Vanya Cullen is considered one of Australia’s top winemakers. She was named 2020 “Winemaker of the Year” at the Halliday Wine Companion Awards. She is Chief Winemaker at Cullen Estate, her family’s winery in Margaret River. Vanya is a leading proponent of the biodynamic movement in Australia. In 2011, she received the UK Drinks Business Magazine “Green Personality of the Year” for demonstrating that you can operate a successful business while committing to environmentally-responsible winegrowing
Karen MacNeil interviewed Vanya Cullen for WineSpeed in October 2019.
Karen MacNeil: Your winery has managed to succeed in becoming not just carbon neutral but carbon negative. This is a monumental achievement. Can you explain a bit about the practices you employ that help to achieve these results?
Vanya Cullen: The practices involve eliminating the addition of synthetic chemicals, which we committed to in the 1990s, as well as promoting healthy alive soils from microbes in preparation “500” (cow manure after a winter-long burial underground in cow horns), composts and other biodynamic preparations added since we became biodynamic in 2004. These soils carbon-cycle efficiently. 50% of carbon sequestration happens naturally through emissions from soil cultivation. The other 50% is through the cover crops which cycle through photosynthesis. Also, when they are cut, cover crops quickly become part of the soil as the carbon is broken down and cycled through the plant system.
KM: Cullen is in the Margaret River, which is very remote today and must have been quite isolated decades ago when the first wineries there were founded. Do you consider that remoteness a disadvantage or advantage?
VC: It’s a blessing as nature is strong here due to these factors. The oceans are clean, and there is no pollution, but the world is getting smaller so it’s getting easier to come here. The introduction of direct flights from Melbourne in March next year is the beginning of easy access to paradise.
KM: What was the last wine book or article that you read and was it good?
VC: The book I’ve most recently ready and enjoyed was not a wine book, it’s an agricultural book called Call of the Reed Warbler: A New Agricultural – A New Earth by Charles Massy. It is a wonderful book!!
KM: Do you consider wine a form of art?
VC: If it is made from the heart and not by recipe then, yes. Wines of the land which are made with nature are pure works of art and very beautiful.
“Wines of the land which are made with nature are pure works of art and very beautiful.”
KM: I’m not going to ask what’s your favorite wine. But what wine or type of wine do you like the least?
VC: I dislike fake wine—and by fake, I mean the types of wine that are deconstructed and reconstructed and are not from the land.
KM: How often do you drink your own wine?
VC: I drink my own wine a lot as I love it! I do love the wines of good biodynamic producers.
KM: Other than wine, what is your other favorite beverage?
VC: Good quality gin.
KM: You were inducted into the Australian Businesswomen’s 2015 Hall of Fame–which honors and celebrates Australian female business owners who have been exemplary in their industries. If you had to give an award like this to another woman in wine, not necessarily Australian, who it would be?
VC: Prue Henschke.
KM: Describe a typical day for you.
VC: There is no typical day in my life—it changes like nature. Vintage (or harvest season) is the most predictable as I’m at the vineyard and winery everyday tasting grapes in vineyard for harvest decisions and inside the winery for two months. Then, overseeing the business with an emphasis on vineyard and winery, promotions at the winery and globally, board meetings and tastings—it’s endless and unpredictable! But it is all with the aim of making better quality wine, sustainably.
KM: What do you consider your greatest achievement?
VC: Making great wine sustainably and having great people around me who help my team do this. Also, being custodians of place and having healthier land now than when we started.