Vanya Cullen - #012

Vanya Cullen - #012

Posted by Ben Gould on

Vanya Cullen is the head winemaker and current custodian of Cullen Wines in Wilyabrup, Margaret River.  Vanya is considered the matriarch of Organic and Biodynamics for the Australian wine industry

Cullen wines celebrates 50 years of winemaking in 2021 following a rich history of innovation, awards, crafting beautiful wines and care for the land.  This is reflected in their ethos of quality, integrity and sustainability

Instagram @cullenwines




Sung by Novac, Pliant and arrangement by Noah Shilken
Song written by Diana Madeline, Kevin Cullen and Gilbert Brinsden in 1943


Sung by Vanya, Pliant and arrangement by Noah Shilken
Song written by Diana Madeline, Kevin Cullen and Gilbert Brinsden in 1943



Wardandi people
Kevin and Diana Cullen
Dr John Gladstones
Dr Cullity
Dr Pannell
Bill Jamieson
Terry and Geraldine Merchant
Lake Pedder
Mike Sleegers
Carbon Positive
Carbon Credits
Regenerative agriculture
Carbon sequestration
Mike Peterkin
Wine additives
Amber/Orange wine
Robert Mondavi
Cornish Pasties
Vineyard Platter
Peppermint Trees - Agonis flexuosa
Leeuwin Estate
Vasse Felix
Reflections in a wine glass
Gilbert Brinsden
Noah Shilkin
Wilyabrup - place of red ochre
Margaret River sub-regions
John Gladstones - Viticulture and the environment
Niki Ford
Antoine - executive chef
Nic Peterkin



Hello, today I am talking with Vanya Cullen. Vanya is the matriarch of Organic and Biodynamics in Australia. Her winery, Cullen Wines, which was started by her parents, Kevin and Diana celebrates their 50th year this year. I caught up with Vanya at the Biodynamics Wine Room on Caves Road. We had a great chat over an hour covering things like biodynamics soil, sequestration of carbon, many, many other things. It's pretty hard to summarize Cullen in a few sentences. And an hour of talking with Vanya could have easily stretched onto three or four. Cullen Wines and Vanya herself have achieved quite a lot over the last 50 years. Too much to really mention as well.

One of the great things that's just happened is Cullen Wines has just become carbon positive, which means they're sequestering more carbon in the soil than they're taking from the land. I mean, the environment is a big issue, probably the biggest issue facing us at the moment, and to have someone leading the way, sequestering carbon showing that it can be done is pretty exciting.
I won't say much more. At the end, there is a song Diana, Kevin and their friend Gilbert wrote a song, I think it was 1943 called Reflections in a Wine Glass, which won the second prize in a song contest in Melbourne in 1943. That will be played at the end, sung by Novec, arranged by Noah [Shokan 00:01:33] and written by Diana Madeline, Kevin Cullen and Gilbert Princeton. If you were to navigate to, click on the Vanya link, there is another version sung by Vanya. Vanya did ask me to put the Novec song one on this podcast, but you can go there and listen to Vanya's beautiful voice singing that song. I hope you enjoy this episode. I certainly really enjoyed this conversation. Enjoy.
[inaudible 00:02:18].
Slowly, slowly, slowly.
Yep. That's good.
That's good?
It's good.
Not too loud?
No, it's a bit loud. Yeah.
Okay. We want to perk a bit. Is that better?
Yes, good. [crosstalk 00:02:29].
Great. I don't know how to get back to [inaudible 00:02:32]. Here we are.
It's fine.
Here we are.
Yeah. Okay, good.
Okay, this is great.
Yeah, ready. Okay.
So a beautiful sunny day today, I'm sitting with Vanya Cullen, the matriarch of Biodynamics and Organics in Australia, at the Cullen Biodynamics Wine Room and restaurant in Wilyabrup, Margaret River. Hoping today to just hear Vanya's story, the story of Cullen. All the great achievements that they've made, the wines they make and where they're going to next. So thanks again, Vanya for taking the time.
Oh, thanks, Ben, for asking me. I'm very grateful to be speaking in this context. And yeah, I mean, I always like to start with the acknowledgement of Wardandi people, the traditional custodians of the land where we're sitting today and where the wines are made. I acknowledge them, elder's past, present, and future with respect.
Fantastic, yes.
And yeah, so we're excited because we're celebrating at Cullen Wines, our 50th year since planting. And it's a really lovely story about great passion and legacy of wanting to make great wines first of all, and sustainably. And the journey started off really in the 1960s. Mom and Dad lived in Busselton. They had a friend called Dr. John Gladstones, and he came and they were going to plant lupines on the property. And he came in 1965 and said, "Look, I'm just doing this research. You'd be mad to plant leaf when you should plant grapes." So that sowed the seed for dead. He started the headfirst grape grow meeting and Busselton in 1966, and they're involved with a group of people in planting a trial acre on what is now Juniper Estate in Wilyabrup in 1966.
But fast track from there, yeah, it's what people say, "When was the first planting and when did you plant? And things back then were very different. And there wasn't any trained labor or knowledge about how to plant or where to plant. And so the rollout was slow. They planted in stages, and we could only get a Cabernet Sauvignon and Riesling or they call it Ryan Riesling [crosstalk 00:04:42].
Ryan Riesling. That's right, yeah.
Yeah. So we planted those vines then. And then in 1976, '77, '78, we got the Chardonnay, all the other varieties, the Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc Semillon, Mellow, Cabernet Franc, all of that. But I think the key thing was that all the early pioneers like dad and mom and Dr. [inaudible 00:05:05], Dr. Penel and a whole lot of doctors in there all had a great dream to make the best quality wine.
And so, they had, I suppose a culture of helping each other and because there wasn't that knowledge, there wasn't the internet. And it was really about working hard to understand how to go about it. Another key player was Bill Jemison, he worked in the [inaudible 00:05:32] department under duress in a way because his boss didn't approve of wine, he was a teetotaler and didn't drink. So he came down on his own time on weekends and helped everybody and gave free advice. And I think he was another key person in all of that.
