Giles Cooke has played a key role in growing Alliance Wine from a small Scottish player into a major importer and distributor. Along the way, he’s also managed to launch a wine company in Australia and create a brand in tribute to his father, writes Peter Ranscombe.
Half the enjoyment of sipping a glass of wine is the way the liquid tastes; it’s the complex and concentrated fruit flavours, it’s the sweetness of the oak, it’s the refreshing acidity and the chewy tannins that give the drink its structure. The other half is the story behind the bottle; the story of the vines, the story of the grapes, and the story of the winemaker and their inspiration, which can add even more pleasure to the wine in the glass.
Our Fathers Shiraz made in the Adelaide Hills region of South Australia using fruit from the Barossa Valley has one of those stories. The wine was created as a standalone project by Giles Cooke, whose day job is as wine development director at Ayrshire-based Alliance Wine and as the winemaker and one of the founders of the Thistledown Wine Company in Australia.
Cooke, who is based in Edinburgh, is one of only 369 people in the world to hold the illustrious “master of wine” qualification, the ultimate achievement for any expert in the wine business. He created Our Fathers as a tribute to his own Dad, who died in 2013 at the age of 74, just 50 days after being diagnosed with lung cancer, which had spread to his brain.
Cooke’s mother, who suffered from mental illness, died shortly after his father, and then Cooke himself was hit by a heart attack in May 2015. The three events and the care his family received gave him the drive and desire to “give something back”, but instead of simply running a marathon or shaving his head to raise money for charity, he decided to turn to what he knew best – making wine.
All the profits from Our Fathers support Scottish Association for Mental Health (SAMH), St Columba’s Hospice in Edinburgh, Cancer Research UK and the British Heart Foundation. While the project is a tribute to his own father, the name of the wine also has a second meaning.
While walking through a vineyard in the Barossa Valley, surrounded by 125-year-old vines, Cooke was struck not only by the great age of the plants themselves but also by the contributions of the generations of farmers who had tended the grapes down through the decades. Their dedication means that Cooke and his fellow winemakers now have vines that produce grapes with concentrated and complex fruit flavours.
Perhaps given his choice of university degree, it’s unsurprising that such thoughts about heritage and history crop up so many times in conversation with Cooke. Born in Essex, his family moved to Edinburgh in 1976 when he was five and he was educated at the city’s Royal High School.
After studying history at the University of Sheffield, he joined retailer Majestic Wine, working at several of its wine warehouses in London before switching to Alliance Wine in 1994 and moving back to Edinburgh. Alliance had been founded in 1984 by Christian Bouteiller and Jonathan Kennett, and initially served Scotland as a wine importer and distributor, selling to restaurants and independent bottle shops.
When Cooke joined, it was turning over around £2.5m a year, before expanding south of the border. Having been with the company for nearly 25 years now, he’s seen it grow from a small Scottish operation to a major UK player, which makes its own wines on four continents and has annual revenues of some £28m.
It now has direct sales staff covering Scotland and Central London, while selling to regional wholesalers and retailers in other part of the UK. “It’s been so many different companies in that time,” Cooke explains. “Some of those changes have been almost imperceptible, but others have been in big, difficult chunks. Change has been the only consistent thing during those processes, a restlessness to do better.
“People at Alliance would recognise that I’m not very good at sticking with the ‘status quo’ and standing still. I thrive on the ‘new’, but dealing with the ‘new’ all the time throws up challenges for everyone else, which I’ve come to terms with over the years.
“It’s not about being the biggest, but it is about doing things the right way. Alliance has always been about getting out there and doing stuff ourselves.”
Cooke took over buying duties for the company after he passed his master of wine exams in 2001 and he set out to make Australia and Spain the country’s specialities. In 2006, the company launched Alliance Wine Australia, the start of its wine production business.
Alliance also now has winemaking projects in Argentina, Chile, France, Italy, New Zealand, South Africa and Spain, coupled with a fresh focus on exporting the wines to customers outside the UK. The business is selling to 14 countries, including Australia, China, South Korea, Canada, the United States and Europe, and is moving into Taiwan, Malaysia and Japan.
“I thought it was inevitable that the traditional model of a ‘UK importer brings in wine, puts on margin, passes it on to a distributor, passes it on to a retailer and everyone gets a cut’ would eventually get squeezed,” explains Cooke. “So, for us to have our own production projects would in the end allow us to control distribution and would stop people from selling from under our feet and compromising our commercial position within the UK.
“It would allow us to add value and be closer to customers, producing wines in the styles that customers were asking for. Down the track, if we owned the brands and all the intellectual property then it would give us access to international markets, which would allow us to expand beyond the UK – that focus has only come in the past four or five years.”
The first project the company launched was One Chain Vineyards, which makes wines including The Googly Chardonnay and The Wrong Un Shiraz Cabernet in its “Cricket Series” and The Courtesan Riesling, The Exhibitionist Merlot, and The Opportunist Shiraz in its “Character Series”. Initially the company focused on buying bulk wine from other producers and packaging it for the UK market.
Within two years, the One Chain brands were bottling a massive 100,000 cases of wine thanks to a bumper harvest in 2008 and the signing up of national customers, including household names such as Majestic, Oddbins, Sainsbury’s and Waitrose.
Movements on the foreign currency markets meant the wines became more expensive, but Alliance was already looking at ways of making the business more sustainable and in 2011 launched the Thistledown Wine Company, focusing on the production of higher-quality – and higher-margin – wines, using top-quality chardonnay, grenache and shiraz grapes from the Barossa Valley.
The move involved Cooke teaming up with fellow Alliance director Fergal Tynan – another master of wine, who Cooke had met when the pair studied together – and Australian consultant Peter Leske. They make their products at a winery that’s set up to handle the relatively small production volumes needed for their high-end tipples.
Cooke and Tynan spend two weeks in Australia each November, assessing wines from the previous vintage and grading the quality of the liquid in each barrel, ready for bottling in January. They also visit their growers, checking the vines and their expected production for the following harvest.
Cooke then returns for three or four weeks during the harvest. “It’s difficult to pick which weeks to visit, because last year’s harvest was quite late, and the previous two had been really early,” he confesses. “It’s an anxious time for me, sitting at home, talking to the growers each night, trying to choose when to go. During February, my body may be in Edinburgh, but my mind has already wandered off to Australia.
“My role during the harvest has changed over time too. In the past, I would have been helping in winery, but now we have a team in place, we’ve found the best way I can help is by being out in the vineyard with the growers, sampling grapes and making choices.
“During the last harvest, I drove 5,500km in three weeks between vineyards, constantly sampling and trying to pick the grapes at the right times, so they were perfectly ripe. We’re based in the Adelaide Hills, but we get fruit in from Langhorne Creek, McLaren Vale, the Barossa and Clare valleys, and now an old vine project up in the Riverland – which has extended my range.”
Cooke’s mind and body may sometimes be in two different places at once, but his focus is always on making quality wine, whether it’s the grenache for Thistledown or the shiraz for Our Fathers. And it shows in each and every bottle.