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Stratford wine merchant John Freeland ends vintage career after 55 years

JOHN Freeland’s glass is most definitely half full and he’s got many treasured memories to prove it after 55 years in the wine trade.

During that time he has accrued a wealth of wine knowledge, from fizz to fitou and from muscadet to merlot, but at the age of 73 he has chosen to retire as owner of CA Rookes Wine Merchants in Stratford, which he has owned since 1982.

John Freeland. Photo: Mark Williamson J1/2/22/5247. (55141849)
John Freeland. Photo: Mark Williamson J1/2/22/5247. (55141849)

Born just outside Cirencester, John moved around with his family and went to various schools, including Eastcliffe Grammar School in Newcastle. However, he said his real education came when he was involved in the business of importing and selling wine.

While his first job was as a bottle washer in a backyard in Newcastle, it wasn’t long before his knowledge of the wine trade flourished and he found himself moving south “bit by bit” as a wine rep.

Eventually he was employed by the historic Laytons Wine Merchants in London, which was founded in 1934 and had vaults underneath St Pancras station.

However, Stratford was to be the place where John put down roots.

“A well-known wine merchant called Christopher Albert Rookes had recently retired so I decided it was time to put my money where my mouth was and I bought CA Rookes,” he said. “The 1980s was a super time for growth and I served on Stratford District Council as a councillor and was a member of the Stratford Society, Stratford Chamber of Trade and Stratford Manufacturer’s Association. I suddenly got to know everyone and I’m still in contact with many of them.”

Over the years the firm had premises in Union Street, Banbury Road and Weston Road, and is now out at Long Marston.

“I have been lucky that I enjoy the subject of my job,” John added. “The farming of the grapes, the enthusiasm of the grape farmers in the Muscadet region and their love of the vine.

“I then import the wines and get to sell them to hotels, pubs, private customers and for weddings and christenings. The RSC actor Richard Griffiths and the cast of Harry Potter and other RSC actors all enjoyed our wines.”

He has hosted many wine tasting events and his knowledge of wines and their regions comes from his extensive travels – John describes grapes as being packed with facts and background stories worthy of any palate. He’s brimming with these facts and stories: “A vintage 1795 bottle of Madeira could cost £2,000 to £3,000; champagne is made from a red grape; the reason why grapes are trodden is because the warmth and softness of the human feet is the perfect way to crush them; the presentation of the bottle of wine at the table is meant to undress the wine and smell the cork; the reason we roll a wine around our mouths and spit it out is to absorb the flavour because the tastebuds at the front of the mouth can sense the wine.”

John’s retirement coincides with the retirement of his colleague of many years, Carole Taylor, also 73, who started working at CA Rookes in 1972 helping run the bars at Stratford Racecourse – it was Rookes which supplied all the drink and ran the bars in those days. Along with helping at the cattle market where many local farmers knew her, Carole was affectionately called ‘Fred’.

Earlier this year, John sold Rookes to Dan Abbots, who is trading as CA Rookes Wines Ltd, and said he’s enjoyed being part of, and owning, a true Stratford company and believes Dan will take the firm through to its 100th birthday and beyond – it was founded on 6th April 1939.

With so many years as a wine merchant, does John have a favourite tipple to celebrate the retirement?

“I love southern French wines; a good white burgundy and I enjoy downing a good bottle of claret, and I think our own English wines are lovely. I also like a scotch and soda, but for me the whole world of wine and my enthusiasm for it will never waver.”

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