And being the youngest member of a family of six, we all used to come out here on weekends and work on the property. And it's great memories of hard work and always working actually, on weekends, stick picking. And initially, when mom and dad planted, they planted too with... they're in partnership with Terry and Geraldine Merchant. And I gather that Geraldine did most of the planting, and Terry was on the tractor a lot of the time. They were involved in it, [crosstalk 00:06:17]-
They're involved in planting here. Yes.
Yeah. And with mom and dad, and their mom and dad, obviously, it was the land, kept going. And, yeah, we had various people involved, I think there was, Mary and Marjorie Neves. And I think one of the great assets that this place had was, even though we didn't have trained labor, there was a whole pile of local people that worked incredibly hard without a lot of equipment, or... yeah, it just was so different back then. And that the stories of people trying to compete with each other and working hard. I just remember that there was a lot of hand picking, a lot of hand washing of buckets. They use milk vets to improvise, because there wasn't any stainless steel tanks. And yeah, it was just a really [inaudible 00:07:06].
Dad used to always say, "99% perspiration, 1% inspiration." And so behind Cullen is a lot of laughs, a lot of good times and a lot of great people who contributed to that, and that I'm in a family of very grateful to all of those people. And I would include in that being a biodynamics produce, grateful to the land as well and the place. So the journey started off with minimal chemical inputs and with the quality, sustainability, integrity tag on it, and-
And that has been your three or your three words since you started Cullen?
It's always funny talking about the past because you move forwards and you move through all of these things. And I think that sustainability and that caring about the environment, people say, "Where did that come from?" And it came definitely from mom and dad. They fought very hard in Tasmania to try and save [PETA 00:08:04], and then in 1966 also helped with friends to get an Environmental Act passed through Parliament to stop the mining on the coastline, because this whole coastline from cape was pegged for bauxite mining, the highest quality bauxite in the world. So it was like that. And I think dad saw the effects of toxic chemicals on his patients, and so they started off as a minimal chemical inputs.
And then mom and I in 1998 went to organic just because it felt like the right things. So yeah, and that really had quite a big dramatic effect. Surprisingly, it's always surprising with organic [inaudible 00:08:45]. It's not what people tell you it's going to be when you stop pouring synthetic chemicals on the land. It's you see some really beautiful surprises always that nature gives you and I'll talk to that later. So we, yeah, we put on compost cover crops, we did all those things. We stopped the sprays of what we're putting on even though they're very minimal. Mom tried with mass locust trees for grapevine posts. She put seaweed out, we had sheep. We really tried all these different things to try and make it work, but ultimately, you have to commit yourself to organics, so that was in 1998.
In 2003, we became certified property in the vineyard. And then we went to our vineyard manager at the time when Mike [inaudible 00:09:36] went to a biodynamics course in Donnybrook, and came back and we just... It was the year that mom passed away and it just felt like the right thing going inside out rather than outside in. And so we've been on that biodynamics journey since 2004, was our first vintage and-
It's amazing.
Yeah, and interestingly at the time, it was not well received. Other people received it well, but there was a lot of hostility out there towards going, pardon me, I don't know why it was just about not putting on toxic chemicals and putting on cow manure and using the planets and plants. But yeah, it was difficult. Possibly, I think it's changing very quickly now, but there wasn't at the time, as you know, a great sustainability culture in the Australian wine industry. And that is shifting, but it really needs to shift very quickly. I think it could have a huge influence on climate change, and all things that are affecting us or could affect our industry.
But yeah, the journey's been really interesting and surprising. And so we went to organic and then in 2004 for biodynamics. And what we've seen from that is an enlivening of the land, and an increasing of the quality of the grapes and a strengthening of the vines as well, because they're in their natural environment and they're supported at balanced yields, whatever that is. And the main thing, I think, is the physiological ripeness that you get with organic and biodynamics fruit, is you get all the components ripening at once, so you don't get a high sugar wine that you have to back out acid or water or whatever they [crosstalk 00:11:23]-
Sure. And flavors are there at the right time as the [crosstalk 00:11:25]-
The flavors are there.
... are ripening.
That's right. So the quality of the wine starts with the grape. It sounds obvious but yeah, it's a wonderful thing. And mom used to always say, "Quality, not quantity." And it's gone through that sustainability tag, has become even stronger. But when we went by the name, we were so excited about it. We put all our marketing efforts into biodynamics and our sales dropped markedly. So we went back to being the best with the sustainability tag, because at the time in 2004, when we did that, it just was very badly received, and-
It's amazing, though, isn't it? When you do something that goes against the status quo, there's always that friction, even if you're innovating or driving to new ground. And that starts at the beginning, and then over time, it's like, "Well, how did you do that, Vanya? Tell me a bit more about biodynamics." And that will start to happen, which obviously has.
Yeah. Well, because now there is a scientific understanding of why biodynamics is... what works and I guess the greatest analogy is the gap. Bro, we all understand about our gut, if we have a healthy gut, then we have a healthy brain. And it's the same on the land. And biodynamics is essentially about the microbes having healthy microflora in the land, the intelligence in the soil, which drives the carbon cycling, which drives the nitrogen fixation, the B-12 in the cow manure actually is what creates nitrogen fixation. And that was interesting, because we observed when we put the 500 on, then our cover crops just took off.
I mean, but why is that? It was just through observation rather than knowing, but now we know it's because of the B-12 in cow manure. And obviously the microbiological life as well, because a cow has four stomachs and it has the most in billions of micro flora. And it's like just putting this life force onto the land, and that's what drives everything. And the other outcome is going carbon negative in-
Yeah, it was amazing.
Yeah, in neutral in 2006. And now seeing the land actually become carbon positive,, so our soils are actually sequestering more carbon than our whole business admits by a considerable amount. Actually, it's almost a world record, I think.
And so, it was in 2019, it was 75 tons of carbon dioxide per hectare that was sequestered and held in the soils.
And that's because the microbes are... there's more of them in the soil, and they will hold the carbon more and-
It's all of it.
The microbes are the first thing then you've got the compost, and then you've got the cover crops and then you've got the whole system of carbon cycling and photosynthesis is working. If you have synthetic chemicals on the land, you stopped 50% of carbon sequestration. So I think if we could stop the use of glyphosate, you would see a huge influence on climate change, I think.
