In a part of the world where the population was spread very thinly the advent of the automobile made an enormous difference. Western Australians used to think nothing of hitting the road for an eight hour spell behind the wheel. But a journey that used to take eight hours now takes less than half the time. Many people choose to travel from Perth to Margaret River for the weekend, a trip of two and a half hours by car, up to four by bus.
About Margaret River
In 1955 a visiting Californian professor of viticulture, Harold Olmo, recommended that vines be planted in Mount Barker. In 1966 John Gladstones published a paper noting the similarity of growing seasons between Margaret River and Bordeaux in France. He concluded that Margaret River might be an untapped gold mine of world class wines.
In the sixties the population of Margaret River region numbered less than 10,000 people. Today, at the turn of the century, this is the fastest growing rural area in Australia. This transformation owes a lot to the imagination of a small group of individuals who fell in love with the idea of producing fine wine. In the nineteen sixties Australians were turning from beer and fortified wines to table wines. The notion was that better wines could be produced in cooler areas. In Western Australia the industry was centred in the very warm Swan Valley. The gradient of temperature decline in autumn is steep as one leaves the Swan and travels south.
Established vignerons were quick to caution newcomers that there could be trouble ripening healthy grapes in the south. They were right, but better flavour demands cooler ripening conditions than the Swan Valley in February and that was Olmo’s point.
Gladstones speculations encouraged a few budding pioneers to take action. The first was actually Bill Minchin who planted a small vineyard in Vasse, the second was Tom Cullity.
In 1967 Dr Tom Cullity, a Perth physician and wine enthusiast planted the first vines of the modern era in Margaret River at a place he called Vasse Felix, midway between Busselton and Margaret River. He started with 8 acres of land, purchased at the princely sum of $A150 per hectare, planting Rhine Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Shiraz . The first vintage, 1971, has been described by Cullity as a disaster due to bunch rot and Silver Eyes (a predatory bird). However, the 72 Rhine Riesling and 73 Cabernet met with immediate critical acclaim. This was against a background described pithily by Cullity in these words:
“I was a busy physician and could get away most week-ends. I used to rise at about 3am, leave Perth in a Peugeot 403 and spend the weekend looking for suitable available land south of Busselton. Over the next few years I averaged this 600 kilometre return trip more than once a fortnight, starting work in the vineyard at about 8am and returning to Perth late on Sunday night. I spent all my holidays there, living in a shed, usually alone.
“I had never been south of Bunbury in my life, had no practical bent, had never changed a car tyre, did not know what a weed was, and knew nothing about vines or wine making. My idea at the time was to buy a small area, plant no more than one acre, and that this had to be convenient to a farmer who would work with me, accept payment, and perform this novel operation faithfully at the behest of somebody like myself whose only knowledge was what he had read in books or been told by “experts”. It was idealistic, poorly conceived logistically, and in an area where it was common to see people with bright ideas founder. Obviously I had to travel up and down and insist on detail and somebody had to be prepared to do it. The attitude suitable to intensive agriculture and critical wine making procedures is foreign to the instincts of people who graze cattle and milk.”
Before Cullity had produced his first wine others were in hot pursuit – like Bill Pannel (Moss Wood), the Cullen family, the Horgans at Leeuwin, and David Hohnen at Cape Mentelle. David Hohnen was the only winemaker in this crew. If one is to generalise, medicos and teachers and others entirely new to farming and to wine were driving the new industry. They were well educated, but in disciplines other than grape growing and wine making.