Five significant milestones for the AP John cooperage

Five generations of skilled coopers. Five eras of Australian winemaking. 125 years of the John family cooperage and 170 years since the family arrived in the Barossa. Peter John reflects on his journey in the family business and the wine industry in this interview with Nathan Gogoll.

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Alex, Will and Peter John

CONSIDERING Peter John’s earliest memories of the cooperage were “nothing but abject difficulty” the list of milestones the John family business can celebrate is incredible.
“That has totally de-romanced the whole subject from the get-go,” said Peter. But he points out “the simple, hard facts of the 50s and 60s and even the 70s were difficult times for the Australian wine industry”.
Yet this is the story of the coopers responsible for the maturation of Australia’s most iconic wine, Penfolds Grange. A cooperage that has such a strong reputation it buys oak from France and the US, seasons it, shapes it into barrels and sells these back to the countries that supplied the raw ingredient. It is Australia’s largest cooperage. So the AP John Coopers journey is a survival story… a story of adapting, keeping pace with the evolution of the Australian wine industry, staying alive and trying to remain one step ahead.

“And that’s really what this is all about, we’re a cooperage – a service supplier to the wine industry, but at the end of the day it’s the trials and tribulations of the wine industry that really affects where we’re at.”
Which brings us back to the “abject difficultly” part of the equation.
“As a kid, particularly through the 60s, the business itself had undergone 20-30 years of savage downturn,” said Peter. “Mum and dad were battling to keep a business that they’d paid 10 other family members out of; had confronted the start of the shift away from fortifieds and the shift away from the use of a barrel as a transport and storage medium purely – you know the advent of stainless steel replacing that; and just the start of, a seed of an idea, the concept of Australia making premium dry varietals.
“My memories were having fun coming in here, playing among the oak stacks and farting around on holidays as kids, helping out wherever you could, but the cooperage industry in those days was on the bones of its backside.
“But then there’s the memory of dad (Warren) being tenacious enough just to stick out at a craft which was all he knew what to do with his life. And then through being tenacious, lucking it in terms of timing and then a young fart like me coming in and saying ‘wow we can really ride this thing’. And we did. We know the history of the wine industry from there on and how we became part of that.”

“As any good Barossa Deutsche boy did, you worked all your school holidays and weekends in the family business. As a teenager that probably brought a level of resentment, that ‘hang-on, I don’t know if I really want to be doing this’, but there was never any pressure for us to work, it was just the Barossa Germanic culture,” explained Peter.
“I studied at high school to be an aircraft engineer – that was my dream. But a little-town boy couldn’t confront the idea of having to go to off to Sydney.
“I kind of looked at my cousins who were winemakers and thought ‘that would be fun’, because I could identify with that. So I was going to go to Roseworthy, but I suspect genetics involve themselves a lot and the John family, whether they were here in Tanunda or Light’s Pass, they had been viticulturists, winemakers or coopers. And I think when I was about 16 I was working every Saturday here, earning reasonably good money as well, and I just decided this really was for me.”

When Peter joined the business he was hands on with the tools, but he was also thrust straight into the deep end of helping to steer the business in a dynamic period.
“At that stage, which was the very early 1980s, this industry was running and we were sprinting to keep up with it.
“From an early age I started travelling with dad and working closely on the oak science that we just couldn’t get here. And that meant working with amazingly experienced people in the US and then France. So my education literally became, without the cliché, the street education – learning it on the run.
“My biggest complaint to dad used to be ‘how are we going to keep up?’. I’d happily have that complaint every day again now, because now it’s about how do we keep up with the complexity of the business as opposed to the opportunity of business.
“I think that highlights where the Aussie wine industry has gone. At one period through the mid 80s to the late 90s it was all about more, more, more and very often it was about more people throwing more money at doing the same thing.
“The basic criticism of those years was all we did was make bigger, richer, more slurpy reds – that’s probably an over-simplification, but you couldn’t argue with that. As the inevitable downturn came, we were already positioning ourselves as a supplier of oak to the industry to see that we didn’t become the same dinosaur.

Understanding where the winemakers are going with their needs has been a big part of Peter’s journey within the cooperage.
“Being ahead of that curve, in terms of a supply chain that has four select areas in the US and four select areas in France, and having inventory seasoning up to three or four years ahead of time, and ensuring the research has been done – a lot of that started back in the 90s to ensure that we have a supply chain of raw material that will feed in to a cooperage technique that is aligned to a vinification philosophy that will at least hit the 80th percentile.
“If you look at where we were in the 90s, in terms of what Australia generally was doing with Chardonnay… Giaconda or Leeuwin Estate were kind of the polarised extremes. And they were creating more Burgundian Chardonnays – focussed, pure as opposed to bigger and more buttery – and you look at where Australian Chardonnay is today, one might argue that some styles have pushed the direction in the extreme and are too pure, too focussed, too lineal, but you know you have kind of got to go there to know where the middle of the room is.
“And if we were still creating oak products that only leaned heavily to the bigger and buttery, we just wouldn’t be around anymore.”

