Australian Wine Maker and wine company founder Peter Lehmann AO has died aged 82, it is hard to imagine any winemaker past, present or future that will ever have such an impact on a wine region or endear himself to grape growers as quite the same way as Peter in his beloved Barossa Valley.
Known as the first ‘Baron of the Barossa’ and much loved for his wit and wisdom, Peter Lehmann was born in the region to the local pastor in 1930, he began working in the wine industry in 1947, aged 17, at Yalumba. In 1960 he moved to Saltram Wines, where he was chief winemaker for 20 years. Yalumba distilled a bit of brandy, (technically a spirit and not a wine) at the time and I remember Peter once told me that his father should have been proud because ‘At least we both ended up in the spirit game’.
Robert Hill Smith, managing director of Yalumba Wines stated” Peter Lehmann was an extremely talented, intelligent man who never got ahead of himself. He was a unique character, a true Barossa man who was a mentor to so many people. During a lifetime there are one or two people who have an amazing impact, he was one, and I can’t see anyone around to take his place.” Hill Smith also noted, “Peter was a handshake man, no contracts were necessary and he was not a selfish man. He had a wicked wit, was irreverent, but left a lasting impression whether you met him for just five minutes or half an hour.”
A very gifted winemaker who would go on to win a slew of trophies and the highest awards both in Australia and abroad, Peter’s legend and true hero status began in the late nineteen seventies when the Barossa’s largest wineries, (including his own employer) ordered their winemakers to stop buying in grapes and concentrate on their own fruit.
With the livelihoods of over sixty grape-growing families at stake, Peter quickly put his own future on the line by setting up a wine company on the side and promising to take the grower’s grape crops at fair market prices.
Fellow wine legend Wolf Blass described Lehmann as a “bloody good bloke who will never disappear. He absorbed the grapes that no one wanted. He became the savior of the Barossa Valley and they have supported him ever since,” Mr. Blass said.
A massive gamble that history now shows paid off handsomely, with the winery at its peak taking fruit in from over 140 growers across the region, the brand famous around the world and the company being sold to the Hess group in 2003, (the year after Peter’s retirement) for over 100 million Australian Dollars.
Having worked with Peter on several occasions many years ago, his legend had already been well established, yet I remember him as an unaffected ‘character’, someone very down to earth and easy going, someone who enjoyed what he did immensely and enjoyed a good laugh just as much. Peter was good at sharing stories and was quick with a pun or one liner, he was also happy to impart winemaking information and his winemaking philosophy. Outside of the wine industry Peter and his wife Margaret were great supporters of the arts, one of their early labels being named the ‘Arts Series’ and the winery is still a supporter and financial partner of the Australian Chamber Orchestra.
Today, the Barossa Valley in South Australia is regarded as one of the World’s truly great wine regions and with some of the oldest commercial vines still in production, it is regarded as a living treasure of the wine world. I remember Peter Lehmann as someone who saw people faced with ruin and was deeply moved and then he decided to do something, at great personal, financial risk. He championed a cause and became the champion of a region, when it was on its knees. Some still declare he saved it; he will never be forgotten for his heroic deeds, his legend will only improve with time, just like the very vines he rescued and the wines they produce.
Peter Lehmann was awarded the Order of Australia for his contribution to the Australian Wine Industry and received an International Wine Challenge Lifetime Achievement Award in 2009.
He is survived by his wife Margaret, sons Doug, David and Phillip and daughter Libby.