With the upcoming Gourmet Escape in November, and the ‘official’ 50th anniversary of commercial wine production in Margaret River being celebrated in 2017, thoughts turn to memories and recollections of the early days and what went into the making of Margaret River. Dr Ariane Cullen, the fifth of Dr Kevin and Diana Cullen’s six children, shares some of her warm and touching memories of growing up with the Cullen Winery taking shape…
Kev and Di Cullen had always loved wine and bought the odd bottle of French burgundy or claret when they could afford it. They had arrived in Busselton in 1948, as Kevin was planning to work for 6 months in general practice there, and were captivated by the great natural beauty of the Margaret River region. In 1963, while living in California they had visited the Big Sur coastline, an experience which increased their awareness of the great tourist potential of the Margaret River region. They believed strongly in the importance of maintaining a pristine natural environment for human health, tourism and for healthy agriculture. During the late 1960s, together with local school principals June Stephenson and Clem Annice, they founded the Vasse Conservation Council, which led a march on the WA Parliament in 1969, resulting ultimately in the establishment of the first Department of the Environment.
Regarding the local wine industry, Dr John Gladstone’s PhD dissertation in ’65 was the big catalyst in getting this started. A trial quarter acre at Geoff and Sue Juniper’s (planned jointly we believe by friend and colleague Tom Cullity and Kev) was followed by Tom’s commercial plantings at Vasse Felix in 1967. Kevin had suggested to Di in the late ‘60’s that they plant vines, and Di, though initially not too keen (as she still had 3 of her 6 kids at home and was also running a 2000 acre sheep and cattle farm…) did take up the challenge and our first vines, Cabernet Sauvignon and Riesling, were planted in the winter of 1971.
Di realized that the soils on our property varied enormously from sandy coastal plain through to rich black alluvial-type silt in the creek beds and of course gravelly loam and clay subsoils nearer Caves Road, where the vines now grow. This clearly would affect which grape varieties might or might not flourish. She read widely including John Gladstone’s publications, consulted the Agriculture Department, collated the soil analyses and together with Dad worked out where to plant their first cuttings. They believed that to succeed one had to produce only premium wines and never sacrifice quality. Needless to say, this policy was costly at times when mistakes were made along the steep learning curve, and she occasionally discarded whole vats or barrels of wine if she thought them sub-standard. I also remember her attempts over the years to ensure that our wines aged well by buying the best quality Portuguese corks available. One particular year, after paying some exhorbitant sum for so-called AAA- rated corks, she was horrified to receive a call from one of the CEOs of a commercial TV channel, complaining that the corks had leaked over the expensive new white carpets at head office… Mum was frustrated for years about this as she believed the antipodes were last on the priority list for the suppliers. Digby, Mark and I planted a grove of cork oaks at the coast in 1995 in the hope of one day circumventing this foreign ‘intransigence’, but in the end, Mum would’ve loved Stelvins!
Di had always wanted to create a great Bordeaux-style Cabernet-Merlot blend and to this end brought the first Merlot cuttings into Margaret River in 1976 . She was keen to try new combinations, and was awarded the first trophy to a female winemaker in WA; for a Semillon Sauvignon Blanc blend. She knew it would take years of carefully controlled experimentation, with meticulous records of vintage conditions and winemaking details, to establish which varieties grew well and which blends worked best for our particular terroir. Quietly determined, she grasped from the start the importance of attentive vineyard management and of fruit quality in the making of great wine and lovingly tended ‘her’ vines for decades, often from dawn until dusk: we were sure she knew each by name. She was also aware of the benefits to vine, fruit, wine, people and the environment of minimal chemical use: this had been motivated further by an incident in the late 70s in which a batch of twine contaminated with herbicide had killed a substantial portion of the fledgling vineyard. During the late eighties, she and Vanya began converting the vineyard and winery to organic practice. Subsequently, the philosophy and discipline of biodynamic viticulture and winemaking have been embraced and creatively developed by Vanya. In my opinion this 46-year evolution has been a natural and satisfying one, one which I believe dovetails in well with our core family beliefs and which has helped us endure.
Di also was aware from the beginning that collaboration was essential for success and she fostered enduring relationships with other farmers, viticulturists and winemakers. She maintained strong associations with the local community as well as welcoming the perspective offered by interstate and international visitors. A patient and discerning listener, she assimilated information effectively and distilled the essence of others’ experiences for later application to her own work. Though often claiming that her winemaking skill was just ‘built onto’ the foundation of her high school chemistry, her skills and accomplishments were really the product of decades of hard work and thoughtful observation.
Mum very much valued the local farmers’ understanding of the seasons and soils and their often uncomplicated approach to farming. Not one to take anyone for granted, she treasured in particular Bill and Annie Russell and Teresa Hanns, who were lynchpins in establishing the original vineyard in the early 70’s. Many a time we kids joined these wise and hard-working women training and pruning the vines or labelling the bottles, with of course everything done by hand. This was a time when a thermos of tea and milk arrowroot biscuits would keep us happy for half the day, or Mum would whip out the portable barbeque from her ‘useful box’ in the back of her (always second-hand) station wagon and cook up a chop or two. In any case the work was not the chore it could’ve been, as these stalwarts were cheery, funny, and perpetually good-natured. It was a great lesson in life for me and remains a fond memory to this day.
