Peter Lehmann, who has died aged 82, was a leading Australian winemaker who instigated many of the changes which have revolutionised Australian wines over the past half century.
A big, chain-smoking man with a gravelly voice and a salty turn of phrase, Lehmann might have been a Chateau Chunder-grower from central casting. As a winemaker, however, he was cut from a very different cloth.
During the 1970s Lehmann worked for the Saltram winery in the Barossa Valley, South Australia, an enterprise mainly engaged in producing red wine in bulk for the British market. In the mid- ’70s the business was bought by the agri-giant Dalgety. As Saltram’s chief winemaker Lehmann was responsible for buying fruit from independent growers, but in 1977 there was a grape glut and Lehmann was instructed by the new owners to break the oral contracts he had agreed and not to buy any grapes for the 1978 vintage.
Lehmann had grown up among the Barossa Valley growers – mostly the descendants of Prussian Lutherans who had settled in South Australia in the 19th century – and shared their deep sense of community. Rather than leave them with unsold grapes on their hands and facing possible bankruptcy, he set up a winery outside the Saltram organisation. “They allowed me to form an outside company and process the grapes at Saltram for $50 a tonne,” he recalled. “I don’t think they thought we had any hope of success.”
He called it Masterson Barossa Vignerons, after Sky Masterson, the Damon Runyon character from the “Guys and Dolls” collection of stories. Masterson was a gambler; the queen of clubs – the “Gambler’s card” – became the company logo. Family and friends rallied round and Lehmann managed to buy $2 million worth of grapes. The plan was to make bulk wine from the fruit and sell it to the industry, but the glut soon forced Lehmann to bottle his own wine for sale.
With investor backing, he built his own winery at Tanunda in time for the 1980 harvest, and in 1982, the company changed its name to Peter Lehmann Wines.
Careful selection of fruit – particularly Shiraz and Riesling grapes – and close attention to winemaking paid off and soon Lehmann began turning out a range of wines that were consistently good at all levels. He was one of the first to promote Australian wines overseas (though the bare-breasted blonde adorning the label of a Sémillon sold in Australia had to be covered up for the North American market), and his wines won numerous international trophies. Lehmann himself was named International Winemaker of the Year in 2003 and 2006.
Known in Australia as the “Baron of the Barossa”, Lehmann was held in high esteem by local grape growers as the man who almost single-handedly saved their industry and way of life. Some 140 growers pledged their fruit to his winery and his weighbridge became a place where the area’s farmers would assemble every harvest time to swap stories over bottles of wine and platters of pickles, cheese and slices of mettwurst.
Lehmann’s contribution to the industry was acknowledged in 2009 with an International Wine Challenge Lifetime Achievement Award and he became the first Australian wine industry figure to be appointed to the Order of Australia.
The son of a Lutheran pastor, Peter Lehmann was born at Angaston, in the Barossa Valley, on August 18 1930. After his father’s death in 1944 he left school to help his mother and became an apprentice at the local Yalumba winery, a family concern, in 1947. 12 years later, by which time he had become a winemaker in his own right, he moved down the road to another family winery, Saltram.
At the time, nearly all Barossa wines were fortified, but Saltram was one of the few Australian companies which made table wine. He became the company’s chief winemaker and, to increase production, forged strong personal bonds with local growers. As a result, when he took the hugely risky step of going it alone, many Saltram employees and growers went with him.
Peter Lehmann Wines went public in the 1990s, but Lehmann continued to preside at the weighbridge, weighing and assessing the grapes every day of every vintage. The year after his official retirement in 2002, the winery was sold to the Swiss-based Hess Group for $US103 million. But Lehmann continued to live there until his death.
Peter Lehmann is survived by his wife, Margaret, and by three sons and a daughter.
Peter Lehmann, born August 18 1930 died June 28 2013