Nineteen year old French seaman, Timothee Vasse, was lost in the surf during a raging storm and it was in his memory that the Vasse River and eventually the whole region gained its name. The name Vasse Felix (or Lucky Vasse) has to apply more to the region, which is booming, than the unfortunate French sailor who was thought to have drowned in the surf during Baudin's expedition.
The Vasse Felix winery was the first commercial winery established in the Margaret River area. Dr. Thomas Brendan Cullity started the venture in 1967 and although it originally took some years for wine to become popular in Australia, the area has developed into the most well known wine producing district in Western Australia.
Tom Cullity was a cardiologist working in Perth when he decided to try growing grapes for wine production. He had first helped his sister get some cabernet sauvignon grapes started on her property near Burekup and then found a suitable location of 8 acres not far off Caves Road which he purchased for the princely sum of $75 an acre!
Well aware of the origins of the name Vasse, Tom named the winery as he did in the hope it would see a far brighter fate than its namesake. There were certainly times when he must have had his doubts.
Tom used to drive down after the working week and work all weekend before heading back to his 'day job' late on Sunday afternoons. Tom is quoted as saying of this period:
'Much of the time, in different ways, I was on my own. I knew nothing except what I had read in books. There was no local source of basic equipment. Quite a lot of the local farmers must have thought it was a joke.
There were people who helped. The Cullens (who had had 100 acres on the coast since 1956 but had not yet got into wine), the Pannells and the Junipers used to put me up. Some of the local people were very kind to me: the Minchins, the Merchants, Jim McCutcheon and eventually John and Eithne Lagan and others. Bill Jamieson and Jack Mann were unfailingly encouraging.
Mind you, in the beginning we and the people who worked for us were all inexperienced. Some funny things happened, out of ignorance. You don't just stick vines in the ground, you prepare the soil for two years before you plant, you put topsoil in the hole, you tamp it down, and you water them in. It has to be done properly. Someone decided once that a block of vines needed spraying. I don't think they had any idea what they were spraying for; it was just something you did. By the time the order got passed on to the person who did it, they used a spray designed to treat a disease in pigs. You can imagine the effect on the vines.'
As it turned out, a number of the people who first started wine production in the Margaret River area were doctors like Tom. A book by Dr. Max Lake 'The Vine and Scalpel' seems to have been the spark that got things going.
It is rumoured that the 1970 vintage at Vasse Felix was fermented in an 18 gallon beer keg and that Dr Cullity manufactured the airlock from an intravenous drip. The airlock eventually blocked up and pressure inside the keg grew to rather frightening levels. When the cap was removed the contents of the keg sprayed out on to a galvanised iron wall that retained a deep purple stain for many months.
Bunch rot and silvereyes, a type of bird, turned the next vintage (1971) into a disaster and it wasn't until 1972 that Vasse Felix wines started to be noticed. Tom later recounted that it should be expected that there would be no income from a winery during the first 10 years of operation. It really did help to have a good income from another source.
The Vasse Felix logo is a peregrine falcon. This bird of prey was the first attempt by Dr. Cullity to keep parrots and other grape hungry birds off his fruiting vines. The falcon seems to have had other ideas and chose a life of freedom as soon as it was allowed to fly off its tether.
In 1984 not long after retiring as a Doctor, Tom Cullity sold out to David and Anne Gregg, they in turn sold to the Holmes 'Court family in 1987 and they have retained ownership since that time.
With mild wet winters, dry warm summers and a gravely loam soil mix the region is ideal for the production of grapes for wine making.
Vasse Felix was one of the first wineries in the area to recognise the need for more than just cellar door sales. A restaurant was established and still allows visitors to relax and enjoy both the wine and good food in a very pleasant atmosphere. A small art gallery and interpretive sculpture walk through the gardens have added to the appeal.
Dry white, Semillon, Dry red, Cabernet merlot, Heytesbury Chardonnay, Shiraz, Cabernet sauvignon, Dry white and Riesling are some of the wines produced at Vasse Felix.
The historic Vasse Felix winery is located just off Caves Road not far north of the Gracetown turn off.