The powerhouse of Poland

An interview with Robert Mielżyński by Robert Joseph 

Robert Mielżyński
Photo: Mateusz Tyszkiewicz

Born in 1964, Robert Mielżyński, is the third son of Peter Mielżyński, who left his native Poland for Canada in 1946. Robert studied oenology at the University of California in Fresno and made wine in Bordeaux and the Loire before returning to Canada where he managed the group of Hillebrand Estates wineries in Niagara that Peter founded in 1980. Peter Mielżyński went on to launch Peter Mielżyński Agencies, one of Canada’s leading distribution businesses, but his son, instead of working in the family business, decided in 1993 to move back to Poland where he eventually launched a very different retail concept. His Mielżyński wine warehouses/wine bars have since attracted international interest.

 

MEININGER’S: As a young man, you were a keen ice hockey player. Do you see a connection between competitive sports and business?

MIELŻYŃSKI: There are two types of sports – [those like] skiing, where you’re on your own on the hill, or a team sport. In business, whether in the wine business or in other businesses, you have to work with your team even if you’re the captain.

MEININGER’S: Why did it take you from 1993 to 2003 to launch your business?

MIELŻYŃSKI: I launched Mielżyński warehouse shops in cities as an interesting way to educate and move quality bottles and provide a buying experience. I was working with Brown-Forman and William Grant and a few others, including Campari, to create a company with [the Polish conglomerate] Agros. But right at the end when we were all ready, they created another company with another partner and killed my whole project, and I was too naïve to have created a contract with them.

I might have gone back to Canada then, but that would have meant giving up. I’m Polish, and there’s a long family history back to the 13th century, and I wanted to protect the past and build a future. [The experience with Agros] was actually quite interesting, but I guess in Eastern Europe, you have to learn to be tough.

MEININGER’S: And what was your concept? 

MIELŻYŃSKI: The project was always the question of taste. Before all these [wine preservation] machines were created, I said no, I open bottles, I sell bottles. If you have a wine bar you can taste and eat and make it an experience. Going into a hypermarket is not the greatest experience.

MEININGER’S: What are the requirements for your shops?

MIELŻYŃSKI: Well, they are all about 500 to 600 square metres. It’s like a warehouse. I always want to have approximately 120 bottles of each brand on the floor, because then of course the more expensive wines catch people’s eye. Around 60% is retail, and the rest is the wine bar, the eating part. 

MEININGER’S: What was the Polish wine business like in 1993?

MIELŻYŃSKI: Well, in the ’90s, people drank a Bulgarian wine called Sofia. There were only a few shops that had some [more interesting] wine. The best ambassador was tourists [coming back from from Spain] because there was a brand called Viña Sol – one of the only real wines that was properly priced at that time. There was some Valpolicella and Soave also correctly priced, and the French, who had really quite terrible, disgusting château wines at a huge price. The French didn’t really look at the market very well, they just listened to the importers who said, “We want a château on the label and the price has to be cheap from you.”

MEININGER’S: White wines seem to be gaining ground in Poland.

MIELŻYŃSKI: In the past, red wines absolutely overpowered the whites, but that’s changing. People travel much more and do business elsewhere and people come in from other countries, and of course Poles go skiing through the Dolomites, so all of a sudden they’re drinking Austrian wines. Since 2004, the [wine] education level has gone up.

We see people come to Mielżyński after living in Britain or Canada for example, and the culture [there] has taught them how to drink a beer in a different way and how to have a bottle of wine or a glass of wine with their meal, and they start to know exactly what they want to buy. And that has an effect on parents and even grandparents who aren’t going to say, “No, we’re not going to have any wine.”

MEININGER’S: And there is more money around now.

MIELŻYŃSKI: Poland maybe does not have the wealthiest middle class, but they are coming in and tasting and buying that €10.00 ($11.50) bottle of wine and saying, “I like that, let me try a something pricier next time.” Producers say it’s a cheap market, and that’s possibly true in the hypermarkets which are very tough with producers. They are my competition but they also are helping people to drink wine and to drink it outside the cities.

MEININGER’S: If somebody comes in to your bar and just wants a drink, what do you suggest?

MIELŻYŃSKI: Well, it’s still going to be European: French, Italian, Spanish. Portugal has done a fantastic job in marketing its regions, so it’s very strong here. Rieslings from Germany, Austrian screw-cap litre bottles at a good price. Maybe for lunch it’ll be by the glass and we can open anything you want. We have such a good turnover, the next day the bottle should be finished. If you don’t open bottles you don’t sell them. I want people tasting, that’s part of the marketing.

MEININGER’S: What about the New World?

