Arthur Paul (AP) John – Peter John’s grandfather – was 23 when his father, Christian Paul (CP) John, died. The oldest of eight kids, AP helped raise his brothers and sisters while running the family business, inherited by his mother.
“He worked 10 or 12 hours a day and rode his bike between Tanunda and Seppeltsfield to do his work,” Peter says. “He also conducted the Tanunda Band and helped out with the Eudunda and Kapunda bands. He would cycle to Eudunda of an evening for band practice with a tilley-lamp on his bushbike, and then turn around and ride home again and put in another 12 hours the next day. I mean, talk about community… the tenacity of those people amazes me.”
Peter relates the story to underline AP John’s commitment to the local community – and wine community – over 125 years, which the Tanunda-based business celebrated with a party at the cooperage late last year. Peter’s speech was one big thank you.
“It’s essential we feed the community that feeds us,” he says. “It’s a commitment. You don’t just walk in the office and draw a line and say well that was community and this is work, it goes on and on, in our case generation after generation. First and foremost we’re here to build this business and make it successful because there are families in the community relying on us to succeed and so you have a moral obligation to put the business first and look after it.”
Peter’s son, Alex, 27, has been working at the cooperage for five years and William, 22, is in the final year of a winemaking degree. Both are showing a keen interest in AP John. “I’m fortunate there is a fifth generation wanting a part of this,” Peter says. “Alex is like, ‘give me this thing’, and that’s great. I have to pull the reins in a bit! They really get it. My wife Catherine works here too and she gets it.” What do they get? “What it is to be a part of this industry,” Peter says. “And that means a 100 percent commitment. You just can’t have the bits you like, you’ve got to take the crap with the feathers… the hard work, the long hours, the tolerance required and the constant change.”
Do Alex and Will get in Peter’s ear about what they should be doing, knowing what they know about the wines being made by the next generation? “Only about five or 10 times a day,” laughs Peter. “And that’s a key to being relevant.”
Peter started talking about family succession in his late 30s. “That was my biggest fear of all,” he says. AP John had grown rapidly and Peter feared it might not be sustainable for the next 30 years. “I feared we were peaking in terms of our manufacturing capability and capacity, and we were becoming more exposed to the global players,” he says. “So that meant taking on external partners, changing the equity in the business. We lost majority ownership of the business for a while there, but then we and another partner bought back in. It was necessary for our viability. We have French partners and the benefit of that is a structured supply chain of very unique oak to take our brand further.”
When the cooperage industry in Australia peaked in about 2001, this country was using 125,000 to 140,000 barrels a year. Today, it’s between 42,000 and 48,000 barrels. Peter says he’s tired of claims Australia uses too much oak. “We have one of the lowest oaking regimes in the world,” he says. “Are there examples at a wine show of a wine being poorly oaked? Yes, but don’t get in the media and shit-can the industry because of one mishandled wine. The oak used in this industry is miniscule, about half of what Italy and France use per litre.”
Peter’s father, Warren, died two years ago, aged 85. Peter says he would approve of the state of the business and the milestone. “Dad was exceptionally proud of the business and where we were going,” Peter says. “He would give it the big tick – up in the 90 percentile. Would he give it 100? No, because there is always something you can improve on. That has always been the John way – if you’re going to do it, give it a serious shake. And if you make a few mistakes along the way, learn from them and do better next time.”
AP John employs 25 in the cooperage including apprentices and support workers. “We’re proud of that,” says Peter “This is really the last training house in Australia. A strong cooperage industry in this country is important. When you look at global shipping, what used to take 28 days to get from point to point around the world is now taking 56 days and it’s only going to get worse. If you’re a winemaker in Coonawarra relying on your six barrels of a specific type to be there the day you want to fill them, that’s becoming more difficult to manage.
“Australia imports 60 percent of its barrel needs, the rest comes from the floor in Australia, a lot of it from this cooperage. Our role has changed over the past decade and a half to being a cooperage that can supply barrels literally just in time. With climate change and the vagaries of vintage dates these days, it’s all over the shop and if you’re looking for a barrel to be delivered right here, right now, your local cooper can do that but you need a broad range to service every facet of the industry, which we have. Being local brings advantages to the table, but it creates manufacturing issues, mainly cost of labour. This is the most expensive place in the world to make barrels, so we have to be efficient.”
Peter, the master cooper who “just happens to be managing director” still spends half his time in the cooperage and oak yard, passing on his knowledge to Alex. “And when I talk about the oak yard, it’s not just the 12 acres here at APJ, it’s the three mills we have across the US and the two in France. I like to think I keep the standard up. The captain has to lead. If the standards ever slipped, I would blame myself.”
AP John employs one or two apprentices each year. Peter admits to feeling disappointed when someone leaves – especially if they leave the trade as well. “Sometimes you get a bit pissed off if someone leaves and starts their own business,” Peter says, “but then it’s still very gratifying knowing that you’ve done something to continue the industry.”
To find out more about AP John Coopers, click here.