The Way it Was in Margaret River

By Fergal Gleeson

“Adversity doesn’t build character, it reveals it”

James Lane Allen

Tom Cullity (aged 43) with first Vasse Felix Vines
Tom Cullity, Founder of Vasse Felix, aged 43, standing amongst the young vines in Margaret River

The Margaret River Region celebrated the 50th anniversary of it’s first commercial vine plantings in 2017. To commemorate this milestone two of Western Australia’s best known Wine Writers, Peter Forrestal and Ray Jordan, have released “The Way it Was” a book charting the pioneering days of the Margaret River wine industry and telling the stories of Vasse Felix, Moss Wood, Cullen Wines, Cape Mentelle, Leeuwin Estate and Woodlands.

What was your inspiration to write the book?

Peter: Ray and I have been talking about writing this book for 10 years. There was a desire to get it recorded accurately. Given it is now 50 years, there are cases of fading memories and much that was undocumented so if it remained untold it risked being lost.

Who will read this book?

Peter: This is not a wine book. This is about the people and the place. It’s a bit like those detective books that cover forensic pathology. People are fascinated by the detail but the story drives it. It’s about the problems that the pioneering wineries faced. So it will appeal to a wider audience.

What was was the biggest problem facing the wine pioneers?

Ray: David Watson, the Vigneron at Woodlands said that no one knew how hard it was going to be. The infrastructure didn’t exist in what was then an impoverished backwater. The region was known only to hippies and surfers and people who liked to smoke strange stuff!

Caves Road was a dirt road so there were logistical challenges to make wine. Also no one knew if anyone would want the wine!

Peter: There was no one they could rely on. Most were low on expertise. Sandra Pannell, from Moss Wood, said when it came to labelling the first vintage, they didn’t know what sort of glue to put on.

Did the fledgling wineries come close to failing?

Ray: I’ve spoken to some who said that they didn’t make a profit for 20 years so you have to respect them that they kept on despite losing money. They had to augment their income through other means but they got through it.

What was the most surprising thing that you learnt in your research?

Peter: One of the things we found in researching the book was just how many people contributed to the creation of the wine industry from politicians in state government like Charles Court, John Gladstones’ research papers, as well as expertise provided by Swan Valley Winemaker Jack Mann.

Tom Cullity, from Vasse Felix, was fond of repeating a Chinese proverb that “Success has a thousand fathers but failure is an orphan.”

The original title of the book was going to be “A Thousand Fathers” to reflect the contribution of so many in getting the industry started but that was thought to be sexist given the critical contribution of females to the early industry. If it wasn’t for the women in the vineyards there would be no Margaret River.

The book is keen to correct the impression that Margaret River was started by wealthy doctors setting up hobby wineries?

Peter: Absolutely for example Bill Pannell had just done his internship when he bought the Moss Wood plot. Steve Pannell (son of Bill and Sandra Pannell) said that they were poor but not really poor. His mother was making their underclothes from their grandfather’s vests. They were living on wild rabbits that they could shoot on the property.

Moss Wood Bill Pannell
Bill Pannell, Founder of Moss Wood

Who is the greatest hero from the book?

Ray: There were many heroes. But ultimately I’d pick Tom Cullity. He was single-minded enough to go and do it. I interviewed him for about 4 hours, when he was 83, just a few months before he died.

He could be cantankerous and difficult. He was intimidatingly intelligent and if you made an ill-considered remark he would challenge it. He put it all on the line financially. You have to admire the guys that sacrifice, which is why the pioneers are so important.

Tom Cullity & Jack Mann 1
Jack Mann and Tom Cullity at Vasse Felix

What should you drink when reading the book?

Peter: I’d start with a great Chardonnay and then I’d have a couple of good Cabernets. These are the things that define Margaret River.

Ray: Margaret River is also recognised for white blends and there has been some long overdue recognition of Shiraz from the region. I’d drink a Cabernet Malbec blend where it all began, maybe the new Vasse Felix Tom Cullity.

The Way it Was is published by Margaret River Press. RRP $39.

This feature originally appeared in the summer issue of Your Margaret River Region Magazine.






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