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The Decanter interview

Vanya Cullen: The passionate West Australian environmentalist raised eyebrows with her recent attack on corks. She tells Anthony Rose of her parents’ huge influence, and whybiodynamics is ‘the ultimate in letting go’

Vanya Cullen isn’t sure if it was harvesting on a full moon fruit day or the earliest harvest on record that made the 2007 Kevin John Chardonnay the exceptional dry white wine it turned out to be. Either way, winning the International Chardonnay Over £10 Trophy at the 2010 Decanter World Wine Awards, beating the best of Burgundy in the process, was more than a personal triumph. It was a vindication of biodynamics in Margaret River in the face of an often sceptical Aussie eye. Her only regret was that her parents, who planted their first trial acre of vines at Wilyabrup in 1966, were no longer there to share the recognition with her.

To call Diana Madeline and Kevin John Cullen astrong influence is a vast understatement. It wasn’t just the family business that Vanya Cullen took over after her mother died in 2003, but a proud legacy of caring for the environment and a commitment to quality. ‘Mum and Dad had their first environmental challenge in 1966 when they succeeded in preventing the mining of bauxite within half a mile on and offshore,’ says Cullen. Today, she is deeply involved herself in fighting proposals for coal mining and offshore oil exploration in Margaret River. She’s also battling a proposal for a neighbouring brewery, whose yeasts she’s convinced would contaminate her vineyard and wines.

‘40 years have been spent creating Western Australia’s Margaret River brand, which is the purest, most unpolluted wine region in the world.The effect would be devastating because people come from all over the world to experience the pristine beaches, the forests and the wine industry.’In line with her determination to protect Margaret River as an area of environmental purity and scenic beauty, Cullen dreams of seeing the entire area powered by renewable energy. Her house is already solar-powered and the winery pays an extra tariff to get energy from wind farms in Albany on the southern coast.

Family ties

After her father died, Cullen, a graduate of Adelaide’s Roseworthy Agricultural College, ran Cullen Wines with her mother Di, an immensely strong personality in a deceptively frail frame – ‘a matriarch in controlof everything’ says Vanya, recalling how well the business ran, given Di’s methods. ‘When she died, we had to modernise… She kept the accounts in a washing basket clipped together with pegs!’ Since 2003, Vanya has been custodian for her five
brothers and sisters and nine nieces and nephews, all of whom (‘strong personalities’, she laughs) take an interest in what’s going on. Two of her sisters, Ariane and Shelley, are on the board, while her nephew Nick and niece Emma are now old enough to take an interest in the winery.

At one stage, she and her mother were offered ‘a huge amount of money’ by Baron Philippe de Rothschild to sell, but then asked themselves why.‘The temptation is always there to make a lot of money quickly, but I can’t see it happening. We’ve always remained small, with a philosophy of quality and a legacy of caring for the environment.’ A strong sense of family holds it all together. ‘People like talking to the family and it creates a nice feeling of empathy as wine is a human product. Wine at its best is about connecting and having a deeper sense of family and friendship’. Despite this view, Cullen’s relatively small size made her turn down overtures to join the fledgling group Australia’s First Families of Wine, an association set up to promote premium, family-owned producers. While modernising the business has meant training staff and upgrading equipment, Cullen claims to do less in the vineyard and cellar since a shift to indigenous yeasts and no acid or malic culture additions. Working on the property since 1971 has helped achieve a greater sense of place in the bottle. ‘You can’t take away that experience of knowing the land. That’s how you can take away the risks, or the perceived risks. Young winemakers who come and harvest can’t believe it. They ask what we do, and we say “nothing”. Biodynamics is the ultimate in letting go’.

Love for the land

Cullen admits that when they first stopped using cultured yeasts, they wondered if the grapes would ferment. ‘It’s so much better now. If you have quality fruit coming in and the fruit is processed within an hour of harvesting, you’re taking all the life from the vineyard into the winery. I want to harvest the “aliveness” of the wine. It’s not about lower yields,but healthier plants. If we brought it in and chilled it in line with current Australian practice – putting it through a must chiller and adding yeast – we wouldn’t have as many yeast numbers to start fermenting. The aim there is to kill off wild yeasts because you have less control over the fermentation.’

