Willi Klinger is a cheerful person with a legendary love of the theatrical. Which probably helps with his day job as CEO of Wein & Co, Austria’s leading chain of wine bars and shops. Making good wine is hard enough, selling it is even harder. It helps to add the swagger of the stage.
But Klinger is no glass-swirling wine nationalist, despite his long tenure as front man for the Austrian Wine Marketing Board (ÖWM). His real love seems to be the business. Back in the 1990s, he was part of the start-up team putting together the international program at Wein & Co before moving on to the ÖWM.
Even there, where he was busy selling Austria’s wines to the world, he teamed up with Bordeaux wine legend Guillaume Deglise to arrange the first international VINEXPO Explorer, held in Vienna in 2017. Austria was “hot and rising,” Deglise said at the time, almost certainly won over by Klinger’s powers of persuasion. “When the French call, you have to obey,” Klinger commented with a typical smile.
Wein & Co has cavernous stores, alleys of wines neatly sorted by country or region of origin, combined with casual café tables to snack and chat as you taste your way toward a purchase. This was something new when it first appeared back in the early 1990s. Today, there are 20 locations across the country – 8 in Vienna – but in the rough and tumble of the retail trade, yesterday’s good idea can fade fast.
The business model of spacious stores on pricey inner city real estate proved unsustainable and in the last few years, Wein & Co slid into loss trading. The German Hawesko Group bought control in 2018 and successfully sent in the cost-cutters.
Now the company has brought back wine legend Klinger to rebuild profitability. This is where the real work begins. Wine is a business, but also a calling and Klinger can wax almost sentimental: “Going back to Wein & Co is the real highlight in my career,” he said. “I was part of the team 26 years ago as we brought this difficult baby into the world … There’s a lot of emotion involved.”
The Battle of the Bottles
The good news is that wine is holding its own behind beer and spirits for Austrians’ spending on alcohol (the statistical average is €7 a week per capita, about €30 a week for regular winos). Austria’s own wines are also holding on to a steady market share of about 65 percent, but stability in retail is an illusion. Market researchers talk about the “promiscuous consumer,” no longer bound by the old bonds of brand wedlock.
Klinger sees that very clearly: “Every consumer used to have his or her ‘own’ product, smoked only Marlboro or drank a particular beer,” he told Metropole. “Now people like to experiment.” Klinger has also been watching the millennials’ almost ideological obsession with natural wines. He grinned: “What is ‘natural?’ That’s the Gretchenfrage!” (Gretel’s famous unanswerable question in Goethe’s Faust). “There’s a lot of junk out there. You have to separate the wheat from the chaff.”
At the same time, the competition is learning fast, and the choice of wines in the major grocery chains is “not at all bad,” admits Klinger cheerily. Three big players, the REWE group (Billa et al.), Spar and Hofer, move around 70% of wine sold for home consumption, and not only the low-priced plonk.
Often they are decent mid-priced labels from reputable producers at close to vineyard prices, a hard act to follow. Online traders also hold close to 20 % of the market. Klinger offered a warning: They often have amazing digital deals on wines they can’t deliver, to get you onto their sites. “That’s just today’s business,” he shrugged.
Successful marketing is all about differentiation, and this is where Klinger’s turn-around plan for Wein & Co takes shape. The company’s core idea was always to make tasting new wines easy, which should be just right for the vagabond consumer. Klinger understands this: The stores will be revamped to integrate the wine and food experience even more closely.
Customers will eat within aisles of wine, perhaps like picknicking between the rows in a vineyard. The food will be modern Italian light, and Klinger has been foot slogging around the Po Valley to chase up the best olive oil, pasta and prosciutto he can find. The big store on Mariahilfer Strasse will be the first to get this makeover, which should be completed by April 2. Sounds like a plan.