Margaret Lehmann isn’t one to mince her words, she’s a straight shooting, matter of fact woman whose sought after opinions and views have helped shape the Barossa into the celebrated region it is today.
Yet growing up in leafy Leabrook, five doors down from the original Cooper’s Brewery, this bookish youngster seemed worlds away from the wine industry matriarch she would become.
“I was the youngest of four children with three older brothers so I had to learn to hold my own!” laughs Margaret.
Both parents were educators and her father was the principal of Adelaide Teachers’ College, so it seemed natural to follow in their footsteps.
“It was assumed I would go onto university and whatever I wanted to do was what I should do.
“My father said you need to get training because you should never be reliant on a man to support you!”
She finished an Arts degree at Adelaide University majoring in history, studied politics and English and gained a Diploma of Education and librarian qualifications.
Then in 1968, through mutual friendships and a love of wine, she met a fifth generation Barossan whose father was a Lutheran Pastor.
“When I met Peter, it was what you might call a coup de foudre,” she says, opening up her well-worn dictionary to find the definition of the French phrase.
“Here you go, this is true: ‘An incident of love at first sight – their fateful meeting caused a coup de foudre that grew into lifelong love.’ I mean, it took me four hours to fall in love…maybe six at the most!”
In 1970, Margaret took up a part time position teaching History and English at Nuriootpa High School where she stayed for two and a half years and just loved it.
“We got married in August of that year…We were going to get married at the Registry Office on Friday when school broke up, but Rose Laucke and Alli Hill Smith said you can’t do that, there’s a fantastic clearing sale at Eudunda. So we said we’ll get married on the Wednesday!”
Margaret was absorbed in Peter’s world as they raised their sons, David and Philip.
She saw the original Barossa, when Seppelts and Gramps still owned the wineries that bore their name.
“I sort of had a glimpse of what the Barossa was in terms of families and then became caught up in the corporate takeovers. The wine industry became very attractive to multinationals who went on a buying spree and, during the 70s an early 80s, it became like tumbling dominoes.
“My time at Saltram was stimulating, I was very much a part of Peter’s work life. I learned to operate everything… I was a crusher operator, I was a cellar hand on the weekends if he was pumping over. He just assumed that I should be there! I was very interested in wine, he would include me in tastings and we’d argue the finer points.
“Peter was always very hospitable so when I came home from school, I never knew how many people would be around for lunch. We had some incredible funny, interesting and amazing times.”
From living next door to Saltram’s Winery where Peter was General Manager, to their time at The Willows, moving to Tanunda and building their home next door to the new winery which would flourish as Peter Lehmann Wines, life for Margaret was rewarding.
There were many corporate winery battles and, as a woman in a largely masculine environment, Margaret held her own with strength and integrity that gained both admiration and respect.
“Peter’s fights on behalf of the growers, the company and the Barossa over nearly 30 years have been well documented. I was Peter’s partner, his ally and his assistant tactician in all these struggles – we were a partnership,” says Margaret with a warm sense of pride, for she knows every handshake exchanged and risk taken during those time as well as the many livelihoods that were at stake.
“When I think of some of the challenges that Peter and I faced, it was incredibly stressful and difficult but the joy of getting through those made it all worthwhile. You look back and say, I wouldn’t have missed that for quids!”
“It's often the people who come here who become the fiercest defenders in my view. We see what treasures there are here in a way that people who grow up here perhaps don't.”
- Margaret lehmann
All the while, Margaret immersed herself in Barossa culture, becoming a passionate advocate for its history, traditions and values whilst working in PR at Peter Lehmann Wines.
“I spent hours in the weighbridge up there, feeding visitors, growers, listening to theological arguments and discussions – that’s what I loved. Then you would hear the men arguing about which was the best recipe for dilled cucumbers, the merits of fishing holes 50 metres apart…These were the true gourmets!” she laughs.
“It gave me such a privileged insight into the underpinnings of the Barossa.”
Through an “outsider’s” eyes, Margaret discovered the rich resources of the region and has fought tirelessly to manage its sustainability.
“It’s often the people who come here who become the fiercest defenders in my view. We see what treasures there are here in a way that people who grow up here perhaps don’t.”
Margaret was elected to Council under the catch phrase, “good planning makes good neighbours” and presided over the Barossa Tourist Association with the goal of establishing a unified administration structure leading to the creation of the Barossa Wine and Tourism Association.
She convened Vintage Festival committees and helped organise international wine promotion events, always in the pursuit of creating a strong economic future for the region.
“I saw the bigger picture,” Margaret says.
“We needed to say, we will put value into the word Barossa.”
To that end, Margaret was one of many to form the Barossa Region Residents’ Association to protect the productive agricultural land endangered by the infamous vine pull.
“That was huge. We had over 1,500 members…It was to save the Barossa Valley floor and by and large that has held true incredibly well today.”
She also took up the cause, initiated by Jan Angas, to promote regional foods as inaugural chairman of Food Barossa which developed Australia’s first legally accredited regional food branding system.
“Coming here I realised one day, and this has been one of the themes of my life, I knew where every bit on my plate came from. I knew the hands that had grown or made the food – how wonderful!”
Looking back, Margaret is pleased the work done years ago has “borne fruit productively” and today she says there is a “surge of energy” from creative food and wine producers eager to uphold the region’s values.
“The critical thing is in the 80s young people were leaving the Barossa because it was a pretty grim prospect for them and now children of the growers are staying because there is a future. I think this is exemplified by David and Philip who see their future living and working productively here. They want to live nowhere else, see a future for their children and, wonderful for me, they and their families are very much part of my everyday life.”
Margaret’s activities didn’t stop at the Barossa’s borders. Her past appointments include being SA representative on the National Advisory Council to the ABC and Federal Task Force on Regional Development; Deputy chairman of the State Libraries’ Board and member of the Council of the National Museum, Canberra. She revelled in those experiences and translated her acquired knowledge to local causes.
Margaret and Peter also had a love affair with music and art which led them to support the restoration of the Hill and Son Grand Organ as well as musicians and artists throughout the decades.
But when Peter died, Margaret’s heart broke.
“It was just horrendous. It was very tough, it still is,” says an emotional Margaret. “I keep expecting he’ll come in through the door.”
Whilst she still misses Peter, Margaret finds solace in their shared love of music which cemented their partnership and created enduring friendships.
“You’ve got to stay plugged into life,” is her firm belief.
It’s one of the reasons she founded “Barossa, Baroque and Beyond”, a “micro-fest” of live performances, further reiterating her life-long quest of adding dimension to the Valley’s quality offerings.
She and her sons are also continuing Peter’s legacy of giving, by launching the Peter Lehmann Arts and Education Trust which distributed funds for the first time last year.
“It’s going to help nourish and nurture the Barossa-ness of the Barossa culturally.”
For Margaret, that’s been central to her life’s journey – recognising the region’s unique cultural heritage by being creative about its future and taking pride in its past.
“I think you want a very strong, healthy and economically viable regional community and if you were to ask what the Barossa stands for? To me it’s multi-dimensional – the values, the beauty of the place, the cultural imperatives and, of course, the quality of what we produce.”
And what would she tell that little girl with her nose in a book?