Where did you grow up?
Busselton, Western Australia. I was the youngest of six kids and we always bombed around together, going down to the beach and spending a lot of time at the river. When Mum and Dad got the beach hut and farm in Wilyabrup, Margaret River, we’d come out at weekends and holidays and go surfing and work on the farm, driving sheep and riding horses. It was a pretty idyllic sort of life – a dream-like place to be part of as I grew up.
Where were you educated?
Busselton, Perth, Adelaide and general life experiences.
What drew you to wine?
During my first degree – science, majoring in zoology – at the University of Western Australia, I also studied a third of a music degree. I went on to study music at Adelaide with my then partner. Because Dad was very keen that someone in the family knew about wine, I was also booked into the graduate wine course at Roseworthy [the University of Adelaide's agricultural campus]. So it was the whole situation, a series of events: the vineyard and Dad booking me onto the course. A love of nature was a part of it, too. But the family was at the center of it.
Is great wine made in the vineyard or the winery, and how has working organically, then biodynamically, influenced this, if at all?
All of the above, but biodynamics has given the best potential for it to happen. Looking at how good the vineyard looks now, it’s just obvious that biodynamics has played a key role. The soils are healthy, the vines are healthy and the fruit’s healthy and that’s what gives us sustainability and quality. It’s linked to the land and the balance of the vines. The role of the winemaker is then to be a custodian of the land – to get that aliveness from the land to the bottle, then the glass, as purely and in as natural a way as possible, so you have that vineyard balance in the fruit. Once you stop making additions (not that we ever added much), it’s a big shift. You don’t have that safety net and you see more clearly what’s there to work with instead of thinking about what you can add to see what it should be.
Do you make wine for the people, the critics or yourself?
I don’t think anyone could say that your connection is so good that you can control anything. You can’t. We make wine from the land. It’s about taking a live, healthy fruit through to the bottle. It’s not about making wines for yourself, the people or the critics. It’s about best representing the land and making it sustainable.
What is your view of awards?
When I started judging, there were a lot of faulty wines, and the show system played a role in creating an evenness of quality. Then there are always trends that come through in the wine shows. Now everyone’s looking for that funky, sulfur character in chardonnays. They seem to be winning all the medals. It used to be a terpene character, then people didn’t like it. It’s good because the wine scene is evolving, but I think that the greatest wines will always come from the vineyard and not be about winemaking ideas – what to put in a wine to make it appealing, whether it’s oak or whatever.
What impact is the recession having on your business?
Our biggest market has been and still is Australia. Our export markets have dropped off from what they were a few years ago but, in my 30 years in the business, there’s always been a crisis of some form. Now the talk is about direct marketing and China but, 10 years ago, it may have been something else and something else. First-growth Bordeaux is incredibly expensive, so it creates a level underneath that and there is interest in cabernet in China and, because wine is tax-free in Hong Kong, there’s huge business there. We’ll just see what happens. What holds true is the quality of our wines from our vineyard, and I like to think there will always be a market for such wines.
The corporate giants of the Australian wine scene have been rationalizing and restructuring, divesting themselves of vineyards and brands and desperately trying to stabilize prices after a period of deep discounting. What are the advantages and disadvantages of being part of a small family business?
There was a time when I felt we must be the only company in the world that wasn’t growing. Everyone was being encouraged by the banks to borrow money and go into debt as a strategy. Tax incentives were very appealing. Luckily, we didn’t, and I think it’s partly because we’re a family business. We haven’t grown and we haven’t got huge quantities of wine to sell. And we still have to work hard at selling what we produce.
Who or what do you most admire?
I feel a great sense of humility and respect for nature. There’s a confidence and aura about nature. Everything is changing all the time – it’s really beautiful.
And least admire?
Those who show no respect for nature, who think they’re more powerful than nature – I don’t think anyone is. I get very concerned about pollution and the way we live in such a materialistic way, so everything is about money rather than quality of life.
In wine terms, who are your heroes?
Biodynamic producers making great wine, for their love of nature, compassion, kindness, humility and joy.
What is it you most dislike in a wine?
Wine that is constructed – put together from the outside, not the inside.
Your feelings on oak?
Salt and pepper, if at all. Our chardonnay and Diana Madeline are better with oak. It’s an addition to help ageing the tannins and complexing the wines – to support, not dominate. It’s all about balance.
How important is the glass you drink from?
