TapaSoif: the Greek wine bar of Belgium

April 16, 2014
The first wine bar outside Greece with exclusively Greek wines is a reality. TapaSoif opened one month ago in the city of Namur, Belgium and is full every evening.

 Thomas Tsanis carries out projects that for most of us would simply remain on our wish list. Allow me to explain: everyone talks about the ways in which Greek wine can become better known abroad. The sector has spent thousands of euros on studies and millions of euros on promotion, but these actions have still not translated into correspondingly high sales. And although turnover abroad has certainly increased and the reputation of Greek wines has improved considerably, there are only very few specific initiatives that convert curiosity about Greek wines into actual orders. But this is precisely what Tsanis has achieved with a clever idea.

Tsanis is the owner of Canette, a company that has been importing Greek wines and foodstuffs into Belgium since 1991. Today, Canette has become a reference point for Greek wine and Greek wine producers are queuing up to work with the company. This success has not come by chance: Tsanis himself, although born in Greece, is fully integrated into Belgian society, has great respect for Belgians, knows what they want and adapts the products he trades – but also the way he offers them – to their needs. He is constantly present at exhibitions, tastings, in the media and untiringly invests in the promotion of Greek wine.

A few years ago, Tsanis realised that conventional ways of promoting and selling Greek wine in the Belgian market would never allow it to progress to the next level, namely into the daily lives of consumers. Incidentally, this is the problem facing Greek wine everywhere, for although it is liked, it is not purchased with the same ease as – for example – Spanish, Italian or French wine. It remains an occasional purchase, statistically speaking in the “other” category... So it was that Tsanis decided to open not one but a number of wine bars in cities around Belgium (and Luxembourg), with the aim of enabling consumers to become familiar with Greek wine by drinking it on a daily basis.

So, “what’s new about this?” you might ask. Well, what follows is even more interesting. First of all, Tsanis did not choose the relatively saturated (and expensive) market of Brussels to launch his venture, but the city of Namur, which is 80 kilometres from the Belgian capital. Namur is a prosperous city of 100,000 inhabitants, the capital of Wallonia, where it was easy to find the ideal premises on a street already lined with restaurants and wine bars, which Tsanis rented for 27 years. Preparations took over 12 months, but the result is impressive, not least because the venue is perfectly suited to the strategy for promoting Greek wine as devised by the Greek importer.

For customers visiting the “bar à vins” for  the first time, there is nothing to indicate – among so many others – that it is in fact a bastion of Greek wine. Its name, TapaSoif, is a clever play on words that can be read as “tapas” and “thirst” but also as “t’as pas soif?” which means “aren’t you thirsty?” The dishes, prepared by the young chef Valérie-Anne Dupont, are modern mezedes or tapas, with light, delicate flavours that do not overshadow the wines. For the Greek palate they may not be sufficiently intense, but they are a hit with the Belgians. At any rate the food is not Greek, although the menu features Greek products, such as fish roe of Messolonghi and olive oil from Siteia (alongside superb Cantabrian anchovies, French foie gras, Atlantic oysters, Belgian cheeses...). The wines, however, are exclusively Greek (and at reasonable prices, e.g. Tselepos Kokkinomylos 2007, €35 a bottle or Mercouri Foloi, €24 a bottle).   

“How do customers react to this surprise?” I asked TapaSoif’s young sommelier. “At first, many were shocked, to be honest. But we have an optional self-service system here which means you can try 16 different wines at a very low cost, around €1 per glass. Once they have tried one or two, they are convinced about the quality of Greek wines and then embark on the tasting adventure.” In other words, Tsanis has overcome the problem of the negative image of Greek wine by directly convincing consumers about its quality, after first enticing them into his eatery with other items that are not “Greek”.

The 16 wines available by the glass include of course representatives of the four principal wine-growing regions but also a number of Greek wines made from international varieties, which comes as a surprise to Greek visitors. “Most customers become convinced about the quality of our wines by trying the crisp Sauvignon Blancs of Kavala, the full-bodied Cabernet Sauvignons of central Greece and the juicy Chardonnays of the Peloponnese. They are flavours with which they are familiar and approve. It is then easier for them to try the Agiorgitiko or Xinomavro wines and after that it’s plain sailing,” says the owner. “We are full at lunchtime and in the evening; the only problem is the few hours between the two meals, since we don’t serve coffee without a meal”.

The interior of TapaSoif is dominated by two tables with a most peculiar shape, one low and the other high. They are designed (by Tsanis himself!) in such a way as to facilitate contact between strangers, but at the same time you can sit with friends in relative privacy at one of their corners. The ceiling is covered with an innovative plastic material by Barrisol which enables the creation of lighting in exactly the same shape as the tables, resulting in a very pleasant atmosphere. TapaSoif can seat up to 30 guests. The day’s dishes are chalked up on two large blackboards, whilst two TV screens constantly display videos about Greek vineyards, featuring producers and wineries.

Tsanis preferred to work with young catering professionals with “an appetite for work and open minds”. After finding Valérie-Anne, the 24-year-old chef who is from Namur and graduated from the local tourism college, he brought her to Greece where together they visited dozens of restaurants and wineries. He then made her a partner in the company that operates the wine bar, which as an investment is wholly owned by the import company Canette. “It was never my intention for the wine bar to recoup the initial investment, but to significantly increase sales of the premium Greek wines imported by Canette. I have already succeeded in this, since in its very first month TapaSoif was selling around 60 bottles a day. Every week, customers sip through 30 bottles of the sparkling Tselepos Amalia alone!”

With the same reasoning, Tsanis hired a young wine steward, with the agreement that he will not work at TapaSoif for more than one year. “In a year he will have learned all about Greek wines and then, wherever he works, it is certain he will promote some of them. Particularly considering that our agreement includes a tour of Greek vineyards. In 10 years I will have trained dozens of wine stewards, experts in Greek wine, each of whom will have worked in any number of restaurants,” says the resourceful Greek. For now, TapaSoif serves only wines imported by Canette but very soon the range will be expanded with the addition of new labels not necessarily in the importer’s portfolio. “It is my aim to promote all interesting wines. In any case, if we constantly serve the same wines, our customers will soon become bored,” he stresses.

The next opening of TapaSoif will be in Brussels, where premises have already been found in one of the liveliest districts of the European megalopolis. Then it will be the turn of Antwerp and Luxembourg. “I am a firm believer in Greek wine,” Tsanis confides, “which is why I invest all my money in it.”  

TapaSoif

26 rue des Brasseurs, Namur

Τel.: 0032 81656777

Open 11:00 – 23:00, closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays

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