No one who knows the chauvinistic French would go to their capital city expecting to find a wide range of California wines for sale. In fact, you might think it as likely to locate great California wines in a Paris shop as you would top bottles from India, Cuba, Japan or England. But since Lavinia opened its doors on the boulevard de la Madeleine about a year and a half ago, you can find all of thesenot to mention some sensational single malt Scotch whiskyin a dramatic modern setting designed by noted Spanish architect Antonio de la Peña. The 16,000-square-foot store offers more than 2,000 different wines from all over the world, not to mention 3,000 different French bottlings and 1,000 different spiritsalong with some 500 wine books and accessories, a wine bar and a restaurant. Welcome to one of the world's greatest wine shops.
The Paris branch is the third of the Lavinia wine empire, owned by partners Thierry Servant and Pascal Chevrot. The first two Lavinia stores are in Spain: The Madrid original opened in 1999, Barcelona's in 2001. A much smaller shop called La Cité des Vins in Geneva was acquired in 2001 and is scheduled to become a fourth Lavinia shop later this year.
Lavinia began in Spain because that's where Servant was based, as manager of L'Oréal's Spanish operations and the owner of a helicopter-leasing business (they're his favorite mode of transportation). Chevrot, who now splits his time between Spain and France, grew up in Reims, the renowned center of Champagne, and was once a consultant for Louis Roederer Champagne. He and Servant are friends of long standing, both interested in wine and often appalled by the wine shops of Spain. Says Servant, "We were used to seeing great wines in shops with high temperatures, near light sources, with no humidity. I was thinking of doing something in retail, and we felt there was something lacking in terms of the way good wines were distributed."
Chevrot and Servant conceived of the Lavinia project in the mid 1990s. (The partners chose the Italian name Lavinia because it sounds like the Spanish la viñathe vineyardand also because it rolls off the tongue in most languages.) Servant was a regular customer at Caves Augé, an old-fashioned wine shop in Paris run by Marc Sibardthe man Servant calls his conscience viticole. When Servant outlined his idea for a shop to Sibard and asked for his help, Sibard said he'd be interested only if such a store would support the small wine grower, or vigneron.
Soon after that discussion, Servant and Chevrot bought Caves Augé; now Sibard divides his time between the two Paris shops. Most days Sibard is to be found at Caves Augé, where he presides over what he calls "organized chaos." Broad-shouldered and crop-haired, Sibard brings to Lavinia a wealth of tasting experience, which he describes in slightly wobbly English: "I've been drinking everything by buckets." Customers squeeze between the stacked cases in the tiny store, some with unlikely requests: An older gentleman needs some 1937 vintage for a birthday party. Other customers are simply distracting, such as the blonde Scandinavian woman who causes a testosterone rush among Sibard and his male colleagues. "Charmante, hein?" Sibard smiles.
The wines sold at Lavinia are chosen by committee; Sibard presides over the deliberations. The morning I met with the Lavinia team, they had gathered to choose from a range of wines. Seven buyers and heads of departments were meeting in Lavinia's first-floor restaurant to taste French growers' wines under 10 euros. It had been a dispiriting exercise. "We tried 30 wines, all tasted blind," sighed Yannick Branchereau, the young store manager. "We chose two. These wines had lots of problems." Undaunted, the group planned to reconvene soon to assess more samples.
The Lavinia team has sworn off the easy option of carrying the bottom-of-the-line wines of the big merchant houses in Burgundy, Bordeaux and the Rhônethe kind of wines that most shops sell. "We call ourselves the spokespeople for the growers, the vignerons," says Branchereau, who's the son of a top Loire grower. Servant agrees, defining Lavinia as "the home of winemakers and of wine lovers" and "a place for culture, not just a place for business."
At Lavinia, wines from outside France are on the ground floor. "They have to be," Servant says. "No one is going to go down to the basement to look for them." So those customers in search of French wines must descend a staircase, albeit one grand enough for an ocean liner. The lower floor also contains La Cave à Quatorzean inner sanctum kept at a chilly 14 degrees centigrade (57 degrees Fahrenheit). Here is where Lavinia's collections of California's renowned Ridge Cabernets, Australia's great Penfolds Grange and Spain's famed Vega Sicilia reside, along with some inexpensive but fragile wines like the northern Rhône Syrahs from Dard et Ribo, which are made without stabilizing sulfite preservatives.
Throughout Lavinia, bottles are presented with care: Opalescent Plexiglas softens the light that floods the shop, and bottles are held nearly horizontal in specially designed display units to keep their corks wet. But the biggest surprise is the wines themselves. Many of the labels were familiar to me, as I'd acquired them laboriously for my own cellar by visiting a number of specialist merchants in London, where I live. At Lavinia, the cult stars of almost every region in France are all in the same place: extreme individualists like Robert Plageoles, from Gaillac in the southwest, a sort of wine archeologist who produces traditional wines in a range of styles from sweet to sparkling to sherrylike; Michelle Laurent, whose mission at Domaine Gramenon in the southern Rhône is to create additive-free wines from Grenache; and François Cotat from Chavignol in the Loire, whose off-dry Sauvignon Blanc is built for long bottle-aging.
Lavinia is as popular with diners as it is with drinkers: At lunchtime I found its 80-seat restaurant turning away customers. The chef, Regis Bruillon, has built up a following for dishes like his grilled shark steak (a daily special) paired with a d'Arenberg Chardonnay from Australia. Plus, you can drink any bottle from the store, paying retail, without a restaurant markup.
Servant and Chevrot say Lavinia's numbers are on target (in the store's first year, the average customer spent just under 100 euros), but their business plan is unusual: They keep opening new stores before the existing ones have begun to make money. "It's the only way," says Servant. "If you wait, you might have to wait five to ten years." It's not a philosophy embraced by many businesses today. Servant says his experience at L'Oréal doesn't apply in the case of Lavinia. At L'Oréal, he explains, "We were doing all we could to reduce the stock, because we considered that the stock would not increase in value. In wine I think it's quite different."
Not only is wine a different matter, but Lavinia is also a different sort of wine shopone created with an uncommon ambition: to be the best in the world. It's an ambition that has sparked criticism from its competitors, whom Sibard dismisses as rivals who "deal only in boring Bordeaux" and widely available wines blended by big merchants or négociants. "These wines aren't really alive," says Sibard, adding with a laugh, "When we have exactly the selection people are looking for and we open near the place de la Madeleine, it makes many jealous people."
It all sounds so simple. Yet surely, creating the world's greatest wine shop is more complicated than just buying a lot of amazing bottles from gifted winemakers and housing them in a prime retail location in Paris. Otherwise, wouldn't everyone try to open a store like Lavinia? I'm still waiting for the answer, but in the meantime, one thing is certain: Servant, Chevrot and Sibard have made the boulevard de la Madeleine one of the world's most important wine destinations.
Patrick Matthews, a London-based writer and filmmaker, is the author of Real Wine and The Wild Bunch.