Yeah. But yeah, so it's the whole thing of... and that was surprising, because we never expected that, because without carbon neutral certification, the vineyard is neutral, but we're looking at going... it's going to be more being held, but the next step is to actually look at... So there's $100,000 with the carbon credits out there, and haven't yet at the moment, but we can't realize to look at the land as being a place that could drive that story of carbon trading.
Right. Of course.
And life is very beautiful, and stop cutting... this is off topic, but stop cutting down the forests that we need and create a far more efficient system of carbon sequestration in our land that we can do. So, that's been a really surprising outcome. And the next thing is to look at actually getting some sort of trading system that we could possibly put in place. And it's just having a vineyard that is doing all that work, and also making great wine.
It's like, wow, this is, wow, it's really surprising, because you'd see the same in your property, you'd see things out there like insects and stuff, you've seen before. It's vintage, it's different. It's like you go, "Ah, wow." And that's the beauty of nature. And I think particularly in our world that we have today, which is so disconnected at so many levels, to have that connection to nature, even if it is through a bottle of wine. It's a beautiful thing.
It is, yeah.
And so that story of Cullen and all the people, I mean, we had... it's difficult because I'm a spokesperson, and I've been here since full time since 1989. And maybe before that, since I was born almost, but there is so much contribution from all the people that work there, all the staff. I really want to acknowledge that it is a team effort. And the other beautiful thing that's come out of this with is we've had 50 years of sustainable wine growing. And before that, is 65,000 years of Wardandi sustainable land care. So it's a little bit humbling.
But the what I'd love to think of is that energy of the Wardandi is coming through because of the openness and the live of the soils into the wines, and that sustainable culture is there in our wines. That ancient beautiful land is really truly there in a very tangible, tangible, alive way. And going forwards, I suppose, you'd have the same dream, I don't know, that the whole of this region, the whole of Australia could be [inaudible 00:17:04].
Oh, it would be great.
Because you see what happens to the land. I mean, it's just something that you can't explain. You see the joy coming into work every day, and seeing everything so alive.
The butterflies, and the birds and the insects. I think what, yeah, a lot of people who aren't involved in agriculture see glyphosate, and all it does is just burns the weeds in their driveway, perhaps or... but they're not realizing that it's not just killing the weeds, it's killing all of the microflora that live in the soil, and then the soil will start to degrade, because it can't capture all those micronutrients or fix carbon, and it just goes on and on. And over time, just depletes the soil until it's a wasteland.
And for this region to go organic, one, it's probably the easiest region in Australia to do it. We have the, they say the ocean on three sides, which counter temperatures and all the salt air, which keeps a lot of the mildew down. It rains a lot, but in winter, which is... although, we are getting more summer storms these days, not this summer so far. But yes, no, I totally agree, for this industry to go organic.
And there's the flip side argument, as well, where it is a luxury product. The wines, the beautiful ones that you're making, people expect when they're spending money on a luxury item for themselves that it has providence and ethos behind it that they believe in. And I think organics is certainly one of them. The carbon positive things pretty crazy as well.
Well, it brings something another level of what we can do with agriculture, and I think it's always... particularly with Australia you talk about mining and building as ways to build the economy. And it's like it really, to have that discussion about agriculture and regenerative agriculture, which is starting as a way to really... because we do have the land to do it, we do have the climate to actually promote not just vineyards, but agricultural as well. And I think, the whole thing of rainfall is, if you take the trees away, you take the clouds and the rain away as well.
So, but back to the whole aspect of... I think someone was telling me the other day, there isn't any people that don't have glare phosphide in their hair, because we're essentially, at any stage or in the system, at any stage you end up eating it, and it stays in the system. So it's a good thing to get rid of, not just because of what it does to the land, but we are the land, we are the earth, the earth is us. So if we're killing the earth, essentially, we're killing ourselves. And so, but I think the positive part of it is that, with hard work and with commitment, we can really turn around the world in a way and start carbon sequestration, and turn that that carbon emissions target into something which is not just about having a Tesla car, it's about really changing the world in a way which is connected. It means we'd have better food, we'd have a healthy land, we'd have healthy people. And I think it's a really good way to look at it.
From a wine point of view, to be able to actually have lived through all of that, gone through the minimal chemical inputs, organic biodynamics, and seeing the change in wine quality, and also to see the change in people's perception, and people's tolerance and people's knowledge. When you travel overseas in Asia, in Europe, people are right there, they understand the issues with respect to and that they want organic and biodynamics. One of the issues we have in Australia too is that there's no legislation on organic or biodynamics as would. So if people are buying organic, it might not be organic, because there's no regulation. So that's something that needs to change as well.
And it's my belief that if someone has to be 100% organic or biodynamics to be able to say, they're organic or biodynamics or put it on their label. Because there is an enormous amount of green washing going on, everywhere here and all over Australia, because they can get away with it. So I think that, that integrity and that labeling legislation needs to be in for everyone's benefit, particularly the land. And so the evolution of... Mom and dad, working with mom and dad was a great pleasure, because they were very hardworking, generous. Mom was a matriarch, and her mother was also a suffragette. So there's a long line of female, strong female women in there. And dad worked hard, of course, as a doctor and paid for everything. And so, now we've had this evolution of wine style too from [crosstalk 00:22:06]-
Yes, so talk to that. So with the way that you started, obviously, there was no knowledge really, and nothing to look at what your neighbors are doing or the people on the road. The wines that you made then have been through to the change in organics in the late '90s. How has everything evolved over time?
Yeah, it's changed completely actually. Mom was the wine maker. We had started with a fellow called [inaudible 00:22:31]... Mike [inaudible 00:22:37] was a winemaker in '79 to '80, and then mom took over in '81, and she was the first... Actually, Mike won the trophy with the Sauvignon Blanc, or Semillon Sauvignon Blanc he made in 1979 [inaudible 00:22:50]. Mom was the first woman to win the trophy at the Perth show, so she's really a trailblazer.
