With her the first year of music studies complete, Vanya Cullen had set her sights on Adelaide when her father, a doctor with a passion for sustainable farming practices, announced he’d booked her into wine school! That was more than 20 years ago and she hasn’t regretted that parental move one bit, as her family vineyard produces organic wine in a sustainable way from the 70 hectares under its care.
Vanya: I remember being really cross but I was really lucky to have a father like Kevin as he obviously saw more than me. And it was a nice compliment to have the wine and the music. It seems to have worked. I’ve been here 26 years, so there you go.
Cullen Wines was established by my parents, who always wanted to farm, caring for the environment and making the best quality wine, which they did on their Margaret River property [in Western Australia].
Mum, a physiotherapist, told the story of people working here who didn’t have enough money to buy their children school shoes. As the soil is poor, it just wasn’t good for agriculture, other than premium wine growing. It has changed such a lot in a short time. They set out and planted Cabernet Sauvignon and Rieslings on the basis of their friend Dr John Gladstones saying that Margaret River would be a good place.
Gladstones was a world-renowned agronomist, did a study in 1965 looking at great wine regions of the world and comparing them to potential great sites in Western Australia.
So how did your parents become organic wine savvy?
What amazes me is that they were pioneers – they had this passion and they learnt from books. While there was the knowledge of how to grow wine grapes, there wasn’t knowledge in the Margaret River. There was no pool of trained labour so we trained everybody, including ourselves. And there was a wonderful man who used to come down on weekends. He’s no longer alive but he used to help everybody and it was very much a community spirit of everyone trying to learn and help each other.
Did your parents throw in their day jobs?
Dad still worked as a doctor to pay for everything and Mum used to come out, after putting all us six kids in school, and look after the farm. She had a great work ethic.
Was it always focused on organic methods?
We started as a minimum chemical input vineyard [in 1971]. Because it was so old, then we went to organics and then to biodynamic. Biodynamics is a process designed by Rudolph Steiner a philosopher who was asked by German farmers [to look into alternative practices] in response to their cattle becoming infertile and their seeds not reproducing from the effects of the chemicals. Hence he gave a series of lectures about a system of agriculture which is now known as biodynamics.
And they’re practices you implement at Cullen?
Yes. Compost goes really sweet with billions of microflora that actually enliven the soil, it’s not a fertiliser, it just adds the microflora that the chemicals take away. Biodynamics is absolutely wonderful because it’s a holistic way of farming so you look at everything and use the biodynamic homeopathic remedies.
We’re trying to use the energy of nature. I think we produce better quality fruits because the vines are healthier and it’s sustainable. Biodynamic practitioners will do it slightly differently, according to certification.
At what point did you swing to organic ways?
We made a commitment in 2000 to be organic.
And what drove that?
Well, we looked at the vines – our most valuable asset – the old vines were really unhealthy because they were on old soils. [After implementing the organic practices], it was really noticeable, even within a year, that we had much better vines. When we were certified organic in 2003, our manager went to a biodynamic field day and we just said, ‘Well that is the next step’ to go into the holistic way of working with nature and a process evolved really.
Vines farmed biodynamically produce the best quality fruit. You enable the land to express itself through the vine and produce something truly unique to that place and no one else can make that wine because it’s not controlled by chemicals. It’s more about how the vine sits best in that place.
Does this philosophy extend beyond the vines? What about recycling aspect – the bottles, the business, the labels, cork versus screw-top?
We were the first winery to have a carbon neutral policy in Australia. We do everything we can, but it’s little steps, one at a time. We’re now certified carbon neutral. We don’t have heavy bottles, all of our paper is recycled, and we look at as much as we can to try to reduce our energy usage. The screw caps? You can always argue either way for screw or cork, but each decision is trying to make it better. Lower our emissions, lower our energy use. We do carpooling with the staff as much as we can. You still find yourself driving to Perth, getting on a plane but we have cut back overseas travel.
We have think tanks with the staff. If anyone has any suggestions how we can make things better, it’s taken on board as soon as we can. Our refrigeration system was drawing a lot of energy and we’ve [recently] replaced that so that will be a big cut. You can make a difference by taking little steps.
We pay an extra tariff to have our energy come through the Albany Wind Farm.
Is the tariff high?
It is higher. At this stage it’s worth us paying that to try and make a difference where we can.
And in terms of working out that carbon neutral position, do you have someone there who actually does the tally?
We are certified through No CO2 [Carbon Reduction Institute], they’re actually based in Sydney because at the time there was no one in Western Australia. We’re with, Men of the Trees, to offset our travel and power (before we went onto natural wind power) by planting trees. There are so many people saying ‘You don’t do this and you don’t do that’ but at least we’re actually trying. They do our audit each year.
And what about sustainability?
Yes, management put forward a plan to the board last year which was endorsed and that was exactly that looking to stay the same size with incremental growth as we can manage it. Growth comes from growing the quality, not necessarily the size. When my mother passed away in 2003, everybody asked, ‘How are you going to grow the business?’ My point is: from the inside out and to keep the quality. There’s nothing wrong with not getting bigger if you’ve got a good business. In my mind, you can grow it in different ways.
You get a sense of renewal working with nature and that creates a sense of new life each year, in each vintage. You’re letting wines make themselves. After 26 years of working here, it’s good to be able to have that: that’s it’s not using you, it’s using nature.
I suppose it is a more old-world way of looking at things, but organics is how people used to farm before chemicals; they used to work with nature. It just makes sense.