Jus de Vine, the National Off-Licence Association’s Off-Licence of the Year 2020, is no stranger to the winners’ enclosure. This 2,000 sq ft outlet in the heart of the North County Dublin’s Portmarnock village has won the overall title no less than four times now: 1999, 2000, 2018 and 2020. Just why this is the case becomes clear on talking to Tommy Cullen, one of the three co-owners (along with daughter Julie and Paul McKenna).
The outlet conducts regular tutored tastings by taking out some of the display furniture and replacing it with 35 chairs.
“We never make any money out of it but it’s an education for our customers,” explains Tommy, “However one of the advantages of having it here rather than in a hotel is that you get a few quid spent before your customers leave.”
Always trying to improve the offering
Tommy believes that the shop’s latest win was because they “try and invest a little bit every year to make the place a little bit better.
“We’re always trying to improve because if we’re not improving, we’re not going forward,” he explains.
Having opened in 1998 the shop can rightly claim to be “Dublin’s leading independent wine merchant” having won NOffLA’s Wine Shop of the Year Award no less than 11 times.
“We were also the Business Post’s Bordeaux Specialist of the Year in 2019 and 2020,” adds Tommy modestly.
There are just five out on the floor making all this happen.
“Every Friday we’ve meetings to discuss new wines and agree tasting notes and share the knowledge we’ve all learned,” explains Julie.
And each to their own.
Richard Brown has been with Jus for five years, for example, while Paul McGrath – described as “part of the furniture” by Tommy – has been there for eight.
“Richard loves his whiskey and opened a new Saki last night for us all to try,” says Julie, “The two Pauls are beer men and keep us up-to-date with what’s happening there while Dad has a passion for wine.”
Volume over value
The shop’s Fine Wines room continues to attract premium customers to the temperature- and humidity-controlled space. Said customers go on to become regulars.
But Tommy prefers ‘volume’ over ‘value’ when it comes to customers any day.
“If we lose value customers we really feel it” he explains, “but if we lose a couple of volume customers we don’t feel it as much.”
“If it ain’t broke….”
Since the last time they won, Julie confirms that apart from keeping up standards, nothing much has changed in the shop – in keeping with the adage, ‘If it ain’t broke why fix it?’.
“We don’t so much re-invent the wheel as keep questioning it,” she explains.
However trends have changed in the intervening two years.
Customers come in now specifically looking for No-Alcohol/Low Alcohols, for example, “… and you can see this with the next generation”.
But Tommy points out that the outlet still hasn’t gone for natural wines to any great degree “… as you sell what you believe in yourself. Every shop reflects the people who own it and their passion, giving it their own individual stamp”.
Display of thought
A cursory wander around the shop indicates the great deal of thought that’s gone into the many product displays.
The outlet has had to increase its fine wine range since the last win as people continue to seek quality over quantity.
“We’d have built up a name for specialist wines” explains Julie adding that, “very few places still stock them. You’d have to think twice where you could pick up wine for €50 to €100.”
Maybe Devaney’s in Dundrum, Redmonds in Ranelagh or 64 in Glasthule, suggests Tommy.
“Declan Martin in Fairview too has built up a nice collection down there.”
Indeed Tom Devaney would be one of those whom Tommy would admire in the independent trade.
“When I started in the wine business first, Tom was one of the people who’d been there for many years and was very helpful. I perceived him to be one of the most knowledgeable people in the trade. Still do,” he admits, “Then there’s Jimmy Redmond – the type of person who’s always continuing to improve the shop.”
When Jus last picked up the overall winner’s trophy, Lidl was just getting going down the road. Has it been good or bad for business?
“Good” affirms Julie, “It has cleaned up that part of Portmarnock from being an empty space for 20-plus years with no footfall in the village, making it a drive-through so there’s no doubt that Lidl has been good for us.
“It has brought more footfall around the area and even helped the smaller outlets around the village – plus you don’t have to pay for your parking!”
By value, the outlet breakdown would be: 65% wine, 20% beer and 15% spirits.
Canned beers are very much on-trend at the shop.
“You can’t sell a bottle of beer these days!” remarks Tommy, “All of the new craft beers are sold in cans.
Richard Brown explains that canning beer keeps it more fresh and stops light pollution from affecting the taste.
Three of Richard’s customers buy six or seven small cans of craft beer “one after the other” and go off to sit down and talk about them instead of “‘sculling’ them back” – and Hard Seltzer, so popular in the US, may be about to take off here, believes Paul McKenna.
In wines, those from Spain and Italy prove the most popular at the outlet.
For the same price point, they’re proving better quality than anywhere else in the world, advises Tommy.
Another trend saw them selling Rosés all through the Winter.
The previous Summer’s sales of Rosé in 2018 were good; people just sensed that and sales continued on, says Tommy, adding too that “Cava is the new Prosecco”.
High-end whiskeys are also growing, says Julie, “We’re selling a lot of (nearby) Lambay whiskey”.
However gin sales appear to have fallen away somewhat, she admits.
“People still buy Dingle and Gordons, ‘though now it’s ‘back to basics’ like Bombay Sapphire.
“At the height of the boom if one was launching a gin at less than €40 it was going to be dead in the water,” she says, adding that it’s interesting how young adults like whiskey.
Richard, Jus de Vine’s main man for whiskey, elaborates.
“All the bloggers come in. I’d know them and talk to them for half an hour,” he says, “They’d come in one week and buy whiskey in Cognac cask and next week come in and ask what else you have and in which kind of cask. It’s a talking point. For a lot of people my age it’s more of a hobby where they’ll spend the extra few €uro on a good bottle of whiskey that they can talk about with their friends rather than neck a bottle of vodka.
“It’s for sipping and they’ve a lot more sense these days – and a bit more class too,” he adds.
“They not only like different cask finishes but whiskeys from different regions.”
Some don’t like the peaty taste of Scotch but would prefer a Japanese whiskey alternative which has a slight peaty taste.
“A big seller for us, for example, would be the Nikka Super which also has a bit of a sales spiel to it.”
As for wine, now, instead of people coming in and buying that bottle of wine for €7.99 they buy a New Zealand or Loire Valley and spend the extra few quid as they’re getting quality so they’re sitting down to enjoy it.
Where Tommy looks for a wine that’s easy to drink at a good price point there’s a growing interest in vegan and organic wines, says Julie, along with natural wines.
“Rioja Vega, a vegan wine, is good value at €10 at the moment,” she says.
But they both agree that there’s a huge hunger for information among consumers.
And this year’s Off-Licence of the Year 2020 is just the outlet to feed that hunger.