Interview | Alexandre Ravays

Alexandre Ravays, The vine (Belgium)

Which is the potentiality of the Italian Wine in your market?

Year after year I see more and more people demanding Italian wines. In the past a lot of restaurants just used cheap Italian wines, think about the fiasco of chianti boiling for months under UV spots in a small Italian restaurant. Those wines just tasted like vinegar, or worse. Now, more and more restaurants spend time to taste and offering better quality Italian wines. Also in small gourmet and wine shops you can find good and decent Italian wines. There is still a lot of work to do, because a lot of regions just keep on doing business under the radar. That’s where I come in, I want to explore new things and giving my consumers the chance to discover the real Italian wines. Not just the marketing brands. When I started in the wine business I wanted to offer wines from all over the world, being so diversify as possible. After a dozen of trips to Italy, I’ve discovered that I can have a very diversified offer only with Italian wines. I also see this in my sales, more and more consumers, especially restaurants ask for original quality wines from Italy, that suit perfectly with their gastronomic cuisine. In 5 years’ time we switched from 15% Italian wines to 80%. The sales are up to 70% Italian wines.

Could you tell me which is/are the new popular wine(s) in your market?

Hard to tell, Belgian population is very diversified. Consumers like to drink different wines and trends seem to differ very often. I’m very happy to see that a lot of restaurants give second chances to some regions where a lot of customers lost their faith in, like Languedoc and German Rieslings. I see a big disinterest of Bordeaux wines year after year, but there is still a big market for them. Sales of Cava is still stable, but the interests in Spumante rises every year. At the moment I sell a lot of Soave, Montefalco and Montecucco wines. Also there is a bigger demand on the natural wines or at least clean wines and Italy is a perfect country to find those hidden treasures, but, like in every region, you can find a lot of undrinkable wines as well. Piemonte is now completely on the radar of Belgian consumer. Easy flight connections and only 12h driving from Belgium. There is still a lot of work to do, because visitors only know the breathtaking views and the big wines like Barolo, Barbaresco, Barbera d’Alba – Asti and also the Moscato d’Asti. But what about Barbera Tortonesi, Timorasso, Gavi, Ruché, Grignolino, Gattinara,…. There is too much wine to satisfy everyone.

Which is the main sales channel in your Country?

Supermarkets still sell over 90% of the wines in Belgian. It’s a hard competition, but our business is different. I don’t only sell the wines, I also advise on foodpairings and try to find new and original combination. That’s something no supermarket can offer. My quest for original wines is something you cannot find in the assortment of supermarkets where you can find standardized wines.

How do you think the Italian producers could improve the perception of Italian wine in your market? For a start?

They should be more proud of their product instead of just talking about history. Last time in Italy we were joking about this with some other importers. We just know what 80% of the wineries will tell. They want to be different, but they tell the same story. “We are a family business, for x generations, it’s an historic winery, we try to work with a lot of respect for the nature….. blablabla” Every time we have to hear the same song. They should speak about their wine, the philosophy, the history of the region. Things that are interesting to know. Because a good story sells better. Wineries should also stop working with so called agents that don’t know anything about wines, they just want to make money from a flourishing sector, but are too lazy to understand what they are selling. The owners should travel more, it’s intensive, I know. There is a lot of work in the vineyards and in the cellar, but my customer buy more wines from producers they’ve met.

What do you think about wine rating in the main guides? Could it helps to sell wine?

First thing I do when meeting a winefarmer (yes, I use winefarmers, because the word wine”maker” gives a wrong impression) is focusing on his hands. I don’t need medals, awards, scores. My pallet is my own judge. My customers follow me for my taste, not for the wineries I have with gold medals. I believe that in supermarkets this is different. If a consumer looks for a wine from e.g. chianti and he sees 5 wines on the shelf and one with a gold medal, then it’s a done deal. But for me…. I couldn’t care less. But of course sometimes I use it to make decisive sales. When you see how many wines get a medal…. I don’t understand why it still exists. It would be nicer to have different categories and giving gold to the best one of every catergory. Just like the Olympics. Now it just don’t make sense. As for the guides…. I don’t know…. The fact that I hear a lot of corruption stories make me doubt about the results of some wineries.

What about the wine knowledge of consumers in your market?Which is the trend?

I am very proud that a lot of my customers know something about wine and if they don’t, they are always willing to listen and learn. For me the most important is that they listen to their own pallet and not the sales talk. A lot of consumers follow wine courses to try and understand better the wines. But the education system of those courses are too classical and old fashioned. You learn one year about tasting, terroir & vinification, the second year is all about France…. *sigh*, third year is the rest of the world (including Italy), you can follow in some courses a fourth year about wine and foodpairing. In some schools you also have Italian wines in the second year, but still as a global country, while in France you learn every region. So the trend is still French, because the education mechanism tells you so. When I was a teacher I had 2, max 3 days to show my students what Italian wines were all about. One lesson about Marche, Emilia Romagna, Umbria and Tuscany…. Hard to imagine but this education system is so retarded. They spend around 2-3 lessons about Bordeaux while Tuscany produces more wines and is a bit more complicated than Bordeaux I can be very proud about Belgian consumer. They are very dedicated. Sure thing that a lot of them don’t know anything about wine but I think we score very well above average.

Which are the main mistakes of the Italian producers?

A lot of them don’t speak another language than Italian. Some of them need to be more humble and less marketing minded. Less bragging about their medals and how big their cellar is. My main problem is, the laziness. I am sorry, you’ll have to admit it. There are some exceptions, but a lot of wineries are sometimes just too lazy to answer phonecalls or respond to emails. La Dolce Vita is nice, but especially in Belgium we need to anticipate faster. I’m very fortunate that the wineries which who I work with are very professional.

Do you have any suggestions for the new producers that aim to introduce their wines in your market?

Make a decent pricelist and a good hierarchy. There is nothing so annoying for me than to ask for discounts. It makes me feel like my supplier is ripping me off from the start. Make a pricelist for privates, one for enoteca / restaurants and another for export. Don’t always try to aim for the volumes. If your product is good and you give enough backup your product will sell itself. It is understandable that you give more discount when greater volumes are being exported. But if you make a good price from the start, your product will attract more. Yes, I know some countries are big fans of discounts. I am not. I like to pay a fair price for a fair wine.

Which is the wine Country with the strongest growing trend in your market?

I think it is difficult to measure. For me it’s Italy because I put the focus on it. For an importer of Portuguese wines, it will be Portugal en so on… If you see for example Germany… they don’t have a lot of marketing or other tools. They focus mainly on local markets and making excellent wines. Only by making quality wines, you’ll be able to sell more.

Alexandre Ravays

The Vine