Can wine be hip? It certainly can. Especially when we liberate it from the staidness and conservative status quo for which it is known. And that’s exactly what Sedat Aktas and Michael Reinfrank from wine dealer “Geile Weine” have been doing for more than a year now. A success story.
The magic triangle of “ Geile Weine” – or “awesome, damned good wines” – lies smack bang in the middle of Mainz: First, there’s the bright, well-lit storey of the beautiful old building where the founders Sedat Aktas (born in 1977, degree in media studies) and Michael Reinfrank (born in 1982, vintner and wine dealer) have been running their online shop www.geile-weine.de since 2013. Then, around the corner, there’s Michael’s wine store, called “ Weinraumwohnung,” where three years ago he began selling wines to young people based on the occasion rather than the brand. And lastly, fifty meters along the road, there’s the old wine cellar where Michael – or Micha as he likes to be called – now makes his own wine. We’ll be drinking some of that after the interview, and yes: it’s pretty good. But even the staff at geile-weine.de follow the golden rule of “First work, then taste.” After all, you don’t sell 50,000 bottles a year – as the guys did in 2014 – from just drinking alone.
And? Tasted any wines today?
Micha: We’ve just come back from the ProWein trade fair in Düsseldorf, where we spent three days with a wine glass in our hands. We could do with a break.
You go to traditional, analog trade fairs?
Sedat: Sure. Those events are paradise for wine nerds like us. And we use them for networking and maintaining personal contacts, just like any other wine dealer.
So what’s special about “Geile Weine”?
Sedat: Here’s the story: I was invited to a birthday party in Düsseldorf a while back and wanted to take along a bottle of wine. But when I asked for some advice at a wine store, the really stiff assistant asked me: “Which grape variety does the gentleman prefer?”
And which one did you go for?
Sedat: I was ashamed to admit that I didn’t really know what a grape variety was, let alone which one I wanted. I know that today, of course. But that day the guy in the shop managed to make me feel stupid.
Not a good feeling.
Sedat: Why does a product that’s available all over the place have to be treated in such an elitist way? At Micha’s store it’s so down-to-earth. He asks you questions you can answer. So on the way back to Mainz I called him because I needed someone who understood something about wine (laughs).
To launch an online wine shop that makes wine awesome?
Sedat: My friends all had the same problem: you buy something special to eat and want a good bottle of wine to go with it. So you end up buying a bottle that’s neither the cheapest nor the most expensive on the shelf, but without really knowing what it is that you’re drinking. That’s why we’ve tried to simplify the way wines are recommended to the customer so that – in contrast to how I felt that day at the wine store – they feel comfortable, enjoy browsing the site, and, of course, end up with exactly what they like to drink.
Micha: The idea more or less originated in my store. We simply aren’t the kind of wine dealer for the hat-wearing gentleman.
What kind of person is that?
Micha: The hat-wearing gentleman? That’s what I call the typical wine customer. An elderly man with a hat and money. We’re younger – 90 percent of our customers are under 45. At our wine tastings, there sometimes isn’t a single person over 30. The first thing they say when they enter the store is: “I haven’t got a clue what I want.” But they have an occasion. A moment. A story. Their reason for buying wine is almost always on a case-by-case basis. You can respond to that well in the store. It’s more difficult online.
Sedat: That’s why our website shows visitors these “moments” using images and words. There’s a text field where you can type in what you want: “picnic” or “dinner with the parents.” Our entire communication and even the products themselves are based around these wine moments. We offer packages for a movie night or a romantic dinner.
You’re the only wine shop that doesn’t provide any ratings. No Parker points, no glasses, nothing at all. What defines the business for other companies is completely missing in your shop.
Micha: It’s great to see someone’s noticed that. We only have reviews from our customers. They can vote for the wines themselves. And I don’t think many of them know what Parker points are.
Sedat: These traditional ratings are essentially an individual person or institute determining how wine should taste, and I have a problem with that.
Micha: That’s why we made a point of leaving them out altogether.
How did you go about making a name for yourself in this overheated market?
Sedat: At the moment we’re running a small TV campaign that’s working well. But up to now we’ve actually done everything through Facebook and word-of-mouth. Our virtually non-existent marketing budget has led to us concentrating mostly on our content, and that’s how we’ve carefully developed the brand from the very beginning. For example, from other online shops we got the idea of including a personalized card with every order, and adjusted our logistical process accordingly, as people really like that.
Micha: I think people realize straight away that our philosophy isn’t along the lines of “thrifty is nifty”.
Sedat: Price is, of course, often the argument online, while at the same time being the biggest concern for vintners. After all, they are the losers if price wars are forever pushing down the price of their wines.
Micha: That’s why we don’t use price to stand out from the competition at all. And that has given us a good reputation within the industry.
Sedat: Rather than special offers, our customers get that renowned added value. We try to meet people in their own environment, to address them positively. For example with a newsletter that doesn’t try to show off with special discounts, but which is made to look more like a magazine. In this way, we want to develop long-term trust among our customers in what we recommend. And the stories we tell about our young vintners allow readers to identify with us more. As a result, that one euro here or there no longer matters. And satisfied customers come back and tell other people about us.
So while everything else is becoming more elitist and specific – gin, coffee, and even cocoa are now appearing in different varieties and “bouquets” – you’re making wine simpler?
Micha: Our recommendations are actually pretty broad. But using occasions and moments as a tool really works. And customers who already know a lot can still visit our wine store.
