may never fully satisfy my pursuit of perfection, the journey they represent, fuelled by an early and enduring love for wine, is a testament to the profound connection wine has offered me. A connection that transcends generations and defines the legacy of a father I barely knew.