Juliet Cullinan – the story of a universal wine lover
25 July 2016
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Jenny Crwys–Williams : Now sitting with Juliet Cullinan and it’s way after Juliet Cullinan Standard Bank Wine Festival. Juliet it’s a long time since I’ve seen you but you are living, are you not, in Monaco?
Juliet Cullinan: I am, I got remarried and I’m living in Monaco and what’s beautiful about that is that I’m literally between France and Italy. You can honestly say “Should we go for lunch in Italy or France?” and I love that. So hopefully with the whole EU situation they won’t put up big borders between the countries and you’ll still be able to do that in the future.
JCW: They’re talking about that already of course, but Monaco is so tiny.
JC: Yes, and it’s independent so it should be fine on its own.
JCW: So Juliet for as long as I can remember you, you’ve been involved with wines, one way or another. I know that you still are obviously because of the festival. But tell me a little bit about what you’re doing in Europe because you’re doing a lot.
A universal wine promoter
JC: I love working and promoting wines. South Africa is always the one that I want to promote first, but it’s not always easy. So if I’m working in London I try to work with South African wines. If I’m working in New York I work with French wines. There’s a fun thing that’s happening in the world at the moment and that’s rosé wine.
In Italy or France or New York you’re going to have this situation where you’re having picnics or boat trips or all sorts of exhibitions to promote rosé wines and this is what I wanted to do. So when I worked in New York we took over Bo-Wine. An eco-friendly wine.
We promoted it in New York and we had the top society, we had luxury people, we had Jonah Barrington who is actually the squash player Jonah Barrs, or the… I’ll give it to you later. He’s a dancer, so he did a design. So he did a beautiful choreographed ballet before our wine-tasting.
It’s really how to get wine into the world of luxury, international people, people that like to promote wine with their product. So Christoffel or some of the luxury brands and it’s often just a food and wine dinner. It’s a food and wine pairing, it’s something unique and different. People want an experience that money can’t buy and wine is always a great core business for this.
JCW: Juliet, how did you get into wine in the first place? I mean when you came out of school did you know that wine was going to be your career or did you not?
My Grandfather played a huge role on my development
JC: I didn’t but as a young child I was so influenced by my mother’s father. He took me overseas and I had my first black forest cake with them, my first brains on toast and always wine. He always let me taste the wine and even though I was between three or nine years old I always tasted. I think that people have a visual memory or a taste memory and I have both.
So I can smell the smell nowadays, remember that image as a child, taste the food I was tasting, and see the room just as a great flashback. He really inspired me and one of the greatest things he did. He bought me a black Wedgewood bowl. It had flowers in it and things like that. Around the outside was a relief of vines and grapes.
He said to me “I want you to paint this” and I was little. I must have been about six. I said “I’m not painting it”. I didn’t know what Wedgewood was. But I said “I’m not painting it, it’s special, you can’t just go and paint it”. He said “Why not?” So I said “I might go outside the lines” and he said “So what”.
He ended up giving me quite a talking to and he said “I don’t mind what you do in your life but you have to have the confidence to go and do it and believe in yourself. So don’t worry if you fail but do worry that you don’t have the confidence to go off and step out the room and do it”. So I think that with him I’ve always felt, go and do it, it doesn’t matter if you fail.
Don’t be afraid to fail
You know, isn’t Gary Player’s wonderful sayings, you know, “The harder I try, the better I get” and it’s really, if you look at all the top people, our generation. I’m a baby boomer, so that generation have all made these incredible things around the world. On their epitaph it all says “Google me”, it doesn’t say “Rest in Peace”. They all have done something but if you talk to all of them, even Steve Jobs they failed at some stage.
So you have to keep trying. It doesn’t matter to me if I fail. So if I do an event and it’s not 100% so what, there’ll be another event. But you have to keep trying and you have to keep pushing yourself. The nice thing about South Africa, it gives you that opportunity. Maybe it’s the background I’ve had here for 26 years in the wine industry. It’s people you meet, it’s friendships.
You and I have known each other for ages but I know I can pick up the phone and there’s always a friendly hello on the other side. There’s a camaraderie with South Africans that we believe in each other, we want to work with each other. We want to help each other and we’re extremely hard-working.
I know if I phone a South African in London or New York and I say, “Would you like to?”, “Yes”, they don’t even listen to what. “Yes”, “Can you?”, “Yes” and they always help you. Introduce you, put you in touch with, and it’s a wonderful thing that we’ve got.
We’re fighters, we’re still on that Groot Trek, aren’t we, around the world. Especially now taking it and I’m taking those wines wherever I can, introducing the winemakers. With the international world as it is there’s such competition with wine.
A competitive international market
The Chinese are making more Chardonnay than is made in most of Europe. Well, it’s not a Mediterranean climate, it’s probably made in the laboratory, so it’s not about quality. But it’s about quantity being flooded into the market.
When you’re in Europe you have to pay to get someone to stock your wine. You have to pay for space on the shelf. If you’re not watching your wine will slip to the bottom. You’ve got to pay to get into a restaurant and you’ve got to pay the sommelier to sell it. It’s all about this constant marketing.
The fun things that I try and do is something creative that brings something new to your mind, “Ah, that’s interesting, why would that happen, why would that work, why would that flavour happen?” All my events are trying to work on working with creative people, trying to put things together and make it work for all of us.
JCW: Juliet, as soon as you say that oh you live in Monte Carlo people imagine that turquoise sea, they imagine the little pink palace, they imagine the streets and the, what is it, that motor race, whatever it is.
JC: Yes, it’s the Grand Prix.
For the love of Impressionist light
JCW: I have been to it once but I just thought it was so noisy I gave up. But there is a certain glamour about Monte Carlo. Are you trying to tell me that every single day of your life you are talking and thinking wine? Surely you’re talking and thinking as well about dipping into the sea, about going to an exhibition. What does Juliet Cullinan do when she’s not doing wine?
JC: Yes, I must say that I wake up and I look at that view and every morning of my life, almost without fail, I say “Thank you God”. Because I am in a very privileged position to have that view. I wouldn’t have imagined it, I don’t talk about it very often, but it is beautiful.
It’s jolly hard work. All the people in Monaco are richer than the one met before. So if somebody’s got 12 Rolls Royce’s, the next one’s got whatever or there’s Sir Philip Green with his huge Yacht in the harbour. You’ve got Abramovich with his yachts and you know, building a new one and it’s not about that.
I don’t care about those people, I care about… it’s a quality of life, there’s a lightness, there’s the Impressionist light that the Impressionists loved. It’s fabulous food, it’s great wine, French or Italian mainly. It’s a struggle to sell South African wines there. They don’t want it. We should be in the palace. I know the chef very well and I adore him. We always try to do something.
JCW: Oh, we have a South African princess there?
JC: Yes, I think that I would love to do something more there because I think that it would be really lovely to be able to do something for South Africa. We’ve got so much to offer and maybe with the arts and the wine and maybe some music there’s an opportunity there for us.
JCW: Juliet Cullinan, thank you very much indeed until we see you again.
JC: Thank you Jenny.