Photograph of PETER LEHMANN at his weighbridge by MILTON WORDLEY. Story by PHILIP WHITE – This first appeared in The Sydney Daily Telegraph in 1990
Twilight, somewhere near Tibooburra. I am hurtling across the desert with Peter Lehmann in his 1927 Buick ragtop. There have been enormous rains, so everything is sopping; covered in mud. It’s in our underpants and eyes, under the brims of our hats, and in our boots. It destroyed our primitive brakes days ago, a thousand miles back, but we are not stopping. Were are on our way to Alice Springs. In a hurry. We are competing in a Redex Rally.
As navigator, and occasional driver – unless he’s dead or crazy, Lehmann won’t let anyone else have the wheel – my job is to keep a pitifully small patch of the windscreen translucent by tipping water from a port bottle through a tear in the roof, so the wind and tiny manual windscreen wiper slops more mud back through the hole in the roof and into our faces. I regret wearing a shirt with pockets. They are both full of mud.
We are working on another bottle. Peter likes some help with that. And while the evening sky’s last silver reflection fades from the long skinny puddle which is the road, it becomes obvious the old headlamps have gone on strike. Again.
When total darkness settles, Lehmann throttles off marginally to let another car through. It’s a full-bore modern European rallying machine: blaring air horns, more lights than New York City, five aerials, open exhausts, ’roo bars, roll cage: all the macho stuff. Windscreen washers, for Chrissake! It roars and lurches and slews sickeningly across the dribbling mud pie which is the middle of Australia, and we are right up his quoit in the dark, two tonnes of 1927 iron, sixty-five miles an hour in the old money, no lights, no brakes, no mike on the two-way to discourage the poor bastards from slowing down too quickly. No sense. No safety. Sheer fear of death keeps me stone silent, wide awake, and passing the thirty year old Peter Lehmann port. I’m glad I can’t see through my side of the windscreen, which glows a low mud red from the tail lights of that poor unsuspecting idiot in front of us. The port is called Old Redemption, after a hymn book.
Three hours later, that car, totally unaware of our presence, just a length in front of us, disappears. The hole must be very deep. We follow it in at top speed, and I can tell it’s bounced out and moved on because when we hit the bottom there’s no metallic crunch. There’s a bounce, mind you, that flips our sodden swags over to join us in the front, and twists the chassis sufficiently to buck all four doors open so the port and the torch and the wet toilet rolls fall out and the roof disconnects from the windscreen and flips back to let more mud and the big black sky in. But we do not hit. Neither do we stop. And our headlights, the whole two candlepower of them, come back on. The driver ahead shrieks vicious curses over the radio, demanding to know where we have come from and who the hell we are and screaming “get back you bastards you’re far too close!”
We never get the chance to tell him we’ve been there for two hundred kilometres. No mike.
But there in the newly-dim flicker of the dashlight Lehmann grins across at me like some wild, wet terra cotta Buddha-Bacchus to say “There you are White. What you English don’t understand is Barossadeutscher stubbornness. Now where’s that port?”
And that’s Lehmann. In a valley full of conservative Silesian peasants conditioned to being downtrodden for generations by their English managers, locked up each time we go to war with Germany, and called free settlers when in fact they were South Australia’s special line of particularly well-behaved convicts, he is a very rare bird because he has that slugging, pig-headed stolidity with the ability to speak out loud and lead. Especially when the headlights come back on.
More than any other Barossadeutscher hero, and there not many, Lehmann has dedicated his wine-making years to the appreciation, maintenance and preservation of the quiet, hidden life which makes this big wine valley special.
When Saltram, the wine company for which he’d slaved for decades was bought out by an absentee landlord who ordered the immediate sacking of the hundreds of peasant-scale family vignerons from whom he bought his grapes, Lehmann walked out with his beloved growers, borrowed money from the few mates who had any, built a new winery, and promised the growers that if they’d wait ’til he’d sold the wine, he’d pay for those grapes and save their families from ruin. It was a genuine, wildy risky Moses act that took years to work properly, but it worked.
