From larrikin to Barossa legend

Peter Lehmann – 18/8/1930 to 28/6/2013

Peter Leon Lehmann was born on August 18, 1930, the son of a Lutheran pastor who preached at five churches every Sunday in the Barossa Valley. Many of the parishioners were, like the Lehmanns descended from German-speaking Silesian settlers who fled their home for religious reasons. Franz Lehmann, who also owned a small vineyard, was widely loved and respected and his son Peter learnt some of his leadership skills from his father. But he was a larrikin and a tearaway from the start, letting down parishioners’ tyres, or climbing the church roof and ringing the bell during the service for a lark. His life was dotted by health scares, which started early, when he was knocked off his bicycle at age 12 and had his skull opened. Lehmann lived and partied hard and despite being a heavy smoker and a man who loved a drink, overcame most of his illnesses and lived to be just a few weeks short of his 83rd birthday.

His father died suddenly when he was 14 and Peter was a wild youth. Although he made his name as a winemaker, he was not formally educated in that field, leaving school early to take a job as a lab assistant at Yalumba in 1947. He came under the tutelage of Yalumba’s chief winemaker Rudi Kronberger, managing director Wyndham Hill Smith and company secretary Alf Wark, who collectively channeled Lehmann’s energy and skills, schooled him in winemaking and taught him about the civilizing influence of wine and food and good living.

But Lehmann shocked the Hill Smiths by leaving for better pay at Saltram, also located in Angaston, and there was a temporary rift. He then shocked the Barossa by leaving his first wife Nan for a youthful, vibrant, highly intelligent and outgoing schoolteacher, Margaret Penny, whom he soon married. He had two sons and a daughter by Nan and two sons with Margaret.

Peter and Margaret were perfectly matched and she became his partner in all things, including his working life, which she shared completely. Margaret revealed many sides of his personality which he himself did not know he possessed, especially a love of music and the fine arts in general, which led to the Lehmanns organising and sponsoring all manner of arts events in the Barossa including an international music festival.

Lehmann is best known as a champion of the Barossa Valley, which throughout the 1970s and ‘80s was unfashionable. He was a promoter of regionality long before it was trendy, and the protector of the grapegrowers, many of whom were his relatives or personal friends as they had been his father’s. This loyalty to the people surfaced many times in spectacular ways.

First was his refusal to curtail the grape intake in the 1965 vintage at Saltram as the company directed. Later, when Saltram was owned by diversified stock-and-station company Dalgety, and he was directed not to accept grapes in the 1978 vintage, Lehmann again disobeyed and organized his own way of utilising the unwanted fruit. With a small group of financial backers, he formed a company to vinify the grapes, selling the wine in bulk and paying the growers – who would otherwise have had no income for the year – when he could. He did the same the following year and then left Saltram, taking the entire winemaking and cellar team with him, to build a new winery and start what became Peter Lehmann Wines.

It is now a global brand-name and the man himself is known and respected around the world as a champion of the powerless worker in the face of uncaring and self-interested corporate irresponsibility. This disgust with the corporate world and jealous protection of the Barossa and its people surfaced repeatedly over the next 13 years throughout various upheavals to do with ownership, as the Lehmanns had little money of their own and relied on investors. Finally in 1993 a public float was organised, which put the company on the stock exchange and at the mercy of fickle analysts and stock market jockeys. After many hair-raising financial crises, PLW was the target of a hostile takeover attempt, British drinks conglomerate Allied Domecq playing the role of corporate bad guy.

Lehmann personally took a high profile in the media and his colourful, straight-talking manner won him many friends the world over who were touched by his David-versus-Goliath battle. The perfectly scripted climax arrived when he won. By sheer luck, Lehmann and his managers had recently met the people who shared their philosophy and would eventually make an offer for PLW shares, win the bidding war and become a stable and benevolent majority owner – the Swiss based family company, and owner of wineries in several other lands, Hess Corporation. The Barossa growers backed Peter to the hilt and declined to sell their shares to Allied, even when it seemed Allied had the more attractive bid. The story became a legendary tale of how money is not all that matters, and how loyalty and friendship can compensate for lack of power. Hess still owns the majority of PLW shares today.

Peter Lehmann is survived by his wife Margaret, daughter Libby and son Douglas from his first marriage, and two sons David and Phillip – both Barossa Valley winemakers – from his marriage to Margaret. Another son, Bruce, pre-deceased him. Vale Peter Lehmann: kind, generous, big-hearted, quick-witted, and always ready for a joke and a laugh.

First published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Good Food – 6 July 2013.

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