You can’t say you’re never going to have a great wine experience without a great glass, but it enhances the experience having a nice glass. I’d always much rather it was in a nice glass.
What has been your greatest winemaking achievement, and failure?
Making quality wine from the land. The failure? It all takes time and, when I look at where we are now, I regret that we didn’t go biodynamic earlier, that we didn’t know about it earlier.
If you could make a special wine for a particular person, who and what would you choose?
My mother – the greatest Diana Madeline ever! I worked with Mum for around 25 years, and we shared a great excitement about making better wines. I think Mum and Dad would have embraced biodynamics. In cabernets, Mum really liked balanced, medium-bodied, elegant wines with a fine tannin profile and a sense of perfume and fruit – the flower-and-earth component, that minerality. And the cabernet profile of Wilyabrup – blackcurrant, chocolate, ironstone, violets and roses.
What music do you listen to in the winery?
Bach and Mozart. Bach is very grounding and Mozart is very uplifting. But you could put any good music in there – jazz or any great singer. It doesn’t have to be classical but, generally, classical musical is uplifting and grounding at the same time, so if I had my choice…
Tell us about a surprising wine in your cellar.
It’s a 1946 Seppelts Sparkling Burgundy – something historical from Australia. Andrew Caillard of Langtons got hold of it for me last year, together with a 1963 and 1985. They’re sitting there, waiting to surprise people. If you get a good bottle, they have a bit of bubble and are just wonderful – complex and elegant, not too alcoholic, and they have that sense of fun.
What do you drink on a 'school night'?
I’m not into cheap and cheerful – I’d rather not drink. Cullen Kevin John Chardonnay, Mount Horrocks or Grosset Riesling from Clare Valley for whites. For reds, Cullen Mangan Red or a New Zealand or Tasmanian pinot noir.
What has been your best experience in the wine industry? And the worst?
Finishing this year’s harvest of the cabernet sauvignon as the full moon was rising, and feeling connected to nature. All the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end. It was very beautiful and felt like a blessing to see the full moon rising as the evening was falling and the last of the grapes going in – a bit of gentleness after a very rough, hot day.
The worst? Fighting the brewery next door. If there’s an accident at the brewery that contaminates our yeasts, we won’t be making these wines ever again. The Australian Wine Research Institute advised that it would be good to research how the brewery yeasts could damage our vineyard, but the decision to allow the brewery development to proceed was made on the basis of the experience of brewers with no wine experience. It felt like they couldn’t care less that there’s that risk. The place for beers and breweries is in town, not where the great vineyard sites are.
Are you adjusting your winemaking practices because of climate change?
Biodynamics does it for you! The vines have deep roots and you get up to 50 percent extra water-holding potential with biodynamically cultivated soils. You’re not pushing the vines, you don’t need to irrigate and, because they have their own natural balance, they are adapting to climate change even as it happens.
Do you have a wine-and-food match you find hard to resist?
Aldo Conterno Barolo 1986 and parmigiana.
If you weren’t making wine in Margaret River, where would you want to make wine?
I really find it very difficult to think of somewhere I’d like to make wine outside Margaret River. Perhaps Spain, because I just love Tempranillo. It’s such a wonderful, exciting variety at its best, really vibrant and alive. Or maybe Burgundy or Germany (for riesling), but it’s a bit cold!
During harvest, who or what do you pray to?
The goddess Shakti. She’s the energy that makes things happen.
Where would you like to be buried?
Next to my mother. It’s a very beautiful south-facing site overlooking the Indian Ocean and the break where I surfed when I was younger.
What would you want the last wine you taste to be?
Cullen Diana Madeline or Cullen Kevin John Chardonnay. I’m not choosing between them, but I really love the 2009 vintage.
Generally I don’t have regrets about the choices I’ve made in my life – you make them and just accept them. You do as much as you can and go as far as you can, but you can’t do everything. You just have to accept that’s how life is.
What brings you the greatest happiness?
To feel at peace. The ocean, especially the Indian Ocean, has that sense of peace for me. It’s so clean and pure, with big waves. It’s like taking in a breath of fresh air and, when I dive in, being in the moment and feeling that sense of liveliness and purity.
What do you think would make the world a better place?
More respect for nature, the Earth and each other as a way of life. Peaceful living, beautiful music, wine and food. A sense of humor is good, too.
In the end, what really matters?
Love and respect and all that arises from those two words.
As told to Sarah Ahmed