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The Intertview: Giles Cook MW

Published:  23 July, 2008

What got you into wine?
The usual clich I say is that I did a history degree, so the only things I was qualified to do were eating and drinking; three hours of tutorials a week left a lot of time for other stuff. Me and a mate did the restaurant reviews for a newspaper, which was a bit of a farce really. We'd go along and ask for free food beforehand, so they knew we were coming. But my parents had always had an interest in wine, and my mum was PA to Ronald Avery for a couple of years when she started out, so she always says there's a link.

But your first job, like many in the trade, was at Majestic. How was that?

When I started out in 1992 the pay was, shall we say, challenging to live on in London. But I thoroughly enjoyed working there. It was a great grounding in the less glamorous parts of the trade - lugging 20 cases of water up five flights isn't everyone's idea of fun - and also in things like team motivation and tasting - they let their staff taste a lot of wine. If I'm suggesting to people about how to get on in the wine trade, I'd always say they should work at Majestic or Oddbins. You meet so many good people. If nothing else, if you've worked at Majestic or Oddbins you have an ice-breaker at a meeting to reminisce about the days when you were running around in your Citron van lugging water about.

So how did you wind up in Scotland?

I did most of my schooling in Edinburgh, and my ex-brother-in-law was working for Alliance, so when an opportunity came up to work for them, it felt right. It was a fairly strong company in Scotland at the time, but not so strong elsewhere. I started up by trying to expand their sales territories further south.

Is there much of a difference between the Scottish and the London wine scenes?

Glasgow and Edinburgh both have very strong eating and drinking cultures, and Edinburgh in particular has always had a very strong wine culture. Also a lot of the strong players from England now have reps in Scotland, so the competitive set isn't all that different. The one dramatic difference is size. London has a lot more high-end places and something like 40% of the overall spend in the UK on-trade! So we're putting a lot of emphasis on growing our presence there.

As a company, Alliance has changed a lot during your time there.

In the past four years it's really exploded. We've made a huge effort to increase the quality and profile of the portfolio. We've got a large range and, because we're on-trade-led, we have to have a lot of service products: you've got to have all the Muscadets, Sancerres and Pouilly-Fums. What I've tried to do is go back and root out anything that was mediocre and build an identity for Alliance.

That identity is increasingly Australian. Why is that?

I decided, maybe out of selfishness or self-interest at first, that I'd like to do quite a lot in Australia. We've taken on a lot of new producers and developed their market profile, people such as Stella Bella, Two Hands and Domaine A. And that's given something for people to hang on to. We've got a massive presence at the Australia Day tastings now.

You're also quite big on Australian regionality. Is the UK ready for that?

For most of the larger producers - for whom Australian wine is, to all intents and purposes, a commodity brokered by multiple retailers - there's not really much reason for them to make regionality a serious proposition to the consumer. But to make Australia interesting for the consumer in a more long-term way, there's got to be more to Australia than Brand Australia'. And there are big regional differences. Take Domaine A and Two Hands, for example: in a blind tasting you wouldn't guess that they were even from the same country. In any case, I don't want to have to work with the same products day in, day out. It's got to be interesting and exciting, and though you have to make money, too, most of us in the trade are in it for the interest above all.

Regionality is all about getting consumers to trade up. Are consumers more prepared to spend on wine?

If there was one thing in the wine trade that I would change, it would be to make it easier to trade up. We've got such a bee in our bonnet in this country about the price of wine - and an irrationally low average spend. How did the wine trade get in the position where, at our key time of year, we're discounting? Why does everything have to be price-pointed so closely? I'm

not naive about it - I understand that the multiples use wine almost as a loss leader - but I wish there was more of a collective effort in the wine trade to avoid it. There are very few companies in the wine trade that haven't had their margins eroded to a greater or lesser degree in the past few years. But that can't continue.

Alliance Wine, 7 Beechfield Road, Willowyard Estate, Beith, Ayrshire KA15 1LN, Tel: 01505 50 60 60, Web:

In his 11 years with Alliance, Giles Cooke MW has gone from on-trade sales to wine development director. The company has taken similarly big strides. It used to sell a 100% French list almost exclusively in the Scottish on-trade. Now it has specialisms in Australia (with the likes of Majella, Stella Bella, Two Hands and Domaine A), New Zealand (Sherwood Estate) and Spain (Luis Caas), as well as France (Domaine Brusset in the Rhne; Domaine Crochet in Sancerre), and it sells to the on- and off-trade all over the country. The company was started by MD Christian Bouteiller and chairman Jonathan Kennett in 1984.