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Lavinia – Ooh La-La Lavinia

d=”standfirst”>Now that Lavinia, the wine lover’s pleasure palace, has opened in Paris, even the Parisians are prepared to try “foreign” wines, says Dave Broom

Your first reaction is that this cannot be a wine shop. When the doors hiss open you enter a modernist temple. Three floors of it. There are some of the best wines the world has to offer; glass cases filled with an eclectic range of spirits. The accessories department groans with fetish objects: books, decanters, Laguiole corkscrews, Riedel glasses. There’s even a restaurant. Welcome to the world of Lavinia. 

I first came across this chain (maybe retail concept is more appropriate?) in Madrid where it nestles between top-end fashion outlets in one of the smartest streets. The kind of place where you’d bump into Posh Spice, were she not scared of the city. It’s much the same here in Paris where Lavinia has taken a prime site  on the Boulevard de la Madeleine. Now that’s pretty chic.

Founded in 1999 by Thierry Servant and Pascal Chevrot, Lavinia now has branches in Madrid (the first outlet), Barcelona, Paris and, later this year, Geneva. See what I mean? This is top-end stuff. 

Over an espresso (Illy, naturally) manager Yannick Branchereau runs through the numbers. There are 3,000 French wines, 2,000 from 43 other countries and a  spirits list which now tops 1,000 brands.  In Spain, the range is similarly huge and the ratio between domestic and imported  wines is similar. The Paris store’s wine club has 8,500 members, the Spanish one  has its own website ( and a magazine.

Branchereau points to the display cases. “We’ve installed anti-vibration shock absorbers to counter the vibrations of the Metro,” he says with Gallic nonchalance. “All the wines are stored lying down as if they were in a cellar. Also,” he waves his hand in the air, “the temperature of the shop is maintained at 19°C and humidity at 70°.” And it doesn’t stop there. Customers can buy any bottle from the store and drink it for the same price in the restaurant. “It’s the best wine list in the world!” he laughs, recounting that recently one client accompanied his meal with bottles of Romanée-Conti DRC 2000 and 1988 (“for comparison”), Pétrus 1989 as a palate cleanser Salon le Mesnil 1990.

Put like that it sounds a bit flash – nothing more than a hangover from the days of conspicuous consumption – but there’s something about Branchereau’s laid-back attitude which infers that Lavinia is more than just a playground for the super-rich. After all, prices start at €3.

Could this be what 21st century wine retailing should look like? Maybe if Terence Conran ever went into wine this might be the result. 

It takes a while for me to realise that my surprise over the Lavinia stores isn’t to do with the stellar list but because this new vision of retailing isn’t happening in London, the self-proclaimed capital of the wine trade. Instead, it’s happening in countries which have traditionally shown resistance to imported wines. 

“I agree,” says Branchereau. “Generally, shops like this do not exist in wine producing countries which by nature  are inherently protectionist. The first difference between us and the competition is that we have choice! We want to help them discover foreign wines.”

A hard job? “Actually, people have been quite impressed. Only 1% of wine sales in France are of foreign wines. Here it’s 20%, and you know what? Our competitors are getting more foreign wines in!”

But French producers can’t have been too happy over this liberal buying policy? “They were offended for sure, but now that they have seen what we are also doing for French wines they understand.” 

Surely though, it cannot be easy to go up against not just the powerful French supermarkets but a chain such as Nicolas? “We’re trying to be competitive in our sector. Obviously, we’re not fighting Auchan, but we have to be aware of Nicolas. It is still number one in this sector.

“Nicolas was a very beautiful store. For a few years it worked very well, but its strategy since then has been to have a heavily branded range. Castel works with co-ops, we sell wines from small winemakers. Wine for us is a story, for Nicolas it is a product.” 

This is more than just doing down the opposition, it strikes to the heart of specialist drinks retailing across Europe. Do you embrace the hard-branded route or that of the specialist? I’m used to hearing this polemic from one-store independent wine merchants, not from a retailer with global plans, a range of 5,000 wines and, according to Branchereau, a deeper philosophy. “Our objective isn’t to redefine the market. We can’t. We can, however, help to change the way in which people drink. This is about the diffusion of wine culture.”

It’s one thing to modernise the look of a wine store, but what Lavinia appears to be aiming for is something considerably more difficult – to radically alter the European attitude to wine. “In France and in Spain people come from a wine-drinking culture. They have the background, a basic understanding of how to taste, but the most important thing we can help them discover is that wine is about pleasure and that the more you try, the greater that pleasure is. We want to find ways to make the whole experience more accessible, we want people to have the same thrill their kids get when they visit Toys R Us!”

The idea is to have a Lavinia in every major European country – and London is on the cards. Would it work here? I can see it in New York or San Francisco, places where style matters. I can see it working in countries where wine is embedded in the culture, but Britain? Here, where wine is increasingly seen as a commodity, it may struggle. This is weird, because Lavinia reminds me of Oddbins, not in looks but in vibe. There is a surprisingly down-to-earth attitude about the staff, allied to this almost evangelical passion about how wine, not only needs to be, but can be demystified. Ultimately, that is what 21st century drinks retailing should be about, whatever the surroundings.

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