PETER Wilson’s love affair with chocolate has been truly satisfying, writes SARAH HUDSON
It’s difficult to imagine Peter Wilson back in his punk days, in the 1970s and ’80s, wearing razor-blade earrings, ripped clothes and an assortment of multi-coloured hairstyles.
Today, as one of Australia’s leading chocolatiers and Yarra Valley wine makers, he is a picture of sobriety, complete with horn-rimmed glasses and taupe blazer.
“And I’m almost bald now, so there’s a lesson in there somewhere that hair dye is bad for you,” Peter jokes.
The big lesson, though, has to be that a mis-spent youth does not translate into a troubled adulthood.
While he confesses he “failed miserably” as a wannabe band manager for “a bunch of no-name bands that got nowhere” – and even pulled out of a science degree at La Trobe University and had a short stint working in a blood bank – Peter Wilson has nonetheless made an unmitigated success of Kennedy & Wilson Chocolates and more recently the company’s own wines.
Things started to go right for Peter when he decided to follow his other passion: wine.
For three years he studied oenology at Roseworthy Agricultural College in South Australia – “a pretentious term now called wine science; we just called ourselves plonkies”.
At the end of his degree he was lucky enough to become winemaker for Dr Bailey Carrodus, pioneering owner of the Yarra Valley’s Yarra Yering winery.
Peter worked on 10 vintages with the winery, but a marketing trip to Europe in 1996 with Yarra Yering changed all that.
In France he savoured his first taste of Valrhona chocolate and was immediately smitten.
“It struck me that you could make chocolate with as much care and consideration as any good quality food or wine and that there was a difference between a quick sugar fix and chocolate made with the best-quality ingredients with balanced nuances,” he says.
“Of course, there weren’t as many subtleties as wine, but I recognised the difference between disposable, shove-in-your-mouth chocolate and quality.”
On returning to Australia, Peter worked weekends and out-of-hours to establish the chocolate business, with his wife, Juliana Kennedy, completing a chocolate course at William Angliss and investing in $50,000 worth of equipment.
“At the start it was trial and error. We made some truly horrible chocolate. A number of batches were quite disgusting,” he says.
So Peter gathered a group of trusted friends with exceptional palates and examined a series of cocoas for the same elements as wine: bitterness, acidity, length, complexity and even “chocolatiness – the yumminess of it”.
The result is now the grown-up chocolate they have become renowned for, such as the bittersweet cats’ tongues, which has 81 per cent cocoa, or the dark chocolate, cinnamon-flavoured autumn leaves.
Today Kennedy & Wilson Chocolates processes up to two tonnnes of chocolate a week, using the best-quality South American, Asian, Caribbean and African cocoa, Tatura milk, with Yarra Valley ingredients used for their filled chocolates, including nuts and berries.
Aside from local restaurants, David Jones and food provedores, they also supply Qantas business class passengers.
“Like wine, it’s impossible to eat a lot of our chocolate. You don’t get the sugar fix from ours. Because it’s high quality cocoa, a little bit goes a long way,” Peter says.
All their cocoa is sourced from slave and child-free labour, and has as small a carbon footprint as possible.
“It’s a trade off between doing the right thing and keeping the cocoa quality high,” he says.
“It has been a real struggle to get cocoa from some countries because there seems to be very little interest in Australia in importing high-quality cocoa, and it’s not economical to import large crates.”
The siren call of the wine industry has, however, eventually lured Peter back and he now considers the chocolate business to be a part-time roll, with his full-time work now dedicated to Kennedy & Wilson wines, as well as Stuart Wines, which is based out of Heathcote and the Yarra Valley.
While his first passion is still music, the father of three never regrets his early career change.
“I think my son might be going down the band management route now. He went to his first Big Day Out and I can see my enthusiasm in him,” Peter says.
“But I remember how much money I lost on it. It’s not a way to make a quid.
“I love my work now. I wouldn’t change a thing.”