The chief winemaker and boss of Cullen Wines has taken her family business to another level – and helped put Margaret River on the world map.
Vanya Cullen cuts a dashing figure as she walks across the lawns of her Margaret River winery, scarf billowing out behind her, holding a glass of Cullen’s renowned red. Her three-year-old dog Solly (short for Solstice) ambles along beside her. She may be a winemaker of international repute but she is a “country girl” and a natural host with a smile never far from her lips.
She has been the chief winemaker and boss at her family winery for 33 years. It’s a job she says she never tires of. And she is a true individual, a diminishing breed these days. For some, she is the hippy-dippy face of modem biodynamic winemaking and all its attendant full-moon voodoo. To her fans and legions of wine commentators, she is a far-reaching visionary who has created extraordinary wines and helped catapult the Margaret River region into the international spotlight.
She can be reticent with people she doesn’t know and funny, chatty and opinionated with those she does. There are times though when her natural good cheer slips, particularly when the conversation turns to her parents and what she sees as their “magnificent legacy”.
Rewind to March 4, 2015, the anniversary of her mother Diana’s death in 2003. There were tears and toasts that sunny afternoon as we sat in the garden at her winery and quietly, ruminatively drank a bottle of the wine named for her mother, the Diana Madeline cabernet. Vanya feels the death of her mother keenly, even after 13 years.
“She died during vintage. So did Dad, in February (1994). So every year I get to make great wines in their loving memories;” Vanya says. “Mum loved cabernet, especially the classic blend: merlot, cabernet sauvignon, petit verdot, malbec, cabernet franc.”
Her father was a GP in Busselton. He is remembered with the super-premium Cullen Kevin John chardonnay. “Dad was always about quality over quantity and even back then he was corning out against chemicals in the vineyard. He saw what agricultural chemicals had done to the health of potato farmers in the South West.
“Mum and Dad were always very positive. They always worked for the good of people. They had a great dream to make quality wine.”
These two dynamic wine industry veterans left their daughter with big ambitions to realise and even bigger shoes to fill. She has filled them, and then some.
She was the winner of the 2000 Qantas / The Wine Magazine Winemaker of the Year, the first West Australian and the first woman to win the award. In 2008, she was awarded the UK Drinks Business Magazine Woman of the Year and last year she was inducted into the Australian Businesswomen’s Hall of Fame, which honours and celebrates Australian female business owners.
On the matter of influence, Vanya’s happy to let the wine do the talking. When pressed, she says influence is created by what you do.
“It would be nice to think that any influence I exert comes from quality wines that are made sustainably; quality wines which protect the earth and are great to drink;’ she says. “If you believe strongly enough then you are influential, you can move people emotionally to new points of view. I think we have been influential in telling a story through our food and wine and ethos about treating the earth properly and, in tum, enjoying good health – a good soul and a good body.”
With so many accolades, positive press and industry awards behind her, perhaps it’s time to relax, take it easy? Not likely.
Last year, Vanya took a brave leap into the unknown and released the first vintage (2012) of an ultra-premium, icon wine called Vanya. With a sticker price of$350 and a 99 out of 100 from James Halliday, it was met with great enthusiasm.
“It felt like it was the right time. The 2012 vintage was one of the greatest cabernet vintages I’ve ever seen here in 33 years. A lot of things just fell into place and most importantly the wine quality was there,” Vanya says.
Interestingly in such a competitive business, Vanya was applauded in Margaret River, too. “It was very pleasing to see how positive the response was by colleagues in Margaret River. They believed it was good for the region. That was a real thrill because you never know how other people will receive a wine you think is very special.”
With just 397 cases of the 2012 produced, many missed out. The good news is Cullen has produced a 2013 and 2014 Vanya but “as it is dependent on quality first, it might not happen every vintage”.
Cullen Wines has evolved into much more than a grapes-to-wine business. This will be the 31st year of Cullen’s International Chardonnay Tasting. Known worldwide as a key event, the now-famous tasting was conceived by Dr Cullen as a way to benchmark the still-wet-behind-the-ears Margaret River chardonnay production against the world.
The business has also evolved into a showcase for biodynamic, sustainable and carbon-neutral agriculture. Its extensive kitchen gardens supply the applauded restaurant with much of its produce.
“Our restaurant has evolved, as everything biodynamic does. We had people running it previously but we run it ourselves now. It has enabled us to bring our biodynamic ethos across the entire business. There are few places in the world where you can enjoy food grown just a few metres away and wines made next door and all made to match each other;’ Vanya says. “The synergy of wine and food is something we keep pushing very hard to improve.”
The proof seems to be in the pudding. Recent restaurant reviews have concluded that the Cullen dining room is the best it has ever been. The freshness and closeness of the raw ingredients have been a big help in raising the bar.
“Quality is the holy grail. You never get there, you just strive to get there every day. The same goes for our gardens, growing the produce, growing the grapes,” Vanya enthuses. “It’s about bringing energy and the purity to the Cullen experience.”
By Rob Broadfield
Photo by Iain Gillespie