But yeah, it was like inoculating with yeast, not a lot of additions but not inoculating with yeast, chilling the juice down, settling overnight, adding enzymes, putting in PVP, which is clarifying agent. Bentonite, finding agents at the end. And it was like the whites were bringing them in, chilling them. We get up at three in the morning, crush, pressed, all those sort of things to get the buckets ready for the next day. But now with biodynamics, we completely shifted so that we have a big harvest in the morning, and we process everything immediately. Essentially, just have to let it settle, then wreck of gross lays. Everything is about keeping the native yeast alive because we donate as if we don't donate anything. And so people always say when they come here to work that they do vintages at different places, "We wish we worked here first, because we didn't understand what you [inaudible 00:23:50]."
Yes. That's amazing. Yeah.
Yeah. So it really is that whole change in the first three days of the wine's life from harvesting around the biodynamics calendar, which is about the fruit days and flower days, and the moon. And the importance of the moon and the connection to earth and sky is I think really important too. So you have all that feeling that goes into the grapes in a very tangible way. They come into the winery, they're sorted again, so everything's hand harvested. They're sorted again, and then depending on the wine style, they'll be crushed, pressed, whole bunch pressed, put into them for a... There's a whole lot of different ways that we make the different wines, essentially to bring out the best character in those wines and it's always experimenting.
Now we make our orange wine, the Sauvignon Blanc Semillon, or Sauvignon Semillon Blanc, or Sauvignon Blanc, which has white wine made like a red wine with... and we've got the preservative free Malbec. And all of the upper echelon wines like the Diana Madeline, the Kevin John and the vine is the legacy series wines. Which iconic wines have all benefited from those biodynamics experiments, I suppose. And it's just having a look and seeing how far you can push things. It's always a bit of a risky and you never know whether the wines are going to ferment or what they're going to do, that I think that risk taking has proven to make wines which are sitting on the edge, and hence... yeah, they're just a little bit more than what we've made before. And so the [inaudible 00:25:35] ferments, the low sulfur dioxide, the skin contact. So there's all been things that both in reds and whites. And lower sulfur dioxide levels have proven to make wines that are just...
Yeah, it's nerve wracking. The whole of vintage is nerve racking, the whole of wines before you release them is nerve racking. I think there's a lot of great ones [inaudible 00:26:01] in the region that are recipe ones, these are artisanal ones. They're one offs, all of them. And then never remade again like that, then so people say, "How do you make the wine?" It's like, well, we look at the grapes, and then we make the decision. And a lot of that's from my point of view to being intuitive. Now, I did a science degree, but it's like, it's more intuitive. So you can make decisions that you just come feel the whole thing from the harvest right through to the wine being in the bottle. But there's never a great wine until you drink it.
That's right, that's right. And I think many people, with your biodynamics that you've in the vineyard and your grapes are coming in more balanced, there's no need to add acid to make up, because they're low or add 10, and because they're not ripe, or fixed color or whatever, it's of-
Red sugar, red water.
Yeah, all of those. Exactly. So, the wine does start in the vineyard, and it's one of those sayings, that seems obvious. I think you touched on it before, that a lot of people don't realize because a lot of wines are made in the winery. You just get the grapes, in and you'd check it all, "I need to pump that pH down a bit, I need to adjust that, adjust this." So, that's exciting.
Yeah. And I think too, and it's a part, if you're a big one, it has to be about numbers. You have to, this is just you can't manage it any other way. And people said, "When mum died, how're you going to grow the winery?" I said, "Well, we're going to get better, we're going to get better wines, not bigger." And that wasn't necessarily what everyone... because everyone thinks if you're going to grow, you have to get bigger.
Yes, that's right.
And I think it's just the artisanal nature and what we do is real. It's just we have make our decisions as the grapes come in. And it's not we have this plan, which this is what we do. I mean, obviously we have a plan, and we do have a budget. We do have a lot of financings, because we have to. Yeah, we've got a mortgage too. For me, it's been a great blessing working on this property. And for 38 years now, I was a winemaker and being able to... it's still exciting, every vintage. Now we've got Andy wine maker in the winery, and Ash and Kim, and then Brandon out in the vineyard. And everybody, I think everybody contributes to the wines and it's a team effort, and that's the best way for it to be.
Exactly, yeah, I agree. So, just to rewind a little bit. When your mum and dad were planting in the vineyard, and you were coming down and cracking the whip, what did the region look like? Was Kays Road beachimized? Was there stores around everywhere? Obviously, it's changed a lot, but what are some things that you remember that could be completely different?
Oh, well, we used to drive cattle and sheep up and down the road.
Because there wasn't any cars.
Because mom and dad's house, they built in the 1970s up there, we used to sit and do cast boarding, and I think it was a lot. If we saw four cars [crosstalk 00:29:11].
Oh, well.
You had more time as people came to visit, and it was like, "Wow, someone's come to visit." It's like you spend all day and all night with them, you'd have dinner with them, they'd come to stay. And you'd never spend anything less than a morning or an afternoon with them, and usually, it was the whole day, and have them for lunch and dinner. And people visiting, it was exciting when people came to visit because no one ever did.
And I remember when Robert Mondavi came down, and we were doing... funnily enough, Sauvignon Blanc skin ferment. [crosstalk 00:29:49]-
... at the back, and he was very fascinated by that. So, that must have been early '80s. And so when Robert Mondavi Winery doing experimenting in 1985 with Sauvignon Blanc skin ferment, [crosstalk 00:30:01]-
Wow. And that's in an apple?
In an apple.
Yeah, fantastic.
But that was it, Robert Mondavi is here, I thought... And it just was a very different time, I think where everyone knew each other too. So if you go along the road [inaudible 00:30:19] meeting, you know everyone. Whereas now you go along, you don't know anyone. You know some people but not... it's a very different world. And I think that was like everyone used to socialize together, everyone caught up all the time. I think it was a time when everyone was helping each other. And then I think I look at it in three ways being and sort of surfy, but still lots of beach, going swimming every day. You had the first wave, we had the pioneers. And then you had the second wave where it was in the late '70s, '80s. When restaurants starts to come in, like flutes set up their restaurant, show actually, my sister set up the first food bar here. She used to serve Cornish pasties. [crosstalk 00:31:04].
Oh, lovely. Yeah, great.
Most of the staff, [inaudible 00:31:07] most of them. But those lonely travelers that came down that didn't have anything to eat, we felt that they needed something to eat. And we used to sell bottles, we sell wine by the bottle because no one ever bought cases.
