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Saturday 21 November 2015

Meet the winery owner who plays classical music to keep his vines happy

With his wild, flowing white hair and unruly beard, Peter Yealands is a man who stands out in a crowd.

This leading light in the New Zealand wine industry, and a major exporter to Australia, comes armed with a powerful sustainability message.

Less than a decade after releasing the first wine under the Yealands Estate label, the Yealands Wine Group has risen to be one of the top five wine producers in New Zealand; no mean feat in a highly competitive market.

Yealands happily admits that until a few years ago he thought cabernet sauvignon was a blend of red and white grapes. He also tells the story of how he’d never been in a winery until he built his own.

A former major player in both the aquaculture and forestry industries (he was once one of New Zealand’s major mussel producers), Yealands planted his first vines just outside Blenheim township, heartland of the Marlborough wine region, as an investment in 1998.

He only got serious about making his own wine when he established the Yealands Estate vineyard, winery and cellar door in Marlborough’s Awatere Valley. His aim was to become a world leader in sustainable production and to make “world-class wines that do not cost the earth". 

Today, although he sold much of his equity in early 2015, he has New Zealand’s largest
privately-owned vineyard, one of the world’s most ecologically and technologically advanced wineries, and exports to over 60 countries.

"It's a bloody big business for a one-man band and a family and I am getting older," Yealands said. "But I have a desire to stay here . . . I love what I do."

Yealands has enjoyed a remarkable 45 per cent growth year-on-year and his motto is: “think boldly, tread lightly and never say it can’t be done.”

He’s a down-to-earth bloke with a no-nonsense attitude who left school at 14 and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. And if something needs doing, or a problem needs solving, then he’ll probably do it himself.

When he bought his first vineyard property, Yealands says he’d “never been in a vineyard in his life”. He planted 20 hectares and sold fruit on the spot market. “I don’t usually take unnecessary risks, but that was high risk, high reward,” he recalls.

He constructed the contours and terraces of the vineyards with his own small bulldozer.

“A lot of people said we were crazy and that it wouldn’t work – but it has,” he says. “I guess I have a lot of self belief. I know that I can’t do anything unless I throw myself into it."

The $45 million high-tech winery opened on 8/8/08 (lucky numbers according to numerologists) with a Who’s Who of the New Zealand wine industry invited – to most of whom Yealands had previously sold fruit.

Yealands, who also farms sheep and Angus cattle, lives on the Awatere property with his wife Vai and his son Aaron, who runs the maintenance operations along with a staff of six.

Yealands is fast with a quip and a self-deprecating quote. He’s a PR’s dream, but says he’s at his happiest on a tractor, or in his workshop, building a new piece of machinery.

Out in the vineyards he says he’s constantly thinking about improvements and more sustainable ways to get things done effectively.

Tamra Washington (above), who has worked in Italy and California as well as in the Hunter Valley and Margaret River, heads his winemaking team.

Sustainability is important for both of them.

“Right from the start Peter has had a real focus on doing things the right way,” Washington says. “Our site is a rugged and tough one for growing grapes, but the vineyard practices have been a huge plus in making sure the fruit hits the winery in the best possible condition. Peter has a philosophy of putting more into the land than he takes out.”

Yealands Estate was the first winery in the world to be carbon zero from inception and the vineyards are all fully accredited through the Sustainable Winegrowers New Zealand.

Winery power and water heating is supplemented by wind turbines, solar panels and grape vine prunings. Yealands himself has converted a tractor that collects pruned material and turns it into a renewable energy source.

The pruned materials are baled, seasoned for six months and when burnt save hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in power costs. The remainder of pruned material is mulched and then returned to the soil.

Yealands is using miniature Babydoll sheep to keep the rows clean “introduced to help reduce our diesel emissions by eliminating mowing” (larger sheep showed a tendency to eat the grapes), and also has used a small breed of Kunekune pig that he says eats vegetation and doesn’t dig up the ground like other breeds.

He has planted thousands of trees to encourage birdlife in and around the wetlands on his property and has installed a self-drive track for visitors to enjoy the spectacular views from his Awatere vineyard all the way to Cape Campbell.

There is no doubting Yealands is something of an eccentric. He even plays classical music to the vines in one vineyard block. “I read somewhere that plants like music, so I thought I’d give it a try,” he says. “But they only like classical music, not rock.”

There is good news from 2015, too, with Washington describing the fruit, and sauvignon blanc in particular, as “just sensational”.

# This is an edited version of a story that first appeared in Nourish magazine.

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