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Full-Bodied, Family-Focused & Founded in Hospitality | Petersons Wines & Savannah Estate


Images Credit: MJK Creative.

One of the most well-known families in the Hunter Valley wine industry is the Peterson family, whose story in the valley began in the mid-60s when Ian and Shirley Peterson purchased a hobby dairy farm at Mount View. Fast forward to today, and the Peterson name is behind several wineries, restaurants, cellar doors and even a guesthouse. Third-generation Savannah Peterson is poised to take over running the flagship Petersons Wines and Savannah Estate as General Manager in training under the wing of her father, Colin Peterson, who is an industry legend and son of Ian.

 

Ian Peterson was a chemist who ran cattle on his hobby farm in Mount View. He didn’t much like the cattle and paid to have someone take care of them. In 1971 when Colin was just 18, they decided to plant grape vines on the property to sell the fruit to local wineries for the cash to pay the lady who looked after the cattle. They’d been told that the volcanic soil of their farm would be excellent for growing grapes, and this proved to be very true. Their first ten vintages were sold to McWilliams, but in 1981, there was an industry surplus of Semillon, and the family decided to make their own wine with the assistance of a wine consultant. Ian’s background as a chemist helped, and suddenly, they were truly in the wine industry.


Savannah is the only one of Colin’s three children to be so thoroughly involved with the business. Savannah’s sister Samantha has previously worked at the family’s guesthouse in Armidale and now runs the social media across the wine businesses, whilst brother Simon has relocated to Broome.


“When I was three years’ of age, I used to hold tea parties and ask if people wanted red or white rather than tea. I’ve been working in the cellar doors since I was about seven, helping to pack bottles and following my dad everywhere. I loved going to work with him because no two days were ever the same. It’s still like that. Every day is different.


“Believe it or not, it wasn’t a foregone conclusion that I would make my career in wine. Mum and Dad were very careful never to force any kind of appreciation for the industry. When we drank wine, we simply enjoyed it; we didn’t discuss the terroir. I started thinking about it as a career when I was 17; by 20, I was on the path. Dad has always said that I could sell ice to Eskimos though, and for a while, I was tempted to get a job as a real estate agent.


“Both Mum and Dad have a background in hospitality, and that’s really our focus. Everything we do is about creating joyful moments for our guests. My work in the cellar doors until now has basically been getting paid to talk and appreciate good food and wine!”


A strong foundation in hospitality is at the core of what the Peterson family do. Mum Judy ran the Tallawanta Hotel, now known as Harrigans, in the 1990s. Colin himself trained in Hotel Management in Sydney, then began Calais Estate to separate his work from his parents, and finally took on work in the family business. Today, besides Petersons Wines and Savannah Estate, they run three restaurants – Baumé, Cuvée and Blaxland Inn and the Armidale Guesthouse. The family are also behind the well-known Peterson House, a public company that they own majority shares in, and have other business interests and partnerships that include Ben Ean and Two Rivers.



Colin partnered with Brian McGuigan to purchase Ben Ean in order to preserve the 174-year history of the winery. They are developing the estate as a salute to some of the best-known Hunter viticulturists and winemakers of the last 170 years, with the cellar door hosting a range of wines, including Petersons Wines, Savannah Estate, Lisa McGuigan Wines, Lindeman’s, Neil McGuigan Wines, Penfolds, SOMM, Gun Powder Wines and Weerona. They also offer tastings of Penfold’s world-famous Grange.


When Colin’s father first began Petersons Wines, they concentrated on whites like Chardonnay because they grew quicker, and at one point, they were awarded Best Chardonnay in the world. When they started making reds, they concentrated on low-yield, high-quality fruit to make a fuller-bodied style of red wine that they still make today. The fruit for these fuller bodied wines mostly comes from Mudgee and South Australia, as the Hunter style is lighter. Currently, the Petersons use 30 per cent of fruit from the Hunter Valley, 30 per cent from Mudgee, and 10 per cent from Armidale, with the remaining 30 per cent coming in from South Australia and other locations.


“It’s important to spread the risk factor,” says Colin.


“If one area has a hard season, we can still get fruit from our other vineyards. We’ve just reopened some of our museum stock from our private cellars, such as the 2014 Hunter Reserve, the Back Block Shiraz, vintages 2009, 2011, 2013, 2014 and several more surprises worth investigating if you like your red wine.”


Petersons Wines are known for full-bodied reds and Chardonnays. Their loyal members rely on the consistency and dependability of these more traditional-style wines, and there are no plans to change this. Savannah Estate, on the other hand, is more open to experimentation.


Colin started Savannah Estate in the early 2000s when vineyard licencing issues made it imperative for him to open a new small vineyard in the Hunter where he could experiment with different styles. It was also an opportunity to allow Savannah to stretch her wings away from Petersons, just like her father did with Calais Estate when he was young.


Savannah took over the reins at Savannah Estate eight years ago when she returned from overseas, experimenting with less traditional grape varieties such as Tempranillo, Chambourcin, Vermentino, Durif and others.



“Petersons Wines as a brand is committed to more traditional styles, and if people are looking for something different, they’ll be referred to us here at Savannah Estate,” says Savannah.


“This has allowed us to develop our own brand and identity. It was the best day of my life when the cellar door takings here beat the cellar door at Petersons. That was such a huge feat and really satisfying.


“COVID was a game-changer for us. When people had to be socially distanced, they couldn’t always get into the cellar doors that they would usually visit, so they tried new cellar doors like ours. Then during the second lockdown, I was bored at home and decided to trial virtual tastings. I thought I might sell ten in the first week. By the end of the lockdown, we had sold over 2,500 – they were incredibly popular. Some days we would run tastings back-to-back from 1pm to 11.30pm at night. We had to hire extra staff, and it felt wonderful to bring joy to people in the midst of a pandemic.


“The other venture I began during COVID was Savannah Estate and Petersons Wines Events. I started doing the occasional farmer’s market, and before I knew it, I had 25 staff in Sydney, four warehouses and five work vans running events in Sydney, Canberra, Brisbane, Melbourne and the South Coast. I’ve employed a manager to run it now. I moved home to the Hunter Valley permanently at the start of this year to begin my General Manager training with Dad.”


Savannah is now responsible for over 250 employees across their businesses, some of whom have been with Colin for 30 to 40 years. As some of those people retire, Colin sees Savannah building her own contingent of staff.



“I’m very proud of Savannah,” says Colin.


“She’s one of the few young people who are really making a go of it. She’s clever, astute and has a real talent for relating to others. She’ll make a great General Manager. I know she thinks I won’t ever retire, but I will slowly step back over the next few years.”


As that future unfolds, Savannah is busy preparing for a new Savannah Estate cellar door to open on Broke Road by early next year and maintaining the traditions that her family are renowned for.


“It’s important to me to uphold the core values set down by my grandparents – we’re a premium, high-quality, boutique business with a family feel. When you become a member of our wineries, you join our family. When you visit our cellar doors, you are welcomed like an old friend and treated to genuine hospitality. I never want that to change.”

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