The Sunday Times
– Larry Cherubino turns wine-tasting on its head.
It’s a name that demands to be enunciated full throttle. Go on, say it. Larrrrry Cherrrrruhbeeeeeno! Let it swirl around your tongue like a full-bodied red wine. Feel its fine and velvety smoothness on your palate. Saying it with gusto conjures an image of a handsome, swarthy man — crowned by a halo of dark, cherubic curls with a 10cm spring factor. He’s stomping grapes in a sun-kissed vineyard in La Rocca, a village on the Adriatic coast of Calabria.
Nah, not this Cherubino. That was Larry’s grandfather, Ilario, who after moving to WA in 1939 for a better life became one of 1000 foreigners interned at Harvey. He then toiled on the land to pave the way for his grandson to become an icon of Australian winemaking.
“War broke out and if you were Japanese, German or Italian, you got interned,” Cherubino says. “My grandfather was used as farm labour around Harvey and spent time on Rottnest Island. He was separated from his two eldest daughters and my mum for 10 years as my grandmother, Rosa, stayed back. She was pregnant with my mum, who was born in Italy. He didn’t talk about it much, but those stories are pretty common from war time.”
Nearly 80 years on from the family’s faltering start on Aussie soil, the young gun who inherited the most seductive name in winemaking carries on the Italian DNA and love of life, family and food. As he roars through the State’s vineyards on his motorbike, he gathers awards, accolades and respect along the way. And lots of attention.
Some see him as the slightly prickly, arrogant Marco Pierre White of the wine world. Others just quake in fear when he rocks up to their vineyard, cheque book in hand, demanding the best grapes.
They know that when it comes to supplying grapes for Larry Cherubino Wines, only the best will do.
His demand for perfection and penchant for making his own compost from fish and seaweed is legendary, but it has all paid off handsomely. He graced the cover of Gourmet Traveller Wine magazine last December, and his new cellar door was named as one of the best wine experiences in the world.
He’s been featured in Wine Spectator (the world’s biggest wine and lifestyle magazine with three million readers) and scored 94 out of 100 for his self-titled 2012 Margaret River Cabernet.
Sir David Attenborough went for the chardonnay when it was served to royalty and a host of international celebrities at London’s Australia House at the 2015 premiere of his documentary on the Great Barrier Reef. James Halliday, Australia’s most revered wine critic, has just one word for Cherubino: genius.
WE HAVE SPENT A LOT OF TIME IN CELLAR DOORS AROUND THE WORLD AND KNEW WHAT WE WANTED. LARRY CHERUBINO
He named his winery the best of the year in 2011 and numbers him among the nation’s top winemakers. Larry Cherubino Wines received one of the industry’s highest honours last year when Halliday named it the Best Value Winery of the Year in the Qantas epiQure Halliday Wine Companion Awards.
If anyone’s earned the right to swagger, Cherubino has. But it’s a very controlled and quite exhausting swagger as he spreads himself sparingly over 120ha of vineyards dotted throughout the Margaret River, Great Southern and Pemberton regions — all part of the business he runs with his wife, Edwina Egerton-Warburton, a fifth-generation descendant of the pioneering family.
Their flagship Frankland River vineyard, Riversdale — which the couple bought in 2005 and famously put a chainsaw through half of the vines — now boasts the most up-to-date clonal planting in the State.
The old vines have been replaced with five new clones of cabernet sauvignon and five of shiraz, along with mencia, touriga nacional, grenache, mourvedre, malbec and fiano, and new clones of merlot and cabernet franc, all of which are more suited to the region.
And now, after 28 years of devoting his deft hand to producing some of the nation’s most celebrated wines, Cherubino has opened a cellar door on the site of the old Laurance Winery in Wilyabrup, right next door to where he’s director of winemaking at Robert Oatley Vineyards.
Best known for its unique landmark chick-on-a-stick sculpture, that Caves Road site has a history all of its own in the well-publicised acrimonious split and court case of its former owners, Peter and Dianne Laurance.
Cherubino, who has leased the property from new owner, US entrepreneur Howard Milstein, is attracting attention for very different reasons. It’s all in keeping with his signature unorthodox approach.
He’s done things backwards. Most winemakers start with a vineyard, open a cellar door and establish their name. Cherubino did the opposite, starting out in the spare room of his Subiaco home, releasing one wine and building his brand under the labels Ad Hoc, The Yard, Laissez Faire, Pedestal, Apostrophe and Cherubino. The vineyards and then, finally, the cellar door followed.
It comes as no surprise to those who know him that in converting the old warehouse of the Laurance Winery into a barrel room overlooking hectares of vines, he’s turning the wine-tasting experience on its stuffy head. Think hipster bar. Think along industrial lines — a wall of French oak barrels, tall tables, leather couches, punters tasting wines around a marble bench. Think sitting on the terrace eating traditional Calabrian antipasto — straight from his mum, Natalina’s, cookbook — and drinking freshly brewed espresso using Cherubino beans. Think wandering around the warm, dimly lit cavernous space, glass in hand. Think relaxed. And certainly don’t think of busloads of tourists scrambling around a bar listening to a robotic spiel from a staff member.