Our first sale was in 1976. We won a gold medal at the Melbourne Wine Show, and someone ran from Melbourne and ordered three dozen. It was like, "Three dozen? Oh my God."
Oh, well.
It was really exciting. So and then the fax machine. I remember that first fax coming from London. Our fax machine in the barrel, because we didn't have an office. So it's like, "Look at that. It's coming from London." You know that soft paper-
Yeah, yeah.
... that faded?
So yeah, I think the feeling was... I suppose a stronger sense of community marketing didn't exist. There wasn't any wine tax.
The wine was, I think $1.60 was our first release. I think, 1983.
$1.60 a bottle?
Yeah, $1. 1993, two Cabernets that was just picked up the post by the Kevin [Amirlo 00:32:09], by the Jimmy Watson, by Caitlin too. With $6 a bottle, and it took three years to sell, because no one wants Kevin Amirlo. A lot of that, when you look at where it's like 50%. And then mom used to manage everything out of a washing bath, and tax people that come down, say she was the most organized person in the district. But now we've got six computers and 10... and it's essentially to run the same size business. It's like, mom could do it all because it's just the bureaucracy you head then. So now we've got yeah, chief operational officer, we've got 1, 2, 3, 4, I don't know, we've got about six computers, we got a restaurant Celadon. We used to have one person doing the whole front of house food and wine, that's how busy it was.
Really. Really?
How long ago was that?
That was in the '80s and '90s.
Okay. So just doing the Cornish pasties and [crosstalk 00:33:04]-
No, Cornish pasties has got to be too hard work, it's the vineyard platters.
Oh, yes. No, my wife and I, for years have all the way through the, I guess from '98 onwards, we'd come in, sneak in here always, and have a vineyard platter. The table was there, but it's a different table now.
No, it's still same tree, [crosstalk 00:33:23].
Yes. [inaudible 00:33:24].
And the other would end in the female trees, those pigments.
Old pigments or?
Old pigments.
Oh, [inaudible 00:33:29].
Anyway, so they've been there, they were there when they... because this was originally an old rookie house, and they just extended it bit by bit and made it into something which still sits in the environment as it did, but with a bit more comfortable than it was before. We still have the wooden tables and the vineyard platter.
So yeah, it's nice and like yourself, you and your wife, you have good memories of that time. And I think that human content to want that connection is really lovely to be here and to experience it. So that's what we're trying to capture in the [sundallers 00:34:03] we're having. The 50, is all those people that had great times at Cullen can come along and celebrate that.
And in a fun way that isn't about serious wine, wine tastings, and-
And when are these sundallers?
Well, they've been in the Fridays and Saturdays through January. So we got two coming up next Friday at 15th and 16th, there may be a bit of music, and a bit of storytelling, and then 22nd, 23rd, the 23rd is a ticketed event. It's not much different, it's just ticketed.
Sure. Obviously, it's a long weekend. Yeah.
Yeah. So it's been fun. It's been nice having that. Yeah, just that sense of coming back. And because there's so many people that have been involved, it's overwhelming to try and involve everybody, and also totally be grateful and appreciate everything that everybody has given to the 50 years of Cullens and it's amazing to actually be here. And one of the pivotal stories I think, if you talk about understanding which grape varieties grow well here, and we all know Kevin and Sauvignon does well, John Benson's recommended that. But we can only get Riesling as our second variety, so we plan Riesling. Funnily enough, our first trophy was 1977 Riesling at the campus show.
Yeah, this white one, this small vineyard white won the show. That obviously it's not... [inaudible 00:35:21] is a nice one, but it's not a great one. So when I took over wine maker from mom in 1989, I said, "Look, I don't want to make a variety of Riesling anymore." And she said, "Okay, no worries." So I went away and I was in Sydney, I think, and I rang back to see how the Riesling was going. And she said, "Oh, darling, we bottled it yesterday." Those things of working with your mother, and [crosstalk 00:35:47].
Thanks, mom.
So yeah, we made it. And I think mom had the first ultrafilter too, which is now everyone has crossflow.
Oh, yes.
Yeah, but we had the first version of that, and this was a real experimenter and tried everything. But yeah, the Riesling, we still have some bottles of ultra filtered Riesling for 1995 Ryan Riesling as was.
Oh, really, from the road.
Yeah. We made [inaudible 00:36:12] Cabernet, [inaudible 00:36:13] of... It's like there's all sorts of different era things of what was important as we understood what the region was about, and what made the best quality wines, and I think ultimately it does come down to the Cabernet Sauvignon and family. The Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon shadowmaker as well everywhere, have it culturally not that suited but makes a great wine. Malbec and Petit Verdot. Mirlo clients need to be looked at, but I think people say you're going to plant new varieties, it's like, well, we're still really working on the ones that we know do well here. I don't think it's hot enough for great Nebbiolo or [inaudible 00:36:49], or [inaudible 00:36:51] Vaizey. And it's a Mediterranean maritime climate, John Gladstones got it so right the beginning with all his... because he is so knowledgeable about... he's the world's greatest expert on viticulture and climate wine. He's actually just updated his book.
I've heard that, yeah. Is the book out [inaudible 00:37:08]?
He's still publishing, so not yet. No, no, he's just done that. But yeah, so he certainly is very active mind still. He [inaudible 00:37:16] John, and he just... In fact, to his credit, he was a very great critic of biodynamics, and he's completely changed his mind. And when I went there the last time, he showed me his favorite biodynamics book.
And I thought that is the nature of John, and because we sent him some wine, just because he's a good friend. He's done so much for Margaret River and the region and Australia really. And I sent him Classic Cabernet Sauvignon that, and he rang me up, he said, "Vanya, very nice. I really like the ones but where's the amber, the orange part?" And I thought, he's such an inquisitive scientific mind with no agendas, just his own personal interest in wine, and the region because his paper was what started it. And if ever you want to ring him up, he'd love a chat. He is just such an amazing man to talk to.
And he would be a great person to [crosstalk 00:38:14].
And he's based in Perth?
He's on phone, he could do it on phone.
Oh, you might have to go there. Yeah.
Yeah, but [inaudible 00:38:21].
But honestly, amazing. He's just such a sharp mind.
Great. I'll take you up on that one [crosstalk 00:38:28].