During 1966-67 Di was also developing the farm including clearing the land for crops and grazing: this was the ‘clear a million acres a year’ era of Charlie Court. She was a life-long experimenter, choosing which varieties of grapes and pasture to plant and which breed of cattle to buy. She ran a ‘small’, 300-head herd of Angus for beef and a (at one stage 1000-strong) flock of merinos: having grown up in Tasmania where some of the best wool in the world was produced, she’d wanted to grow really fine wool herself. I remember her taking Vanya and me in the late 60’s inland to the Keach’s merino stud to look at some rams to buy to improve our flock. I was most interested in the journey as the family also owned several ponies which we were allowed to ride – a huge thrill and another example of Mum’s masterful skill at combining work with pleasure for her children.
During the years of clearing the land (endless weekends of picking up sticks and lighting fires) planning and executing the planting of the vines (endless days of hoeing, planting and tamping) and establishing of the winery buildings, Di drove us in her old station wagon from Busselton at weekends to help. She skilfully intertwined such delights as horse-riding, wildflower and mushroom picking and beachcombing with the (inevitably sometimes boring, repetitive) farm and vineyard work so that my perception was in the main of fun and innovation rather than just hard slog. She transferred her love of the country to us and the ability to find pleasure in simple things and I at least spent many of my formative years in the happy knowledge that something productive was happening, that things were progressing, and that I had a tangible role in it all.
In the year I turned 15 and soon after we’d planted our first vines, Mum and I had become bogged on Gallows hill in our old jalopy and were unable to dig ourselves out with the usual methods. Realizing that retrieving the car from the sandy depths was a job requiring our trusty Massey-Ferguson, we had abandoned the car and were walking back to Caves Rd to get the tractor. As we approached the limestone caves near the top of the ridge overlooking the sea, Mum mentioned that she intended storing some of the wine we‘d make in the caves over which we were trudging. We did this for a while; just a few cases, as it was clearly more a romantic notion than a practical one. The wine sat alongside some old cattle bones (at the site of the previous discovery of a set of early 20th century cattle rustlers’ gallows, after which the beach was named). That day Di also promised that we’d drink our wine and eat home-reared beef at my 21st: I was awestruck then, and even more so when these things came to pass.
The original winery was built of local granite on the site of an old shearing shed, by our first winemaker Murray Neaves, who I remember tending the vines in our old grey 1955 Massey, a tractor which outlasted several other models over the years, exceptional workhorse that it was. We all loved driving the Massey and it was crank-able in the case of battery failure – a great attribute in those days of relative isolation. It was invaluable on the farm and vineyard and to many a bogged surfer, the latter often turning up at night exasperated and exhausted at the farmhouse door, and sometimes startling Di on the nights when Dad was at Busselton Hospital on call. My parents and brothers ‘rescued’ many people in this way over the years.
The shearing shed in turn had been constructed from the remnants of a group settlement house owned by farmer Mr Robinson and his wife and 12 children. Mum and Dad had bought the property from him in about 1966, and I remember huge windrows of felled jarrah logs running parallel to Caves road and spanning the whole paddock for just about the length of the property. The trees had been ring-barked years before so were bone dry, but still required the lighting of many small fires which then were fuelled with ever bigger logs in order to be able to burn the giant trunks: it’d often take several burns and re-burns over a week or two, to finally clear them.
After clearing the land including the slope immediately north of the winery, we grazed sheep and cattle there, and usually mustered them with horses of varying temperament and quality. A day that stands out in my memory was the day that Kev (not an experienced rider, or a rider at all really) decided he’d muster the sheep on a frankly dangerous old trotter he’d been given called Red Ned: the horse was 17 hands high, blind in one eye and as mad as a meat axe anyway. After a few minutes Kev was seen thundering up the hillside northwards, the giant animal in full pacing flight and then in a terrifying, lolloping, uneven canter. Dad looked like a flea on the animal- then flea jumped, at full speed: hearts in mouths but the rider returned with just a few bruises stating he’d taken the best option. Kev subsequently gave the horse back to trainer and friend Ted Lilley…
Di and Kev gave us a wonderful sense of family, purpose, of hopefully doing something positive and lasting for the community and environment. They modelled education, life-long enquiry and hard work, and friendship with those around you and further afield. They kept things simple so that the small pleasures in life were not overtaken by material excess. I remember with admiration that for many years my mother ran the winery and farm businesses using a laundry basket containing a few notebooks. Nothing was then more precious to me than a chat with Di and Kev by the open fire with a good red on a winter’s evening, discussing the season’s progress or plans for the future, immersed in gratitude for what we had.
Fires crackling in the winery near the bar, and at our parents’ home, often from April through to December. Hot tea, earthy discussions and the fruit of our labours in tall Riedels by the fire.