“A friend of mine said to me, ‘You have basically taken the conventional tasting room, pulled it apart and put it back together again’,” Cherubino says. “Financially, we knew we wouldn’t be able to compete with other wineries from a restaurant point of view, so we went with what we could afford — antipasto, own coffee blend and a casual atmosphere with a definite Italian feel to it. We wanted it to be personal, wanted people to feel they were going into someone’s home. We have spent a lot of time in cellar doors around the world and knew what we wanted.”
Cherubino started making wine straight out of South Australia’s Roseworthy Agricultural College, where he studied oenology.
Initially it was the growing of grapes, rather than the winemaking process, that inspired his passion. The youngest of five children, he spent his early years on a dairy farm at Keysbrook and then on a vineyard and small farm in Millendon in the Swan Valley. There he developed a keen interest in horticulture and learnt loads about hard work, typical of the southern Italian families who had lived a peasant lifestyle growing produce, curing olives and making wine in traditional ways. When he was six his parents divorced and his mum brought up five children on her own, while maintaining the farm and doing other jobs to make ends meet.
“The farm was 20 acres,” he says. “Mum worked on other people’s vineyards as well as working as a seamstress. I was always interested in agriculture and things like that, but I didn’t necessarily consider grapes at that time. I went to a Catholic school, St Brigid’s, and
wasn’t what you would call a good student. I was a bit distracted. I ended up going to Muresk and studying horticulture.”
It was during a vintage at Houghton in the Swan Valley, where he worked to save money for overseas travel, that Cherubino discovered a new world at the end of the grape-growing process. While working 12-hour shifts, getting bruised and dirty, he learnt volumes about the day-to-day operation of a winery — processing fruit, fermentation, and finishing and maturing wine. The experience spurred him on to take a year off his studies and head to France, where he worked in Bordeaux. When he came back he finished his horticulture course and enrolled at Roseworthy.
“For me, it was always about the process, not necessarily the wine,” he says. “It was about changing something into something else.”
More vintages followed in wineries all over the world, from South Australia’s McLaren Vale to Italy. Then, in 1998 when he was 27, he was offered a job a stone’s throw from where he grew up, at Houghton. Established in 1836 and owned by BRL Hardy (now Accolade Wines) it was, at that time, the biggest seller of bottled white wine in Australia.
If the rookie winemaker was nervous about taking up a role in one of Australia’s oldest and most respected wineries, there would be even more to rattle him. When he turned up to work just before vintage he found the entire winemaking team had resigned.
“I suddenly found myself responsible for all of Western Australia and all the wineries and vineyards that Hardy had at the time,” he says. “It was a 10,000-tonne facility with lots of moving parts to it all. I was based in the Swan Valley, but we had vineyards all over the State. It was very stressful and hugely demanding. I didn’t want to fail and saw it as a golden opportunity to do something good.”
Not only did he inherit the role of WA senior winemaker, he also found himself stepping into the enormous shoes of a pioneering winemaker, the legendary late Jack Mann, who was chief winemaker there from 1930 to 1972. While at Houghton, Mann completed 51 consecutive vintages and earned himself an MBE for changing the drinking habits of Australians when he created a soft, full-bodied chenin blanc that appealed to the beer drinkers of the day.
But Cherubino was up for the challenge. During his five-year reign, Houghton became the most successful part of the Hardy operation, winning a swag of awards. He added more than 20 premium wines to its impressive portfolio.
“He turned the place on its head within three years,” wine writer Peter Forrestal says. “It was an awesome responsibility for such a young winemaker. At that stage, Houghton would have had wineries in five different regions. He was travelling constantly. I think a lot of his success since then you could attribute to the start at Houghton in terms of managing people, and the wines he made were extraordinary.”
Halliday agrees: “He is a genius. And I mean, a genius beyond the narrow confines of making wines. I think he got the experience of walking up and down rows of grapes in vineyards throughout Australia during his time at Houghton. He learnt not only the winemaking side, but the ability to taste the grapes and know what signals to look for, then taste them while they were fermenting and the whole level of experience. His palate is extraordinary.”
Cherubino shrugs off the Houghton experience like it was a thorn in his side.
“Every year you got judged on the quality of that Houghton White Burgundy,” he says. “That was the biggest-selling white wine in Australia at the time. My responsibility was to keep it going. The company depended on that for a lot of income and the pressure was on to maintain that. No one these days knows what it is. It’s called Houghton White Classic now. What made it the biggest seller? I don’t know. When you think about it, it was a blended white wine, had about six different varieties in it. And it was leveraged off the fact that it would age incredibly well.”
After five years he left and travelled with Edwina and worked as a wine consultant, before buying the Riversdale property in 2005. And now, as he juggles the huge workload, traversing the highways between Subiaco — where the couple are raising their three young boys, all with the signature cherubic crown of curls — and the vineyards, Robert Oatley and the cellar door, he is making wine history of his own.
“If you are serious about producing wine, at some point you need to grow and farm your own vines,” he says. “Think about all of the highly regarded and revered wines. They are all from specific patches of dirt with history. Place and history are the most important parts in wine and the one constant in a wine that lasts long after the bottles are gone and fashion changes.”