And you think of that, you think that he recommend [inaudible 00:38:30] Cabernet Sauvignon all those years ago, you go through all these things [inaudible 00:38:33], we had a blocked in a while, we had a [inaudible 00:38:36] Cabernet, we had all of this stuff. And bit by bit you just work out, "Well, this is our strength."
And then we put the natural, the biodynamics on top of it, and it's like we can only go forwards as a region. Hopefully, Cullen Wine can go forward as a family company. I think we're one of the few family companies that's still a family company. I think we [inaudible 00:38:54] Woodlands, they haven't changed hands.
Yeah, true.
Once I've had a coffee, I can just keep talking.
No, this is good.
Just interrupt.
I'm not interrupting at all, I'm enjoying this. Yeah.
I get my black coffee, and that's it. But yeah, I mean, there's so many stories, there's so many aspects. And like yesterday, on Saturday and Sunday, mom and dad in 1943 also wrote a song called Reflections in a Wineglass with their friend, Gill Princeton, and it won second prize in the Melbourne Song Competition, and was played by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.
And two years ago, they made NLP, but we lost it. So about two years ago, Noah Shokan, who's an amazing musician in Perth, he loves history of musical family history. So he got me to sing the song, as I remember seeing it with dad. And he actually did the music, and then got another lady, Novec, recording it. So we've actually got it recorded as a song for family history going forwards, and it's all about... it's very wartime and very...
But those little stories too, I've always sung that song and why didn't-
I think I was here, and you sang it at a harvest moon dinner.
So it's like that. And I think biodynamics, everything is vibration, biodynamics is about vibration, music is vibration. So it's like carrying those stories through oral history in a way, and this is another oral history that we're doing today. But keeping that all those things alive and having great wine, and family and friends and colleagues, as a part of that is really... we're very blessed, and I'm very grateful to live that life.
Right. Oh, well I have to listen to it.
We can play it if you like [crosstalk 00:40:46]-
I was thinking, yeah, maybe. Perhaps it's when we finish the podcast, I could [crosstalk 00:40:52] plug it into the end of the podcast, so everybody could listen. Or is it [inaudible 00:40:55] season stuff involved?
No. Okay.
[crosstalk 00:40:57]-
Fantastic. Stay tuned for a song. Oh, great. So you're evolving, the wine styles have evolved, as you mentioned. You've got Amber, you're doing a Petiton Natural as well. Anything new that we don't know about that we can get a scoop on?
Yeah, it's interesting being both things like having iconic classical wines, like the Diana Madeline, Kevin John, and then having the natural one. So we call them the supernatural wines, just want to differentiate them from the iconic natural ones. And so you've got the amber, the orange one, you've got the PF Malbec, and you've got the Pinot noir natural. And we were hoping for this year to do a white and a red rose a Pinot noir natural, so that we bubbles for the 20... we do have a 2021 in 2021 to celebrate the 50.
Of course, yes.
Yeah. So there'll be something new. And there's always something new that we're looking at. If there's something there that looks like we should make it, we make it and we can't till the harvest. We're releasing with above the, not above, but we've got these legacy ones which are biodynamics, at least in a one off. So we've got a Malbec, new Sauvignon Blanc coming out, legacy Sauvignon Blanc, and the Vanya and the Kevin John Shanna legacy. So we'll have them coming out in the middle of the year. We've got the fourth, biannual Kevin John and Diana Madeline awards for excellence in June, weekend. So we're having a big shindig with lots of tastings at that time. So those ones we'll be releasing.
But I think, you know yourself, you make your wines which where... but it's always good to actually travel either side of it, and see if there's something that could come about as a different style of wine. We may come in opposite settings Sauvignon Blanc, but looks like this harvest is not going to be any fruit and flower day in opposite setting and they're very few anyway.
So it's going to be an interesting harvest because there's not a lot of... there's fruit flower days, obviously, but there's not a lot of full moons in opposite settings, sort of thing going on-
They've become [inaudible 00:43:08].
... compared to this last five, six years.
And so with the vineyards, you have the site that we're sitting on now at the biodynamics wine room, and then Mangan is across the road?
Yeah, that's a good question, actually. So all of our fruit is sourced from two vineyards. So we have Cullen vineyard planted in 1976 to 1988, it was the last planning crossroad. And then Mangan vineyard that was planted in 1995 to '97. It's called Mangan at my sister-in-law, Bettina, her maiden name is Mangan and, and Rick Cullen and Bettina planted the vineyard.
And Cullen Wines have since bought that property.
Another part of the story of that is that we very much see ourselves as being in the Wilyabrup region of Margaret River. Wilyabrup means a place of red ochre, which pertains to the gravel soils. It was the first region in the region to be planted. I think every place makes different wine. And there was a group that put in a GI application to acknowledge that difference. It wasn't about being better or worse, but just to acknowledge the difference in the land, and the characters that are given an unknown through winemakers throughout the region to give those different characters as you travel down the 119 kilometers from [inaudible 00:44:29]-
Lighthouse to lighthouse?
Lighthouse to lighthouse.
There's a three to four week window in harvest time to start us. So, that's a beautiful thing to acknowledge that land and those characters, and we all know what they are particularly for Cabernet Sauvignon. So we are Wilyabrup Margaret River producer, and I think that's the next stage. I mean, all other wine regions in the world like Bordeaux, you've got [Pauillac 00:44:55], [inaudible 00:44:56]. They acknowledged those differences. And I think in terms of the maturity of the region and going forwards, it's very important to acknowledge those places, and all of them. And then people can talk about, "Oh, we're going up Yallingup." And we know that Yallingup yield those beautiful bright fruits, those lively characters, and further south you get the more savory, in blue fruits and things.
So I think that's the next in terms of the region. That's the next step that are going forwards to not just have a Margaret River brand that is homogenous, where we say that there's no difference in Margaret River fruit when we know actually, the truth is there's a great differences in fruit, which is very beautiful. And to honor that as a part of our wine making maturity.
I think so. I think, yeah, will evolve to identify all the sub regions and-
They're already identified, John Gladstones, actually did work in 1999. I was doing one choice at that time, and I was probably judging seven wine shows a year and everybody just described Margarita Cabernet Sauvignon as being green.
