Dr Kevin John and Diana Madeline Cullen
Listen to Diana Cullen’s original interview with the Busselton Oral History Group in 1997, where she discusses the history of Cullen Wines and the beginning of the wine industry in Margaret River more than 50 years ago here.
A little known fact about the Cullen family is that their association with wine in Western Australia dates back to the 1880’s, when Kevin Cullen’s grandfather, Ephraim Mayo Clarke (1846 – 1921), purchased a small business and plot of land in Bunbury, Western Australia, where he started a store and winery. He successfully produced the highly popular ‘Punchbowl’ wine which he sold through the family shop and as far afield as the WA Goldfields. Kevin’s mother Elvie and her nine siblings all worked at the winery. When Ephraim died, it passed into the hands of his only tee-totalling son, who left the vines unattended. They eventually went into decline and the land was sold.
Kevin Cullen grew up in Western Australia and studied medicine at the University of Western Australia, where he became the first recipient of a Medical Degree. He was an outstanding student and in 1941 was invited to Melbourne University to continue his medical studies. It was here that he met the enigmatic young Diana Adams. Diana was studying Physiotherapy and was at the top of her class and a popular student.
They were married in 1946 and moved to Tasmania where Diana’s family was well known and featured regularly in Hobart’s social pages. Soon after they were married, Kevin’s father Pat, who was living in Bunbury Western Australia and working as a doctor himself, sent word to Kevin that a doctor was desperately needed in Busselton. In 1947 Kevin moved to Busselton to become their local doctor and it wasn’t long before Diana joined him to work as a physiotherapist.
Their family quickly grew with the addition of Rick, Shel, Stewart, Digby, Ariane and finally Vanya.
Kevin and Diana purchased land in Wilyabrup where they tried their hand at raising sheep and cattle; Diana tending the farm, clearing land and working alongside labourers whilst raising their six children. All this time, Kevin worked at the Busselton Hospital and in his own practice, being on call and travelling back and forth between Busselton and the family farm to help Diana. In 1966 he also commenced the famous Busselton Health Survey; the world’s longest running longitudinal health study, which is still in place today.
In 1971, they made the decision to plant vines on the land, having taken the advice of Dr John Gladstones and undertaken considerable research themselves in their overseas travels.
In only the second year of production, Diana’s efforts were recognised with her riesling being awarded a gold medal at the Melbourne Wine Show. In 1977 she won best wine at the Canberra Wine Show and in 1982 she made history as the first woman to win a trophy at the Perth Royal Show. She honed her winemaking skills by reading, learning from others and from the extensive travel she and Kevin undertook across Australia, the US and Europe, picking up tips and ideas everywhere they went. Diana’s dedication paid off and she continued to win awards and accolades for her outstanding wine, becoming Cullen’s chief winemaker in 1981until daughter Vanya took over in 1989.
Kevin always had a great love of Cabernet Sauvignon and constantly referred to its need to have a steely backbone and they purchased many great wines from Bordeaux during their travels to obtain a clear image of the direction that their wine should take.
He was also a passionate believer in the potential for Margaret River to become one of the great areas for chardonnay. He initiated the Cullen Wines Great International Chardonnay Tasting, to enable the wines from Margaret River to be compared with chardonnays the world over. 2016 marked the 31st International Chardonnay Tasting which continues to be a sold out stellar event on the Australian wine calendar.
Cullen Wines have decided to recognise Kevin and Diana’s pioneering contribution to the wine industry by naming their flagships in their honour – the Diana Madeline (Cabernet Sauvignon blend) and the Kevin John (Chardonnay), which both consistently receive some of the highest ratings in Australia, year after year.
Kevin passed away in 1994 and Diana in 2003. Both Kevin and Diana have been awarded life membership with the Margaret River Wine Industry Association, and in 2003 the WA Wine Industry Association introduced the annual ‘Diana Madeline Cullen Award for Outstanding Contribution by an Individual to the WA Wine Industry’ in her honour. In 1995 they were jointly named ‘West Australian Citizen of the Year’ and in 1994 Kevin was awarded the Order of Australia for his services to medicine and wine. Diana was awarded the Order of Australia for her services to viticulture and wine in 1999.
Cullen Wines is jointly owned by the six Cullen siblings. Youngest daughter Vanya Cullen has been winemaking at her family’s Wilyabrup estate since 1983. She was appointed to Chief Winemaker in 1989 and Managing Director in 1999. Several of Kevin and Diana’s grandchildren, or ‘gen 3’ also have a keen interest in wine and wine production.
Dr Ariane Cullen, the fifth of Kevin and Diana’s six children shares her tender and touching memories of growing up on the developing Cullen Estate, as Margaret River approaches the ‘official’ 50 year celebration of commercial wine growing. Read her story here.