Sea salt spray drifts over the cliffs and settles on the vines of Rosie and Griff Cupitt’s Ulladulla estate. Once a prosperous dairy farm, the lush green paddocks now play host to more than just cattle. More than 2,000 Sauvignon Blanc vines thrive in the direct sun and good airflow afforded by the northern aspect of the property, providing the signature fruit for one of the region’s most beloved boutique wineries.
Along with a plentiful organic kitchen garden and a newly refurbished cellar door and restaurant – which enjoys unspoilt views of Burrill Lake and the Budawang Mountains – the Cupitts have transformed this patch of Shoalhaven countryside into a thriving hospitality and agritourism business.
The property’s history dates back to the 1800s when it operated as a dairy farm. An old stone building served as both a creamery and living quarters for the Tuckerman family – one of the earliest settling families in the area. William Tuckerman’s daughter fell in love with the boy next door and the two sprawling properties became one under the name of Washburton.
In a nod of respect to its heritage, the Cupitts tenderly restored the dwelling when they purchased the property in 2003, remodelling it as a bright and modern cellar door, where its original casuarina shingles remain intact beneath a new steel roof.
Today, Rosie and Griff lead a team of 80 employees who look after a winery, cellar door and restaurant, microbrewery, fromagerie, organic farm and a boutique accommodation offering. Joining them at the helm are their two sons – Tom and Wally – and Tom’s wife Libby, who each bring their own expertise to the family business.
The Farm Manager
Having grown up on the family farm in Mittagong, a profound respect for the land runs in Griff Cupitt’s blood. His ancestors had lived in the NSW Southern Highlands since the 1830s and became the largest cattle producers in the Wingecarribee area.
My family owned a lot of farming land in lower Mittagong from the mid 1800s and they started the very first butchery in the area. My grandfather and father used to breed and fatten the cattle for the butcher shops and were regarded as some of the best cattle judges in the district.
Griff Cupitt, Founder and Farm Manager of Cupitt’s Estate
Griff sold the family farm in 1983 with the intention of moving further west, but his ancestral ties kept him in the Southern Highlands. In 1992, he bought the beloved Bowral Hotel which planted the seed for Cupitt’s Estate – not that he knew it at the time.
When the idea of retirement loomed, the location choice was a no-brainer. The couple have owned a holiday home in Narrawallee, just north of Mollymook, since the 1980s. Originally purchasing an acre of land where a two bail dairy once stood next to the old house, Griff and Rosie returned as often as possible until it became clear that the coast felt more like home than the country.
Shortly after the sale of their Bowral property, the Cupitts saw an ad for Washburton’s sale in Ulladulla, attended the auction on a whim and walked away with the winning bid.
“Going into retirement, the plan was to buy a property near our beach house and run some cattle and grow some grapes, which Rosie would use to make wine,” Griff says.
“We planned to open a small dining room in the beautiful old Creamery for a few people on the weekends, but from the moment we opened in 2007, it has been an uphill progression with the evolution of the business.
It is the input from Tom, Libby and Wally that has accelerated the growth, Griff says.
Rosie and I have taken a back seat as far as the day-to-day operation goes, but I still enjoy running the farm and the cattle, which is my passion.
“Although it’s only a small cattle operation, it’s a good way to keep an eye on the game. I’m still pretty good with the estimates of the cattle weight and what they’ll make on the day which is very satisfying.”
Besides cattle, Griff oversees a bevy of other animals including sheep to manage the grass in the vineyard, as well as chickens and ducks for fresh eggs. It’s the substantial kitchen garden, however, that best demonstrates his passion for farming.
Sustainability is woven into the fabric of every operation at Cupitt’s Estate. Guided by the seasons, the chefs craft their menus based on what’s growing well in the garden. Anything that can’t be grown on site is purchased from local farms and suppliers.
The Cupitts run their property on a closed-loop system with waste from their food, wine, beer and cheese production. Worm farms, chickens and ducks help to break down organic waste which can then be used as fertiliser; packaging material is reused and recycled throughout the property; dry compost material is used to improve soil structure in the garden and vineyard; leftover whey from the cheesemaking operation is whipped up into tasty recipes by the chefs; and the cows enjoy snacking on the spent beer grain.
We’ve also developed a method of making activated charcoal from the grape vines to help improve the water and nutrient retention in the soil, as the Incas did hundreds of years ago. We then use that charcoal to make our ash cheese. It’s all connected.
Sustainability is close to Rosie’s heart, too. Inspired by her travels through Europe while learning the art of wine and cheesemaking, she dreamt of offering unique food and wine experiences at home on the South Coast.
I respect so much about the food systems in countries such as France and Italy. I am a solid advocate of slow food, having started the Slow Food movement here in the Shoalhaven. I wanted to connect our visitors to all the producers on the South Coast and tried to focus on doing that in our restaurant.
Rosie Cupitt, Founder and Cheesemaker at Cupitt’s Estate
Travelling to France in 1998, Rosie met her winemaking mentor Alphonse Mellot in Sancerre who connected her with some of the country’s most prolific vinters, and in 2002, she joined Richard Smart to lead a technical tour of Southern France – a journey that included stops at 28 wineries from the Northern Rhône to Bordeaux.
Rosie’s approach to winemaking is deeply rooted in tradition, influenced by her time studying with the masters.
“We have a non-interventional attitude to winemaking. We want our wine to express the true character of the grapes and only influence the flavour and style with the use of good oak when it is needed,” she says.