And I said, "Well, it's not green." I went back, and spoke to Keith [inaudible 00:46:07], and Keith said, well, he agreed. And we decided that John Gladstones would be the independent person because he doesn't have an agenda.
Right. An independent person to-
Yeah. To maybe talk to about it, because it wouldn't be agreement with winemakers in Margaret River. And-
We're all very agreeable, are we?
Agreeable with ourselves. So, and he'd actually thought about him, because he'd been involved in a lot of other regional classifications with respect to GIS throughout Australia.
And so he had already done our proposed sub regions, and he was very much... So Keith and I and Claire put together this sub regional tasting in 1999. And we actually had more or less death threats from people, people were hostile [crosstalk 00:46:58].
Oh, yeah, it was really intense. And then what happened? I think we had over 70 wines. We had the Choir Marpol and James, they came across some [inaudible 00:47:09] hook. And what was very clear, was that there was... and this was at a time when people weren't cross regional blending. They weren't doing, what do you call it, cross flow filtration, osmosis. They weren't altering their wines, any way to make an off site style.
We were like, "Wow," it didn't show better or worse, it just show, "Wow." There were unbelievable different.
And John had pretty much caught the taste in his sub regional map, which he had done based on. He didn't do it on soil, because he said with his experience in Coonawarra, so it wasn't the issue. He said it was the wind and the maritime influence. So then based on the ridges, so the wind was the large effect. And also, the drainage systems to do with the creeks. And of course, said it was a proposed sub region. And then from then on, everybody, all the winemakers referred to the different sub regions in the pitchers of fruit. I mean, if you look now, you look at by Wilyabrup fruit, or by Caravelle, fruit.
And I think that people know, people know. I mean, the line is always a difficult one to draw as to where. But it was very saddening to say that there was a big opposition put forward by the Wine Industry Association to oppose it. And they weren't completely successful, and we weren't completely unsuccessful. But if they hadn't, it would have gone through, and it would have been a huge leap forward for this region. As it is, it's a step back 30 years going back into what the Australian wine industry was.
When I started traveling overseas back in the '90s, it was just brand Australia, and the large companies were... the house wines were the ones that Australian wines were known for. And if you go anywhere, people expect you to have sub regions. If you just say, "From Margaret River," is people that have big Margaret River, and then they understand you have no maturity with respect to the understanding of the land. We do have that understanding. And even more so with the biodynamics, we do have that understanding. And I see it as it wouldn't have affected anyone's business. It just would have been putting Wilyabrup on the label and protecting the name more than anything.
And then you've got all the Yallingups, who had all these other wonderful places that made amazing wine. So yeah, well, we'll see what happens with that. We have to let it all go and travel forwards and not worry about it.
Well, John Gladstones new book, does that go into more detail about the sub regions, or is it-
No, no, no, no, no, no. His book is just an update on his... it's the only book of its kind in Australia that describes viticulture and climate. So he really has done as much as he... his paper with respect to, I don't know, you probably haven't read it, what he submitted to the GI was, it covered the whole of Margaret River. And what he felt for the whole of Margaret River. I can get a copy of it for you. He said, "This will be my last piece of it." And dear John, his eyelashes were growing into his eyes as he was writing. He hasn't had any money or payment for any of this. He does it because of the love of it, and what he believes to be the truth. And he is the world expert on Australia. And Viticulture and Climate is the textbook. It's so much statistics and numbers. It's amazing.
But yeah, he's been updating all of that. I'm not sure whether he's finished it, but he's certainly on the road to doing it. I thought he had, but he might not have published it. He still publishes everything now anyway.
Yeah, okay.
But no, really wonderful. And to have him here, and to have that asset for all of us in Margaret River, is really a wonderful thing. And his opinions on viticulture and climate are probably the most knowledgeable in the world.
Right. Yeah, okay. No, [crosstalk 00:51:22]-
It's quite exciting, really. And I try and stay in a really good [inaudible 00:51:25]. We're still allowed to call it Wilyabrup. We still do, but there's no protection on the name, Wilyabrup and anyone can use it anywhere. It's a bit organic and biodynamics.
A bit like organics. Yeah. No, I think with the organics as well, I think we're the only developed nation that doesn't have any lore around them. Yeah.
Mm-hmm (affirmative).
I remember because we're both certified with the same body.
Yeah, exactly.
I think they're getting close from talking to them [crosstalk 00:51:49] last year.
Yeah, yeah. Yeah.
I think they've got a meeting coming up, I mean, on the 19th or something.
Yeah, we do.
Cool. So. Okay-
Actually, we'll get that through this year. That'd be really great, wouldn't it?
Yeah, I think, it was Nikki telling me that... Sorry, so this is Nikki for that. It was only the first stage had been done, and that was just... I don't understand how it all works, of course, but-
No, we just did to endorse it.
So moving forward for yourselves now, we've got vintage coming up. Have you got enough pickers so they get a call out?
Well, look, COVID is another interesting spin on life. And with everything really staying the same, because you've got to look after the vineyard and do the wines. We've been very lucky and blessed in Western Australia, because we've had minimal effects on all of those activities. But having said that, all our operations are hand harvested. So we're hoping that we're going to be able to get good enough hand, it's just... and people would come in. And I think that they're working on legislation to change that to bring more people in. But that could be the only thing if it's a big harvest that we could be affected by because we don't machine harvest.
Sure. Yeah, we still do a little machine harvesting. We're lucky being a bit further north. You explained before, there's like a three to four week window between picking because of the distance in Margaret River.
We're up north of just on the edge of Yallingup. And so we get some and because we do pick early, not having to correct acid down the track, we are lucky enough to have the peak of everyone. So we wear them out, and then we just send them further south.
[inaudible 00:53:36], absolutely.
So it's one of the advantage that we have, but no, I think, we're very lucky in one sense with being able to trade and stay open, unlike a lot of the rest of Australia and the world. But yeah, there's going to be some challenges. I don't know about here, but our vineyard is looking like a pretty decent crop, which is nice.
Yeah, it's fantastic. Because 2019, we were affected by frost.
And then in 2020, we have a drought. So both years were very low, particularly with respect to Chardonnay. So we're looking at there, we're just about to put our nits on now, because it's starting to go through Verizon. The birds haven't come in yet, fortunately, and we'll just have to say... I mean, it was forecast to be the wettest Chardonnay for 20 years.