The John family first settled in the Barossa in the 1840’s. Since then, five generations have continued an unbroken connection with viticulture, winemaking and cooperage.
It was 1896 when Paul Christian John was employed at the Adelaide Wine Company’s Chateau Tanunda as a contract cooper, although he had started his trade well before this.
Christian Paul’s son Arthur Paul (after whom the business is named) continued in his father’s trade, established the original AP John cooperage on the current Chateau Tanunda site from whence it traded until moving to the current site, just across the road, in 1925.
“In the 30s a crew of 50 people here were knocking 80 barrels per day out, of a barrel that was 70 per cent hand-made, which is just incredible,” said Peter. “Today, with all the technology and machinery we have – admittedly with a crew of half, if we’re heading 110 per day we’re ecstatically happy. So the tenacity and the skills of the workers back then was amazing, because it was a really slogging job.”

“The John’s were always heavily involved in the arts and music – and half the employees were involved in the local (brass) band. I don’t know whether it was a rite of passage, or an obligation of employment, but there was a period though the 30s and 40s where dad used to argue if AP had spent more time running the cooperage and foreseeing the downturn, as opposed to writing manuscripts of music and doing transcripts in his little office, then the business might have been in a better position.
“That was very much a part of business here in the Barossa. Whether it was sport, culture, food or wine – it was all intertwined.
“I guess that is what struck us when people said ‘you really have to do something for your 125th’.
“When you start boiling it down, it’s not the fact that we’ve been coopers, we’ve done 125 years, we’re successful – the analysis you do of how community has been involved across that time.
“Community was so much a part of the John family and this business; not just the Barossa, the whole Australian wine community provided an avenue for us to be successful – it was an opportunity, yeah, but we had to take it all the way along – and just living in this community made a helluva difference.
“To be centred in what logistically and culturally has been the centre of the Australian wine industry for a long, long time carries with it a big advantage there are no two ways about it. It’s no different to being the central cooperage in Beaune in Burgundy, you are going to have to stuff up pretty badly not to be assured of some role within that industry.
“In terms of what we believe our obligation is in supporting the communities that support us, first and foremost there’s the Australian wine community and our involvement in sponsorships of many wine shows and marketing type things that are of benefit to the wine industry so we collectively benefit from. I think that’s not just a marketing position that is a philosophy.
“At any given time if we were to analyse what our direct commercial results are from that you would probably get a bean counter argue that it’s not really worth the money, well I tend to think otherwise because it’s about letting people know, as a family, what we’re all about. We have a vested interested in them being successful so we’re successful as well.
“The whole community thing washes with the family ethos and has been a big part of it.”

Peter said the family ethos took on a whole new meaning when his own children showed an interest in the wine industry and in the cooperage itself.
“I suspect that’s what dad felt when I came along at age 16 and said ‘look I’m not going to go to university, I want to come and join you and get an apprenticeship’. Obviously his joy was palpable, but with our own children Catherine and I said ‘let’s push them as far away as we possibly can’ which is a bit more like that old European culture of go off, do something else, then if you’re really keen you will bring something else back with you.
“So both boys had to go off and get a degree, do something else. William, crazily, is chasing the winemaking degree and he’s all but there. All of these things are going to feed, very clearly, back into the business.
“Alex went off to uni and did his engineering and finance, and while I thought he’d go overseas for a while and bring something back, he just so desperately wanted to be doing this we relented and let him come into the business – and he’s doing a fantastic job of it.”
In the weeks leading up to the 125th milestone event, Alex actually was overseas getting some experience to bring back to Tanunda.
“He’s been in France doing a placement in another cooperage to see the different ways of skinning the cat and he’s also doing a harvest in Burgundy to embellish his knowledge of the wine sciences, which is very important.
“The next generation needs to bring a lot more nous and probably more specialised nous to the business. And the business is now specialised in so many areas that I wouldn’t expect anybody, even my children, to come into the business and be able to wear all of the hats – it just doesn’t work that way anymore. They bring their skill set, their aptitudes to the business and they have to work with the evolving, transforming business as we go forward.”

“I think the Australian wine industry still needs a bloody good Australian local cooper. But that local cooper has to listen very carefully to what people want as opposed to ‘we say this is what we can do, support us’.
“The parallels between what we’re doing and the Australian wine industry are very tangible, they have to be because we dovetail anyway. But there are a lot of producers in Australia that have gone belly up because of a belief that the market wanted this, when in fact it was going in another direction. Give the people what they want, but hopefully educate them along the way as well.”
In early November the John family celebrated with the cooperage staff and “the people who we’ve had close and successful relationships with”.
“Those from the 1930s sadly aren’t here with us anymore but over the past 30 to 40 years there are some wonderful relationships that we have created.”
The party was hosted at the cooperage.
“Initially this celebration was going to be paired down a little from what we’re intending to do now and be held at some swank restaurant with people wined and dined and thanked for their support over a long time, but it became patently obvious that a lot of those people don’t actually even get into the cooperage. A lot of those people’s wives and partners don’t even understand their partner is involved in and how we cross over.
“So it was a bit of a no-brainer at the end of the day that we had to have this function within and around the cooperage.
“Putting people through the culture and the atmosphere of a cooperage is pretty unique. I’ve always found it kind of ironic that so many winemakers travel to the US or France or wherever it might be and it’s a pack drill to visit a cooperage while you’re there, but some people live 10 minutes from us here and never step a foot on the place. We’d very much like to show them that we know how it’s done as well.”
In many ways it will be a community coming together.
“The global wine community, it’s not that big when you boil it all down. We’ve got international partners and we’re a small part of that community.”
Small, that’s probably downplaying it, but certainly significant.

This post has been adapted from an article first published in the November 2015 edition of the Grapegrower & Winemaker magazine.
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