French exam veto woman became Gallic wine expert

Jane Cranston is retiring from wine merchant and distributor Stevens Garnier after a long career in the drinks trade

Jane Cranston is retiring from wine merchant and distributor Stevens Garnier after a long career in the drinks trade

First published in News
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The irony of having been told she should not sit French O-Level exams at school is not lost on Jane Cranston.

As financial director of Botley-based wine company Stevens Garnier, she now speaks the language fluently and visits the Loire Valley frequently.

The transformation came in her early 20s while working for drinks company Hennessy at their base in Cognac, in south-west France, near Bordeaux.

She said: “I hadn’t even been allowed to sit French O-Level at school because I was so bad at it.

“I was even sent for three weeks to stay with a French family when I was 16 but was utterly miserable, because I was convinced there would be snails or frogs in the food and regarded every sauce with great suspicion.

“Curiously, when I went to Cognac to live, it turned out I have a good ear for languages and I picked it up pretty quickly.

“I think part of the reason was I couldn’t go on pretending to know what everyone around me was laughing at, after they had said something in French that I didn’t have a clue about.

“The ability to speak French has been one of my most useful assets ever since.”

Yorkshire-born, she grew up in East Sussex and, on leaving school, enrolled in secretarial college before joining the British Aircraft Corporation, which later became British Aerospace.

Next came Cognac and, on her return to the UK, she spent two years as personal assistant to the managing director of one of former drinks giant Seagram’s divisions.

She said: “That was fascinating because it was highly political and I learned more about how not to run a company.

“But I also learned about sales and marketing and public relations and how to treat people.”

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When the opportunity to work for a newly formed wine company arose in 1976, she not only grabbed it with both hands but became one of the directors of Stevens Garnier.

She has been at the centre of things since, helping to build it into a business with an £8m annual turnover.

Early on, she discovered she had a flair for numbers, rapidly dispensed with the firm’s accountant and took over finanical management herself.

In the past, the firm has run the Grape Ideas wine warehouse at Oxford’s Hinksey trading estate and premises in Hythe Bridge Street, before moving to its present location in Botley Road.

More change is in the air, as Ms Cranston retires in May, having sold her shares to Portuguese family-owned wine company Sogrape.

The shop will be taken over by Banbury wine merchant SH Jones.

It will mean more time to enjoy a glass of wine at her home in Besselsleigh and for the many community projects she works with.

A governor at Abingdon School and the School of St Helen and St Katharine and an organiser of the Strictly Oxford dance competition which raises money for Oxford’s Sobell House hospice, she struggles to fit it all in.

“There’s a whole mass of things to do out there and I’m looking forward to getting started,” she said.

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