And fortunately, we haven't seen that yet.
No, not yet. But November was the wettest, I believe.
Yeah, it was. Yeah, we needed the rain [inaudible 00:54:30], it was... yeah. And we had some legal issues, but they seem to have abated. But yeah, no, it's looking like... if the weather continues like this, it could be just touchwood, an amazing harvest here. Touchwood.
Yeah, but in terms of the front of house, it's been challenging with respect to hospitality staff.
We changed the whole way we run the restaurant because of the biodynamics winery with dining, just because we have to have a set menu now. And because of the staff we can't get a lot of staff, because all of our staff were essentially... these are workers, but they're still up. [crosstalk 00:55:11].
Yeah. Now we were the same during that first stage we became... so we've only had a small tasting room, but when... I can't remember the phase four, phase three, we had to serve foods and we were a sold out restaurant for four weeks, only serving per persons. As you know, [inaudible 00:55:30] lunches of vineyard platters. Yeah, so that was our little four week foray into being a restaurant and that almost killed us, but we got through.
No, it's not easy running a restaurant, or having food or the whole aspect of people's expectations. The other thing that's changing here is we were two headed restaurant, and that meant we had 26 things on the menu. And even though we have our vegetable garden out there that we had vegetable trucks coming in, and lots of wastage, which is not something that we wanted, but now into our annual executive chef and his team have got 90% of the produce from the garden. So it's really fantastic. And you can really taste that difference of having everything, that's the biodynamics food from our three gardens that we have.
Garden is busy at this time of year harvesting, but to be able to have a three course set menu means you can actually do that. So you can plan the garden, you can plan the menu, and you can also have sustainability, a very real part of the whole business, which wasn't before. It was but now it really it's great joy to redefine this space as a biodynamics winery. We've got the green curtains, all the plants. So with one room now and it's about oneness. And I've got tastings in one area and dining facilities in the other. And it's quite a big shift, because it's all about... Celadon Restaurant discussion is so old and entrenched. It's taken us 10 months to actually [crosstalk 00:57:05] out of it.
And you keep slipping back into Celadon [inaudible 00:57:07], but with one room, with one team and a really one front of house manager, and that's being able to have that front of house culture as well. Part of the uplifting experience of biodynamics. And the whole story of 50 years is about being uplifted and having great times with family and friends that you remember as a part of your life. And really great stories. Someone contacted me on email and said, "This is a picture of your mom in..." I think it was 1993 or something.
And she did come in here on their honeymoon, and she was at Celadon. And she took them around the cellar and gave them a tasting. Then she gave them a bottle of wine for their wedding. And they kept the wine, and 25 years later they'd opened it. And they said that, "We just want you to know that Cullen Wines. And your mom is a very happy part of their marriage."
Oh, it's beautiful.
So things like that, it's like, well, so you'd have those experiences too with people with your wines. It's just a wonderful way to, yeah, have a nice time with friends and family and colleagues, and it's all of those things. And that we're very lucky to be sitting here in the Cullen Biodynamics Wine Room, looking at the Chardonnay wine, and wondering about... it starts to get a bit nervous at this time of year though, that edginess starts to come in, you can't help it. You just think, "What's wrong with me?" It's like, it's that time-
We're getting close, we're getting close. Are we ready? We're getting ready? What are [crosstalk 00:58:37].
Yes. No, no, when do you think you'll start harvest?
We're just in Verizon ourselves, now.
So, I think it's going to be a pretty average year. We're thinking mid Feb, we might start looking at some Chardonnay.
And then, yeah, by the end of February, we would have had a few other whites off maybe a bit of Shiraz for some carbonic Nouveau style stuff.
Yep. Oh, nice.
Yeah, and some Shannon.
Yeah, it is-
It's the other big variety that's up and running with you guys and Nick Pelican and a whole of other people in the region that are doing good things with Shannon.
With Shannon, yeah. We inherited the Shannon when we bought the new vineyard. It's like, "What do we do with this?" So we're like, "Shannon five ways, we make it into a Petite Noir. Can we do a skin ferment? And there's lots of things that keep us busy."
Which is good.
So I'm just noticing that there's a few people coming in for the [inaudible 00:59:27] winery, which is great. We're sitting here.
In the dining area.
Yes. We're not eating. Anything else that you'd like to talk about or add to?
Look, I think, the feature of the region is very bright. And I'd like to think that sustainability is a big part of that quality discussion. And that we can make a difference and make a change. This is my sister, [inaudible 00:59:53]. And just feel very incredibly grateful. I'm blessed to be a part of it all. And maybe too, we can have some input from the indigenous cultures that had 65,000 years of land culture going forward says too, and to have that whole big connection of nature and wine and beauty as a part of our lives.
Wonderful. Thank you. You're all very lucky to have yourself and Cullen Wines in our lives.
Thank you, Ben. Thank you for doing all this. It's a big commitment with all [crosstalk 01:00:34].
Yeah, I know. What happened is I bought all the gear and then it sat around for a while and my wife gave me an ultimatum, either put it on eBay and sell it or use it. So-
That's it.
... now here we are.
Good incentive.
Yes, it is.
That's right, yeah.
No, thank you very much. And thanks, everyone for listening. We will-
And a little bit vintage.
And you too, and you too.
And perhaps standby for a song. Are you going to be singing the song?
No, I will not. I think it'd be better if someone else did. Hang up. Do you want me to send it to you?
That's easy. Yeah.
Yeah, okay. Cool.
All right. Thanks again.
Thank you. Okay, see you.
Well, thanks for listening and making it this far. That was a great little conversation. We're about to play a song, Reflections in a Wine Glass which is coming up. Remember, you can navigate to where I have a page set up with links to all sorts of things that we've spoken about, including biodynamics, John Gladstones's new book, Viticulture and the Environment and a link to where to buy that.
You can contact Cullen Wines at their website, Instagram @cullenwines or @vanyacullen. If you feel like picking some grapes, I'm sure you could get in contact with Cullen Wines and get out there and help. Trust you enjoy this song coming up. And until next time, see you later.

















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