Although it’s one of the wine world’s most isolated outposts, the Margaret River region of Western Australia has earned a formidable reputation over the past 50 years, particularly for ageworthy Cabernet Sauvignon and complex, multifaceted Chardonnay.
Its isolation, however, has also led to occasional criticism of overly conservative winemaking that is slow to embrace change.
Nevertheless, change has reached Western Australia’s pristine and lonely shores. A new wave of ambitious young producers began bursting onto the scene a few years ago, making wild wines not typical of Margaret River. A market eager for something different embraced these wines, but it’s clear that the classic styles that made Margaret River famous aren’t going anywhere.
One local who has seen this change occur first hand is Nola Gaebler, who owns Lifestyle Margaret River, a company that offers guests a guided tour around wine country in a 1955 Bentley. She talks about Margaret River’s past, present and future.
How did Lifestyle Margaret River get its start?
“I am known as the ‘Blonde in the Bentley,’ or ‘Nola with the Rolla.’ It’s like being the man who has a dog that attracts all the ladies to stop and chat.”
I started my business 20 years ago with the intention of “daring to be different.”…I found myself lured to the paradise of Margaret River. I had to ask myself, “What to do now?” I decided it was time to create a business from some of my life loves.
Of course, wine was at the top of the love triangle. Another, inherited from my beloved father, was an interest in beautiful cars. Driving was third passion. I had a lifelong secret desire to be a rally car driver, although I drive more sedately now, thanks to my Classic girls. I was the girl at university who owned a car, and I always loved driving friends to class, events and holidays…Thus, from these loves, my business was born, originally called The Margaret River Lady—Classic Car Touring.
I purchased my 1955 Bentley and donned my fine, black leather gloves, inherited from my grandmother. The Bentley, of course, was the “lady” in title. I was the one trying very hard to be the “lady.” Twenty years ago, it was very unusual for a female to be running this kind of business. [This uniqueness] was rewarded with many television appearances, the Bentley becoming quite a star. The Margaret River Lady morphed into Lifestyle Margaret River in 2004 with the inclusion of a Lexus into my fleet to join ranks with the ladies.
What are people’s reactions to your classic cars?
Guests thoroughly enjoy riding in the luxury of the Bentley. Older cars have wide windscreens, so guests often remark on the expansive view they afford. A highlight is driving through the forested areas with the full-length sunroof open to the large trees and skies overhead. I am known as the “Blonde in the Bentley,” or “Nola with the Rolla.” It’s like being the man who has a dog that attracts all the ladies to stop and chat. My cars are a magnet for men who love cars and who are drawn to come over for a chat.
You mentioned how unusual it was for a female to be working in a position like yours within the wine tourism industry 20 years ago. Has the gender gap narrowed, or do you still feel you are treated differently because you are a woman in a male-dominated industry?
I haven’t really found any of that mentality down here. I think Margaret River has been and is now full of some very strong female characters and role models.
“I had a lifelong secret desire to be a rally car driver.”
We have early-day role models such as Diana Cullen (Cullen Wines) and Merilyn Hutton (Gralyn Estate), who took on major roles in their family businesses, and then next generation of strong influential women such as Vanya Cullen, Janice McDonald (Burch Family Wines) and a bit later, Virginia Willcock (Vasse Felix). They’ve all paved the way for a very broad-minded environment.
How have you seen the Margaret River change over the past 20 years, in terms of both the wine and the tourism scenes?
Essentially, Margaret River hasn’t changed. It still has a strong spirit of place. Its population has increased, but its natural beauty is raw and pristine. It still has really interesting people from all parts of the world who have done amazing things in their life, and who have been drawn to this special place.
Regarding the tourism scene, there was huge growth in wineries and tourist attractions after the year 2000. And Margaret River’s wine just keeps getting better. Our consistent vintages allow the vignerons and winemakers to perfect their wines from year to year. We have only [made wine for] 50 years, 20 years for most—not centuries, as in some countries. [It takes time] to intimately understand one’s own vineyard. Our international acclaim has increased dramatically in the 20 years I have been in my business.
A new generation of young winemakers have been going solo, starting their own small labels, snapping up property and winemaking facilities. They are less focused on following the rules, even if this means making less typical Margaret River wine. I’m thinking of producers like Si Vintners, Blind Corner, L.A.S. Vino, Dormilona, and Flor Marché. What are your thoughts in this shift in philosophy and on the producers mentioned?
I’m really excited about the natural wines being produced [in Margaret River], and about the young guns making them. I’m a big fan of Nic Peterkin’s (of L.A.S. Vino). He is such a charismatic and energetic young man who produces memorable wines.
I’m so pleased that Josephine Perry of Dormilona Wines won [Australia’s] Young Gun of Wine Award last year. Non-traditionalist Sarah Morris at Si Vintners is also certainly shaking things up. I feel an affinity with these young women taking risks and daring to be different.
I am presently…developing a new tour [that] will concentrate on the natural wines of the area. I’m very excited to be showcasing this niche development. This shift in winemaking philosophy is certainly also creeping into the more established vineyards. I am a great proponent of biodynamics myself.
Tell me about your own wine.
We have our own micro-vineyard situated very close to the Margaret River itself, within glimpse of the ocean, in the Wallcliffe subregion. I am very fortunate that my wine is made for me by one of the best winemakers in the area, Stuart Watson of Woodlands Wines. We usually make only one barrel per year (about 25 cases), just enough to keep me in mid-week wine!
Why Cabernet Franc?
In fact, “different” is why we chose to grow Cabernet Franc. Back in 1997 when we planted, only a few producers were creating a straight Cabernet Franc varietal [wine]. We obtained cuttings from one of those producers, and voilà!
Do you tend your own vines? And if so, what has the process of being a part-time viticulturist been like? Is it strange being on the other side of the fence?
We certainly do! It has definitely turned out to be harder than we thought and can be very time consuming. Converting to biodynamic methods is very labor-intensive. It gives you a real appreciation of all the tender love and care that goes into a bottle of wine.
Which Margaret River wines excite you the most? What do you crack open on a weekday or a special occasion?
I am a Chardonnay queen, and also love my Cabernets and Cabernet blends. Lucky for me, these are what Margaret River is most famous for. During a weekday, my preferred wine is one of my own, a Cabernet Franc. For a special occasion, I would choose a premier Chardonnay, perhaps from Pierro Wines, Leeuwin Estate or Woodlands Wines. Then an older Cabernet Sauvignon from my underground cellar, perhaps one from Woodlands Wines, Cullen, Moss Wood Wines or Cape Grace Wines.
Best spot to watch the sunset with wine glass in hand?
The grass tier above the Margaret River Surfers Point at Prevelly Beach, where the Margaret River Pro on the World Surf circuit has just been completed. It’s a favorite place for locals.
Gazing into your crystal ball, give us a picture of Margaret River’s future.
I think Margaret River will only become more popular as people search for destinations that are authentic, pristine and environmentally conscious. As the world becomes more chaotic and stressful, people will be looking more and more to recharging in a safe and beautiful environment.
There will be further experimentation [of wines] in the area, but I think the “king of grapes,” Cabernet Sauvignon and the “queen,” Chardonnay, will continue to be the region’s dominant [varietal wines]. I think even more emphasis will be placed on looking after the environment, and I predict that more vineyards will incorporate biodynamic practices. Margaret River will also become further recognized for its uniqueness in being a biodiversity hotspot.