Winnipeg Free Press - ONLINE EDITION

Remembering Peter Lehmann

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Since there's only so much physical real estate in the 49.8 section of the Winnipeg Free Press, I figured I'd share some of the great stories I got about the late Peter Lehmann, who passed away last month, in this corner of the paper's website...

And once you're done reading these lovely stories about PL, check out a video about Friday's celebratory gathering at PLW, including an interview with his son Phillip and friend/fellow winemaker Bob MacLean. You can see it here (opens in a new window).

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It was a sad day... when we heard the news that Peter had passed away. He was a legend of the Australian wine industry and will be sorely missed.

He was a great character and his dedication to the Barossa and its grape growers is legendary. I feel very lucky to work at Peter Lehmann Wines due to the really close relationship we have with the 150 families who supply us grapes. Many of these families have delivered grapes to the PLW since its inception in 1979 and even through the boom years stuck with PL even though other companies were paying more than PLW could afford.

The reason they stuck with Peter was that they trusted him as he did them. He knew every one of the growers' names and those of their families, and would always take the time to have a chat and a drink if he was working on the Weighbridge.

This close bond with our growers has made my life a lot easier during the last few years, as we have had to adapt to the market conditions. Given the difficult times, we have focused on increasing our quality, and even though grower profitiability has dropped, we have been able to work closely with our growers and have changed practices, which is leading to better wine quality.

I doubt this would have happened if it had not been for Peter's belief in both Barossa wine and the growers. He genuinely wanted the growers to be part of the PLW story, and wanted to take them along for the ride. This trust in the growers has been repaid many times over, and everyone at PLW (including the growers) wants to continue Peter's legacy. 

— Nigel Blieschke, viticulturalist, Peter Lehmann Wines 

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Peter was all about people, and wouldn't mind a tear or two being shed at his funeral — just to make sure everyone was paying attention — but, he would soon grow weary of that and say "this calls for a drink," which was his very non-subtle code word for "let's have a kibbitz and a few laughs". That was Peter through and through.

Peter had a great fondness for Western Canada, having made his first visit in 2003. He spent time in the mountains in B.C. and Alberta, but felt the people on the prairies were close kindred spirits to Australians, coming from hearty pioneer stock and constantly challenged by severe weather conditions.

There is one recollection I have, which I believe is a shining example of his "damn the torpedos" attitude towards life. In 2010 we were involved in a contest promotion with Earls restaurants in Western Canada, where the prize was "Dinner with the Lehmanns" at five different Earls locations in five different cities. We didn't specifically state which Lehmann that would be, but Peter and his beloved Margaret were not our prime candidates as the ones to host the dinners, as we knew that his health was not very good. However, as we approached the event dates, a set of circumstances came into play, which whittled down Margaret and Peter as the only possible Lehmanns we could call upon.

I contacted Howard Duncan, the Export Manager at the time, but Howard was adamant Peter would not travel due to strict orders by the doctor. However, he relented under my pressure and said he would, at the very least and most, run the idea past Peter. A few days later I got a call from Australia.

"Hello Gladstone, Lehmann here. What's this all about? You know I am not supposed to travel anymore, at least that's what the doc says."

I explained to him what we had to do to fulfill our obligation to Earls.

"What cities do you have in mind?" he queried.

"Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton and Winnipeg, for sure. I haven't yet decided on the fifth city."

"What was the name of that place where you were born and grew up? I always liked the sound of that, but, damned if I can remember."

"Saskatoon, Saskatchewan," I answered.

"Yes, that's it!" he exclaimed. "I've always wanted to go there. Can we make that the fifth city?"

"Yes, we can," I unhesitatingly replied.

"Then we're coming."

I think few people ever got the better of Peter, but an incident in Vancouver was the exception. While attending a media luncheon at Cin Cin restaurant, he and Margaret decided to step outside on Robson Street for a cigarette [Ed. note — Peter was long known for enjoying more than his fair share of puffs over the years.]. One thing about Peter, he had his priorities. I was a bit nervous that one cigarette would turn into two or three, so I decided, at great personal risk to my own health, to accompany them outside.

