A love affair with riesling combined with hard work and innovative educational events has seen Judi Cullam of Frankland Estate raise the profile of this noble grape variety in Australia.
Judi Cullam has lived most of her life ‘in the middle of nowhere’ at Rocky Gully in the Great Southern. She and her husband, Barrie Smith, were primarily sheep’s wool growers when they established Frankland Estate in 1988, which saw them take on viticulture and winemaking.
Drive, determination and charisma, these are the leadership qualities that make Cullam a deserved winner of the Len Evans Award. They underpin her love affair with riesling, which has had a profound impact on the way Australians see this noble grape variety.
Perhaps it was the isolation that made it an imperative but few marketers have developed and maintained close contact with so many wine writers and sommeliers as Cullam has done in her time in the industry.
She was the force behind the Frankland Estate International Riesling Tasting, a biennial celebration of riesling (now Riesling Downunder) held since 2001. Its origins were a 1997 Intercontinental Hotel riesling tasting organised by Wolfgang Grimm and featuring German producers including Ernie Loosen (Dr Loosen), Bernhard Breuer (Georg Breuer) and Fritz Hasselbach (Gunderloch). She left that tasting convinced that if you want to make and market a grape variety, you need to know about it and believe in its power to captivate.
“Drive, determination and charisma, these are the leadership qualities that make Cullam a deserved winner of the Len Evans Award.”
She and Barrie visited Germany and Austria to maintain their contacts and learn more about riesling. They used Berlin-based Stuart Pigott’s book as a guide. When Cullam decided that they should host an international riesling tasting she invited Pigott to chair the event. Pigott, who is attracted to quirky, read her letter on recycled paper, checked the location of Frankland Estate in deepest Rocky Gully, and decided that this was something that he wanted to get involved in. Pigott and the German winemakers who had been at the Intercontinental tasting encouraged a posse of riesling producers from Germany and Austria to make the journey to Australia.
Although the logistics and financial cost of running such an event was a huge drain on the fledging Frankland Estate, there was never a question that they would not persevere. The generosity of Frankland Estate in making sure that so many sommeliers and wine writers got to taste the diverse range of rieslings on display at the first (and subsequent) International Riesling Tastings has had a huge impact on spreading the appreciation of this variety in Australia.
Another of the promotional activities that Cullam took responsibility for in the late 1990s was the Olmo’s Reward Parts Tastings. These primarily targeted sommeliers and showed the components – cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon, malbec, merlot and petit verdot – alongside the finished blend.
In 1999, Frankland Estate launched the first of six Riesling Scholarships which took the winners on a study tour of riesling in Europe. The inaugural winner, Patrick Walsh, subsequently launched his distribution company, Cellarhand, which has dramatically increased the availability of Europe’s finest rieslings in Australia. He describes the scholarship as a “life-changing opportunity” which “made him determined to share those great wines with Australian diners”.
Frankland Estate was an innovator when there were far fewer educational events for sommeliers so it is unsurprising that Frankland Estate Isolation Ridge Vineyard Riesling appears to have a pre-eminent place on almost all fine wine lists in the land.
An issue facing family wineries in Australia, now and always, is the question of generational change. Cullam and Barrie Smith have tackled handing over to their children, Hunter and Elizabeth (and her winemaking husband, Brian Kent) in an exemplary manner. They handed over control of the winery and vineyard when their children had the maturity, energy and drive to make it their life’s work, despite being happy to continue. Mutual respect and timing were key.
For someone who loves the isolation of Rocky Gully, Cullam has relished the opportunity to go on a wider stage leading others towards an appreciation and affection for an undervalued grape variety.
Photography courtesy of Frankland Estate