Sedat: Awareness of quality has, however, become a lot broader. Whenever you find something in our shop that you like, we’ll tell you a little bit about why that might be the case. That way, you’ll eventually become more independent when buying wine. And you’ll also evolve with us.
Micha: Our parents used to have “their” vintner where they bought wine twice a year. But those days are over. Today’s customers are more temperamental and want to try new things in small quantities. Lots of vineyards have realized this and, as a result, they need shops like ours.
Is that a threat to brick-and-mortar businesses?
Sedat: On the contrary. We’re planning to open our next store in Frankfurt, which will be oriented towards our online shop. As an event room and pick-up point with a range of products based on orders to compensate for the one great weakness of online retail: the lack of spontaneous availability. If that works, we can do it in every large town or city.
Micha: Combining online with offline is the essence of our brand. Every day we look at how we can get out and reach people. We want to know what they like. In Berlin and Hamburg and Stuttgart. That’s also why we have the wine moment events.
Sedat: When I saw the supermarkets in the Seoul subway where customers use their cell phones to photograph the products they want to order, I knew what the most important question was: How can I incorporate the best quality into customers’ everyday lives? That’s why we’re also working on an app that tells you when you’ve finished your favorite wine so you can order more with us. It’s our goal to have various technologies working together to offer customers the best service possible in all areas.
But don’t people actually want to devote time to discovering “their” wine, to travel to that one special winegrower in Tuscany? Doesn’t the perceived value depend on the price you’ve paid?
Sedat: This status-oriented approach is in decline. People no longer want to spend their free time making that kind of effort; they want to spend it enjoying themselves. The money spent on wine is split up anyway – among the vintners, various wine stores and online shops, and supermarkets. And why not take a wine trip with us to our vintners?
Micha: It’s also a question of language. We don’t want complex jargon. That’s why we’re called “Geile Weine.” During my apprenticeship, I would tell my friends: “Wow, this wine is awesome!” But whenever we were talking to customers, we had to ramble on about an “exclusive premium wine.” I want to move away from that kind of regulated language. I’m not a sommelier; I’m a wine freak. And I think to myself: What terms are too abstract or pretentious? How can I translate or explain “minerality”? Those kinds of words are, if anything, an obstacle.
What does the hat-wearing gentleman – in other words the typical wine customer – say about this new interpretation of his passion?
Micha: When we were first starting out, we got an email from a gentleman criticizing the term “Geile Weine,” saying: “Awesome or damned good wines? How can you use terms like that for such an age-old piece of cultural heritage?” And that a qualified vintner such as myself would never say anything like that. He even wanted to speak with my mother. (both laugh)
Sedat: But he was the only person who wrote to us. You don’t have to make everyone happy, you know.
Micha: “Geil,” which means awesome, is an emotive term in German. Once, an elderly lady came up to me in the store and told me that she and her friends had spent half an hour discussing whether the word was good for my business. She wouldn’t have a problem with the term “fine wines,” she said. It’s also a question of people’s generation.
Sedat: But in our wine tastings and events, as well as online, we have found exactly the target group we were looking for, and we get consistently good feedback. Wine is actually drunk by all kinds of people, but up to now, the product’s entire communication has been aimed at just one target group.
Micha: The young people we’re targeting really love wine. But nobody was talking to them.
GEILE WEINE. de from G E I L E W E I N E on Vimeo.
But they don’t have as much money as the gentleman in the hat, right?
Micha: I worked for a while in a “posh” wine store where customers were offended if I offered them a bottle for under 50 euros. For them, it’s not about what’s in the bottle; it’s about what’s on the label. Of course, the nature of our business means we still have to turn the odd bottle or two.
Sedat: But if you want young customers, you need to provide them with what they want. And in everyday life people tend to be looking for lower-priced wines.
Micha: And we don’t need to constantly stock up on a hundred different bottles of the more expensive wines that people only buy now and again to impress the in-laws. I don’t see why you should spend more than 60 euros on a bottle. Anything above that and you’re paying for the brand and the market, not for the product.
So instead of buying status in a posh, bourgeois store, people are buying an experience on a pretty website and end up with a bottle with a cool design?
Sedat: No. If you don’t enjoy the wine you buy from us, you won’t order from us again.
Micha: We’re often asked: Do you buy wines based on how good the labels look? Our Gorilla red wine from Italy is branded really well, and it’s also available as a white wine, rosé, and Prosecco. But we don’t have those in our range, even though I know they’d sell well because of their label alone. I simply don’t like the wine.
Sedat: We also have very limited space. So we concentrate only on the really awesome wines.
And you’ve used that to create a story.
Micha: That’s true. Of course, the “posh” wine store I mentioned before also sells a story. But I think that ours is a lot more appealing: wine doesn’t have to be complicated to be great.
Sedat: Or to be more special! The vineyards where we source a lot of our wine are smaller than many of the others. They’re only just beginning to use the Internet, for example because ownership has been handed down to the next generation. That enables us to find the real gems. The other product segment with the big brand names and well-known vineyards isn’t relevant for us.
Micha: In fact, we no longer have anything to do with the classic wine trade. This year, I didn’t even get the Gault-Millau. But don’t you think we’ve been chatting long enough? Feel like trying a glass or two?
Text: Friedemann Karig
Foto: Jan Herbolsheimer
Übersetzung: Toby Skingsley