Vancouver, being one of the country's more "friendly" cities, has a number of people on the street who enjoy welcoming residents and visitors alike. One such gentleman made his way over to where we were standing and before he could introduce himself, Peter stuck out his arm full length and placed a firm hand on the man's shoulder. In the most proselytizing and booming voice imaginable, Peter said, "My good man, I am the Reverend Peter Lehmann of the First Lutheran Church of Angaston, South Australia, and if you pay me ten dollars I will guarantee everlasting salvation of your soul."

Margaret and I looked at each other, dumbfounded. Where was this coming from? Had he suddenly decided to become a thespian or had something snapped?

The somewhat ragged gentleman was as surprised as we were, but quickly gained his composure and his wits.

"I'll tell you what, bub," he replied. "If you give me $20 now, I will pay you the $10 and give you the other $10 when I get to heaven."

True story.

— Norman Gladstone, principal/director, International Cellars 

***

I can honestly say Peter was one of the most simply down-to-earth guys I ever met. Peter had an incredible way of making a person feel very comfortable. I had the pleasure of a dinner in their home behind the winery in the Barossa; he and Margaret welcomed us like we'd been friends for years. I walked away thinking that it reminded me of the years we had a Sunday family dinner, so warm and comfortable. Great people, great stories.

While Peter and Margaret were in Winnipeg on their first visit, I had the pleasure of their company for dinner. We picked them up at the hotel, and Peter was on the phone doing an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald about the hostile takeover that was happening with Allied and PLW. He was so involved he just hopped into the driver's seat, looked at the steering wheel [Ed. note — Aussies drive on the other side of the road] and said "right," got out and went in the other side.

That same visit Peter made the blunder on making a joke about Winnipeg over the course of the winemakers dinner. He said something funny about Main and Portage. No one got it — he didn't know until after dinner that it's known as Portage and Main. I guess the other thing about Peter that always earned my respect was that he and Margaret finished each other's sentences seamlessly — they were an amazing team. 

— Sheila Bennett, Manitoba sales and marketing, International Cellars 

 ***

And more about the "Main and Portage" blunder from Gladstone...

In 2003 we held a Winemaker's Dinner at the Fairmont Winnipeg Hotel to a packed house. I cannot recall a more successful dinner before or since, as the Fairmont outdid themselves, not only providing a wonderful dinner, elaborate decorations and place settings, but, at their own expense,  brought in a string quartet, to the delight of all.

After the introductions, Peter rose to speak and began with a joke. "I was standing at the corner of Main and Portage," said Peter, and then went on to tell a story about a Winnipegger he had met at that famed corner. When he came to the punchline, he was greeted with dead silence from the audience. Not a laugh, not a snicker, not a chuckle. Nothing.

After a couple of awkward seconds, Peter recovered and went on to charm the diners with wonderful stories about the winery and the wines. Their applause was enthusiastic, but the silence that greeted the joke prior wore on Peter throughout the dinner.

Afterwards, when the evening had ended, Peter turned to me and queried, "What's wrong with these people? I worked on that joke all afternoon and even Margaret thought it was funny. I can't believe Australian and Canadian humour is that far apart. What do you think went wrong?" He was genuinely puzzled.

"Peter, the problem was that you didn't run the joke past me first before telling it at dinner to a live audience," I ventured. "No one calls it 'Main and Portage'. It is always 'Portage and Main'. Once you called it 'Main and Portage', you lost them."

He looked at me stunned. "Bloody hell."

Twitter: @bensigurdson

 

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About Ben MacPhee-Sigurdson

When he wasn't bashing on a drum kit in local punk rock bands, Ben spent the mid '90s hucking cases of wine around to pay for two English degrees. Now he's the Winnipeg Free Press wine columnist and blogger.

The extent of Ben's wine experience in the mid-90s was memories of accidentally leaving a bottle of White Zinfandel in the freezer overnight, and the ensuing mess he was left with. Between 1996 and 2005 Ben absorbed all he could about wine while working at wine shops to pay for school. Meanwhile, he was churning out papers for his BA and MA in English (from the Universities of Winnipeg and Manitoba, respectively).

Ben became the Winnipeg Free Press' weekly wine columnist in 2005, and two years later joined Wine Access magazine as a contributor, a member of their national tasting panel and a judge at the Canadian Wine Awards and International Value Wine Awards until the magazine closed up shop in 2013.

In 2013 Ben joined the Winnipeg Free Press as a copy/web editor.

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