New Vin­tage

– Larry Cheru­bino turns wine-tast­ing on its head.

The Sunday Times - - CONTENTS - Story Gail Williams Pho­tog­ra­phy Frances An­dri­jich

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.”

Above, Larry Cheru­bino with wife and busi­ness part­ner Ed­wina Eger­ton-War­bur­ton and their chil­dren at their vine­yard in Wilyabrup, Mar­garet River, also pic­tured left. Right: The Larry Cheru­bino Cel­lar Door has turned the con­cept of wine tast­ing on its...

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