Guy Tabourin is seen inside the Vinoteca wine shop in Luxembourg City-Centre
Photo: Mike Zenari
Guy Tabourin of Vinoteca spoke to Delano about the challenges and the upsides of the retail wine trade here in Luxembourg.
Tabourin’s path to running a retail wine store followed an indirect route. It started back in 1995 when Tabourin, a former journalist, and his wife opened Chiggeri, which soon became the restaurant with the most extensive wine list on the planet (at least according to the “Guinness Book of World Records”). Tabourin noticed that many of his fellow restaurateurs struggled to find decent, affordable wines for their establishments and started Vinoteca as a wine list outsourcing service. They select the wines and print up the lists, and can even directly manage clients’ stock.
As an experiment, Vinoteca opened its Kirchberg warehouse to individuals and soon customers were buying bottles by the carton load. That led to a standalone shop, first in Hollerich and for the past four years just off place du Théâtre in the capital. Today, retail represents about 30% of the firm’s total turnover, Tabourin states.
The shift from B2B to B2C and then from warehouse to boutique space required a fair amount of adaptation. Customers don’t often buy cartons these days; “Here, it’s more bottle by bottle.” So when there are two staffers in the shop, they offer to carry purchases to customers’ cars in the Théâtre parking garage. And the firm expanded its delivery service for restaurants to include retail customers. “Before coming in, you know you can buy more” and get home delivery.
Getting people in the door
Wine sales remain a face-to-face business. “When people discover our shop and they say, ‘oh, it’s nice, all the wines you have’,” that leads to good sales. Yet getting shoppers in the door, even for wine tastings, is the key challenge, partly due to ever increasing competition. So Vinoteca is big on giving courses and attending wine fairs to garner visibility and draw in new clientele.
The shop has a series of ten wine appreciation classes (which can be taken separately or as a complete course). While these bring good exposure, they don’t generate much in direct sales (although many participants do return to shop later). But Vinoteca creates customised wine tastings for groups of 10 that Tabourin says work well. “The idea is that people want to fill up a little bit their cellar and then they ask around ‘do you need some wine’ and they come really to buy wines. The wine fairs are working a little bit in that same sense.”
Indeed, Vinoteca sells relatively little via its e-shop. Mainly when “people discovered a bottle in the shop and they order it” online afterwards, Tabourin observes. “It’s more reordering than ordering.”
The shop’s worst months, for several years running, are August and September. Why? “I have absolutely no idea.” On the other hand, “we double our normal turnover in December” as wine is a popular holiday gift and more is bought for all “the end-of-year parties”.
Tabourin sees a big difference in purchases between foreigners and native Luxembourgers. Foreigners buy local. Tourists are looking for Luxembourg wine to bring home. “Expats and frontaliers [cross-border commuters] don’t know Luxembourgish wines and they’re interested in discovering wines that are made in the country they are living” and working in. But “Luxembourgish people never buy Luxembourgish wines” in the shop. Perhaps, he theorises, because they buy direct from wineries.
After years in the trade, Tabourin still seems enthusiastic about selling wine. “Maybe it’s a cliché, but I think wine drinkers are nice people,” he says with a laugh, “and wine producers, by the way, too, so I have the advantage of being surrounded by nice people.” But what “I really love in the shop here is the international part of it. We see so many people from everywhere in the world,” including the mix of expats, cross-border commuters and tourists.
“It’s so international and that’s the thing I love the most. When I have a tourist from New Zealand coming in and we talk about wine, it’s something unimaginable that you have that in Luxembourg all the time. It’s not once a month, it’s every day!” Tabourin says English is in fact the most popular language in the Vinoteca shop, used with about 50% of customers. “Yeah, more than French.”