Rosie’s ongoing research and dedication has resulted in numerous awards over the years, but she has since passed the torch down to her son so she can pursue another of her greatest pleasures – cheese.
“Winemaking is quite a manual job, so it was perfect for Wally to take over and for me to start the fromagerie,” Rosie says.”It was an easy progression from winemaking to cheesemaking as they are both fermentation processes and involve an understanding of microbiology, chemistry and physics, and need a practical approach in creating the product.”
The Cupitts’ fromagerie was established in 2015 and continues to produce some of the finest artisan cheeses in the country. A further nod to her European studies, Rosie and her team employ traditional French and Italian techniques to produce everything from the gold medal-winning Narrawilly to the fudgy Flor Azul.
Another Cupitt with a penchant for French tradition is Griff and Rosie’s youngest son and head winemaker, Wally. He brings a relaxed yet strategic approach to the operation:
Tradition is vital for our guiding winemaking principles. However, we are lucky to use science to help us make more informed decisions at various stages, which allows us to maintain quality.
Wally Cupitt, Winemaker at Cupitt’s Estate
Under Wally’s keen eye, Cupitt’s Estate produces 22 different varieties of wine, from refreshing whites with great natural acidity to elegant, medium-bodied reds with mature flavour profiles. While he seems like a natural in the role, this wasn’t the path he thought he would follow.
“I was initially interested in brewing beer when I first joined my parents in this business,” Wally admits.
“I was helping Mum out in the winery, but I would be home brewing on the weekends as a hobby and going to Four Pines Brewery for work experience every week.”
“It wasn’t until I had a fantastic opportunity to travel to France and do vintage with Mum’s winemaking mentor Alphonse that I really developed a passion for wine,” he says.
The Sauvignon Blanc vineyard directly in front of the restaurant provides the fruit for the Cupitt’s signature wine, aptly named ‘Alphonse’, but this is just a small part of the 150 tonne production, Wally explains.
The new vineyards are on the other side of the property on the crest of a hill that has excellent sunlight exposure and the interesting brown volcanic, monzonite soils that Milton is known for. As the crow flies, we are situated three kilometres from the ocean, so the summer sea breeze is a major influence on our terroir.
The Cupitts source the majority of their grapes from the cool climate regions of Orange, Tumbarumba, Hilltops, the Yarra and Canberra District. Their star varietals range from a dangerously drinkable Pinot Noir to the complex and rich Roussanne, but the 2018 Cupitt ‘Provenance’ Chardonnay is Wally’s favourite.
“It’s made from fruit picked in Wamboin near Canberra, grown at 900 metres in a very light, shaley sandstone country; it has fantastic concentration and minerality.”
The Operations Manager
From a single vineyard to an elaborate hospitality business, Cupitt’s Estate requires a steady hand to guide the ship through its many day-to-day operations. A former Civil Engineer may not be your first pick for the job of Operations Manager, but it’s Tom Cupitt’s wealth of experience in project management that allows the enterprise to glide along seamlessly.
Tom and his partner Libby spent five years living in London before moving back to the South Coast to tie the knot.
We loved the London lifestyle, but we were also keen to get back to Australia to be closer to our families and start one for ourselves. Mum and Dad were also up to their eyeballs running Cupitt’s, so we were keen to come back and get involved with the business.
Tom Cupitt, Operations Manager at Cupitt’s Estate
The estate has a lot of moving pieces, and when it comes to making them all run together, Tom says it’s all about working with people, finding unique solutions to problems and continuously analysing things to improve on.
When asked about the transformation of the property and ongoing business growth, Tom says it all just happened naturally.
“From the very beginning, the business has been expanding. I think Mum and Dad underestimated how popular the place would be,” Tom says. “They certainly have an entrepreneurial spirit, so things tend to happen without a thorough business plan. We are now more measured in how we plan for the future.”
The last 18 months has certainly presented its challenges, Tom shares, referring to blown-out project deadlines and adapting to constant changes in rules and customer expectations, but as a whole, he feels lucky to have rolled with the pandemic punches.
“We’ve been forced to think outside of the box and have made some changes to our operations that we will continue post-COVID.”
Tom’s focus is now on improving their infrastructure to cope with the growing number of visitors, as well as exploring the potential for new growth opportunities.
We’re looking at ways to expand into new markets like online and wholesale where we don’t need to rely so much on people being here physically… We want to see steady growth so we can continue to provide good employment opportunities for our local community.
The Customer Experience Manager
In many ways, Libby Cupitt is the face of the operation. A true jack-of-all-trades, she has shifted between managing the restaurant, executing the marketing strategy, running HR and taking care of guest relations. Whichever aspect of the business she finds herself in, her greatest focus is always on the customer.
I love connecting with our customers, getting to know them and doing what we can to give them a great experience. We have been operating for over 14 years now and have many loyal customers who have been here since the beginning.
Libby Cupitt, Customer Experience Manager
Libby admits their move to the South Coast wasn’t meant to be permanent, but now, she couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.
“Tom and I had plans to move to Melbourne and work in our careers – me as a Town Planner and him as a Civil Engineer,” Libby says.
The restaurant was a beast and had growing pains. Rosie and Griff worked massive hours, but they were still desperate to grow the business, and Wally had started helping Rosie with winemaking, so we thought we should pitch in at least until they got on top of things.
“I don’t know if it was the unlimited access to wine and restaurant-quality food, but we fell in love with working in hospitality,” she says. “But now we couldn’t see ourselves doing anything else. We wanted to see the business reach its full potential, and we knew it needed the commitment of the family to get there.”
This story first appeared in The Farmer Magazine.