She calls insects and weeds her ‘friends’ because they’re indicators of where the problems lie and how to resolve them. ‘Where we have weevil problems, we till the soil more and in the vineyard we do under-vine weeding when weevils are about to emerge so we expose all the larvae. We’ve had good success’. Similarly with kikuyu grass (a weed) they just dig it up with the tractor. ‘People come in and say they love to see our biodynamic vineyards, they’re so messy, but I don’t think they’re messy. They’re alive. Walking in the Diana Madeline vineyard is like being in the Gardens of Babylon.’

Recent severe vintages and a general awareness of climate change and the environment have helped to focus attention on biodynamics, she feels. Yet while the number of biodynamic producers in Australia has shot to 110 in a relatively short space of time, she’s puzzled that there aren’t more in Margaret River. She’s an admirer of Dr John Gladstones, the agronomist whose recommendation in 1965 to plant Bordeaux varieties in Margaret River based on its Mediterranean climate and gravelly Forest Grove soils inspired her parents to plant a vineyard in 1966. But she was disappointed Gladstones spoke out against biodynamics in 2007 at neighbour Vasse Felix’s 40th anniversary party.

Nature’s nurture

Cullen feels a greater kinship with biodynamic producers around the world than with most Australian producers, especially the big brands. ‘Some people perceive biodynamics as way out, a freaky thing. It’s the element of faith and saying “I don’t know” that’s very challenging, but I think life has that anyway and it’s about acknowledging that,
and having the humility to bow down in awe and wonder at nature. The basis of the Australian wine
industry is that everything has to have scientific proof. Ego may be part of it, but the industry has been built on scientific research. There are many investment-driven wineries in Australia where people are accountable to a board, so how can you justify taking that risk in an economic sense?’

‘Some winemakers say they’re doing the samethings, getting the same results in reducing alcohols and getting riper fruit, but they’re not using biodynamics. People get quite aggressive about that towards me. The holistic nature of biodynamics means you can’t take one part without the other. But, hey, it’s better to focus on what we’re doing, and we work incredibly hard on aiming for quality in the vineyard and winery.’ But there’s one thing, at least, in which she agrees with the industry: her espousal of screwcaps. ‘We’re talking about reflecting a sense of place through purity of fruit in the bottle,’ she wrote in Decanter’s October 2010 issue. ‘To then add a random winemaking influence by the addition of mouldy cork… Madness!’ The column garnered a wealth of reaction, not all of it favourable.

Making her mark

Cullen carries out all-important operations on fruit and flower days in the biodynamic calendar, whiletastings are done on fruit days where possible. ‘You can organise your year around where the planets are and that acknowledgment of nature is vital. You constantly get surprises and there’s always a sense of renewal and change. I’ve never had a sceptical consumer. People taste the wines and they like them. I think they’re better since we’ve been farming biodynamically because the vines are healthier, having established their own regime. It makes sense. People who say they can’t normally drink red wine don’t get sick from drinking ours.’

As a woman in a male-dominated industry, Cullen has learnt to grow a tough external shell. She became the Qantas/Australian Gourmet Traveller Wine magazine’s Winemaker of the Year in 2000– the first woman to win the award – and the first Australian female chair of the Southern Victorian Wine Show in 2004. She’s also been chair of the Western Australian Wine Show held in Mount Barker. ‘James Halliday, Len Evans and Ian McKenzie were all fantastic mentors and encouraged me. Dad too, as achampion of women’s rights, was very supportive of women and felt that Mum and I would make a terrific team. Having parents with that foresight gives you the background to see things through’.

Along with her role as managing director, chief winemaker and Gaia-like custodian of the environment, Cullen delights in beach and bush walking, yoga, swimming and surfing. Experiencing nature first hand is as much part of her life as her work. Music is important too. A grand piano dominates the living room and she sings once a year at the Cullen International ChardonnayTasting, usually George Gershwin’s Summertime. ‘Sometimes I think the wines have a note to them, a vibration or hum,’ she says, imagining putting together a symphony of wines.

Written by Anthony Rose

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