The son of a grocer, Peter Yealands spent his formative years doing “all the stuff that Kiwi boys do: hard labour, fencing … essentially I sold my brawn for a couple of years.” From trading hay to building bridges and farming mussels and deer, Peter found himself pioneering many industries that are today considered New Zealand institutions – in fact, a number of his ventures were country firsts, naturally requiring a degree of innovation and creativity.
It’s this forward-thinking attitude that Peter brought to winemaking when he stumbled into the industry via a patch of Marlborough parkland.
“I got into winemaking in a funny way. I bought a block of land just on the outskirts of a little town here in Blenheim. It was a wasteland … I cleaned up the wilderness and made it into a terrific park-like setting. I didn’t really know what to put in the flat area; grapes were in vogue at that time in Marlborough, so I finally decided I’d put some vines in. I didn’t have a clue what to do or how to go about it, but I picked up from others and learnt along the way.”
Falling in love with the industry, Peter grew his empire from that small vineyard – which he still owns today – to a much larger estate in the upper valley of Marlborough, which he developed into a 300-hectare property that he eventually sold to another wine company.
Not wanting to leave the industry, Peter began eyeing land in Seaview, just outside of Seddon in the Awatere Valley. “I bought one farm and started developing that. It was rolling hill country, and in New Zealand at the time, there were no vineyards on rolling hills – they were all on flat land because we just didn’t have the techniques for developing vineyards on hill country.”
Never afraid of a challenge, Peter was determined to find a way to cultivate the land: he introduced a type of GPS system to the farm’s practices, allowing his team to control operations from the seat of a tractor. “That revolutionised large-scale planting of vineyards in New Zealand,” says Peter. “It’s what made the Awatere Valley the fastest growing horticulture region in New Zealand.”
From here, Peter purchased eight adjoining farms over six years – fifteen hundred hectares that now make up the Yealands estate. “Initially, we planted all sorts of varieties of grapes; new varieties that we’d never had on the South Island before. I was selling grapes on spot markets, to big companies. I didn’t have any interest in having a winery whatsoever, as I was a farmer first and foremost.”
But in 2007, he gave in to temptation and spent a year building the winery that stands today. Over the years, Yealands went on to carve out a niche in many different areas, including becoming the first New Zealand company to introduce wine in plastic bottles. Moving into areas that other wine companies was afraid to go also gave Peter the opportunity to strengthen the Yealands brand, which has today made his estate the sixth-largest producer in New Zealand. “We’ve received all of the accolades that we aspired to from day one. We’ve done very, very well and we’re not there yet.”
A FAMILY AFFAIR
“We live in the middle of the vineyard; always have,” says Peter, whose son has a house next door to Peter’s on the estate; his daughter is one of the company’s business development managers. We live right amongst the workshop, where all the tractors come and go, among the dust. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Being in the thick of it means that Peter enjoys an intimate relationship with the land. “There’s not a metre of this vineyard that I don’t know. I’ve developed most of it, and I’ve been truly connected. When I come back from travels, the first thing I do is drive around the vineyard and see what’s changed while I’ve been away. Even before I give my wife a cuddle, which annoys her!”
Having such a deep connection with the land has also inspired Peter to try different, if not unconventional, growing techniques, including music therapy for the vines. “When I came up with that idea, my marketing manager said I was crazy! … But it has been proven that plants can pick up sound waves and sound waves come from noise and music … There’s absolutely no downside to it. At times I’ve got 240 or so people working in our vineyard. We’ve got eight speakers all waffling music around the vineyard. And the staff all love singing along to the music.”
SUSTAINABILITY & INNOVATION
“Well, sustainability is our ethos and everyone who works here is proud of that. We all think of ways and ideas to do things more sustainably,” says Peter. On the estate, this translates to using bio-diesel and hydrogen-generators in tractors, to having one of the largest solar operations in the country, alongside three wind generators.
“We’re also building an autonomous tractor that doesn’t need an operator on it. We’ve been working on that for about three years. Another thing we’ve been doing is we’re making bio-char out of our grape pulp, instead of putting it all in our compost.
I’m proud of what we’ve done. So it’s onward and upwards.”