Lehmann called his spartan new joint Masterson, after Damon Runyon’s stoic, gambling private dick, and, for a while at least, the ancient peasant-scale Barossa vineyard, unique in Australia, was saved from the bulldozer blade.
A decade later, in 1989, when grape prices were soaring to heights never before seen here, and competing companies hounded the growers with higher and higher bids, Lehmann called his throng together at the annual Growers’ Picnic, and told them he’d be paying lower rates than most companies because the new prices were ridiculous. The growers stuck with him.
This relationship has to be seen to be understood. At vintage, which takes three months, Lehmann drops all else to man his weighbridge. In trucks and tractors, utes and trolleys of divers ages and sizes come the growers. They queue from first light to last, taking their turn on the bridge. As they wait to be weighed, they come in and chat with Peter, to share a smoke and a schlück or three of port. According to Barossa tradition, it’s cold tawny, taken by the flagon from the ’fridge. There’s always a mountain of fresh crusty bread - from the bakers Linke or Fechner - there on the redgum bench, and delicious gum-smoked meats and dill pickles to munch.
Lehmann remembers the names of several hundred of these folks’ businesses. He has, after all, been buying their grapes for over forty years. “Hahn, W. G. and L. G.” he says, sliding the polished weights along the scale arm. “That looks like good shiraz. Have a schlück. Heuppaff, E. H. and B. M.. Lovely. Look at that quality Whitey. Two and a half tonnes. Saegenschnitter Brothers. Scholz. Jeez, I can remember that old truck sitting in the vineyard with North Para floodwaters lapping round its windows. Have some ham. Seeliger – what is it? That’s right, W. A. and M. A.. Cabernet. Better than last year. Pech, L. W. J. and B. Y. ... how’s the family, Leo?”
The growers mill about and joke, and play tricks on the unsuspecting newcomer. “See that mettwürst there on the back of the door already”, they’ll say, “Peder keeps that on there for not to eat but for to keep our eyes off the scale while he weighs our grapes. Haw, haw haw!”
The little weighbridge room is decorated with photographs of Damon Runyon and Lehmann’s father’s graduation class from the Lutheran seminary in Minnesota.. He was a favourite local preacher for the duration of his life, and the first Lutheran in the Barossa to preach in English. It’s a room from another age; another time, when life meant more than it does today, and pace was something seen only at the Kapunda trots or Redex Rallies.
So this year, at the close of the best vintage for Barossa red since the great year of 1971, many souls were sobered when the news spread that Peter Lehmann was in hospital with bowel cancer. The first operation was complex and long, and more followed. The tumor was removed, but infection set in and one of the other things they took out was a kidney. Thousands of South Australians held their breath. Lehmann lost five stone.
The rustics in the Nuriootpa Snakepit stared glumly into their schooners of cold port and made sage announcements like “Poor old Peder. Too much mettwürst, not enough port”. The winter was cold and dull.
But as the months wound by, Lehmann, P. L. and M., Peter The Rock, Peder the Preacher’s Kid, Mr. Stubborn Barossa himself, gradually shook off his ailments and slowly, surely grew healthy again. He has been cleared of the cancer, and on Thursday, the day his 1989 was to win the Jimmy Watson Trophy, he took his first glass of Old Redemption for many months. Then he took another. And another.
And at ten thirty at night, he telephoned me from the Barossa with a wicked gurgle in his raspy gambler’s voice. “Lehmann”, I said, instantly worried, totally forgetting the function then underway in the Melbourne show hall. “Is everything okay? Are you alright?”
“White” he said triumphantly, “not only are you talking to a man who can drive in the dark, but to a Barossa winemaker who in this same year has won the top red trophy in the Brisbane show with his cabernet blend AND the Jimmy Watson Trophy with a traditional 1989 Barossa shiraz".
Tomorrow, or yesterday your time, is Lehmann's birthday. I can promise you there will be an unholy degree of schlücking and schnabelling at the weighbridge, and late, when the jazz has finally played right out, Norty Schluter, Baker Linke, Peder and Dingo will play ten dollar poker until there's no need to keep the lights on.