MIELŻYŃSKI: New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is really flying. I was doing a little bit of Babich, but then Fleur McCree got me to taste her Little Beauty wine, and wrote, “Aren’t you the coolest thing in Poland?” I am amazed at her brand. I’m selling up to 10,000 bottles a year at €18.00 to €20.00. I would love it if every one of my wines would be so popular. In Chile, I’ve always been with a brand called Los Boldos. Chilean wine does well because you have some lower priced wines. The top wines don’t move as quickly. Argentina does a little better. I would like to see California sell more, but it has been very difficult because all you have is very expensive wines – and Carlo Rossi. It’s an amazing brand of course in Poland and sells huge amounts, but I’m not in that category. 

MEININGER’S: And, what about organic and natural?

MIELŻYŃSKI: Well, first of all, I don’t like the word ‘natural’ too much. I think it’s just a niche created for marketing. But, you’ll find some natural wines in my shops. There are orange wines from Heinrich in Austria and Logan in Australia. And some organic and biodynamic. But, hopefully, the producers I go to see are very clean and doing a great job in the vineyard, so it doesn’t have to be on the label.

Although, you know, people do ask. If you say it’s biodynamic, you have to explain biodynamic. If you say it’s organic, then they are even more pleased. But they’re not necessarily coming in and saying “I want an organic wine”, no, not yet.

MEININGER’S: How is rosé doing?

MIELŻYŃSKI: Sales are going up, but we’re still a little behind the US or Europe. We are doing some promotions but I’m not filling my warehouse with too much rosé.

MEININGER’S: And sparkling?

MIELŻYŃSKI: I’m doing quite well on my Champagnes – I have been very loyal to Deutz and we can sell four or five thousand bottles – but Champagne has a high marketing budget and in a country like Poland, like the spirits brands, they really try to abuse it. But some restaurants are starting to think a little bit differently. Slowly but surely grower Champagnes are getting stronger here, but the big brands are doing very well here. 

MEININGER’S: How much do you rely on producers for support?

MIELŻYŃSKI: Well, producers have to make money as well, so I’m not pushing them too much. The French maybe are a little less generous than the Spanish in giving samples to taste. I do a lot of producer tastings every month. Always at Mielżyński or at an interesting place, never in a hotel. We also do a lot of food driven events, [in the] mushroom and asparagus seasons for example, but also wine and concerts. We even did a nice Polish wine event. I am very much for Polish wines. 

MEININGER’S: What proportion of your customers do you think are interested in wine?

MIELŻYŃSKI: I would say more than 50 out of every 100 people know what they’re going to want to buy. They come in, they say, “I want this and this.” I don’t like asking people, “Can I help you?”, because it’s going intellectually higher than the client, so we have to tell a story right away, if it’s a new client, and within 15 seconds get his interest to show that we know what we’re talking about. If someone new is coming into the shop, you say, “Hello, you’re new here, I haven’t seen you. We are Mielżyński, privately owned, and we have Italian wines X, Y, Z.”

MEININGER’S: Who are your most engaged customers?

MIELŻYŃSKI: It’s absolutely the 30 to 50 year olds; 40 to 60 is really our main client.

I think more women in general are making decisions. In 2004 they would come in and say “This is nice, my husband will come and buy it.” Now it’s changed, the women are saying “I’m going to buy this and this for the evening dinner.” And over the last five or six years we see more women coming together and having dinner or having a drink.

MEININGER’S: Do you have loyalty cards?

MIELŻYŃSKI: I don’t really like cards. Regular clients have their name in the system and we see how much they’re buying and we do have a loyalty programme that gives maybe 10% discount; it depends who’s buying what.

MEININGER’S: Signorvino, the Italian business inspired by yours, has opted for much more expensive city centre sites than you have done.

MIELŻYŃSKI: The wine business is so price sensitive. Maybe when I’m very wealthy or we’re a very wealthy company, we can have that kind of image. We have two sites in Gdańsk, and they are not city centre – [they’re] on the way out of the city. They have to have some character. And there has to be people flow and car flow, so people can drive in in 10 minutes, buy their wine and leave.

MEININGER’S: And what about online?

MIELŻYŃSKI:: Online is difficult in Poland. We did have Mielżyński Online, but there is legislation in Poland which says you’re not allowed to sell online.

MEININGER’S: Poland has a very business-friendly government. Do you think it will remove that ban?

MIELŻYŃSKI: Since we entered the EU, the governments have been very business friendly and you can be very imaginative… but the government is quite conservative concerning alcohol.

MEININGER’S: But you can promote wine online.

MIELŻYŃSKI: Oh yes. We do a very nice job on Facebook and Instagram, but I’m changing all that. Our website is old-fashioned right now, and I want to really think more about education. I really don’t like Facebook and Instagram too much because it’s just some pictures. I think we’re going to go with a film crew and just go to different producers and ask hundreds of questions: short little films that are really educational.

MEININGER’S: What’s next for your business?

MIELŻYŃSKI: I’m at a very interesting stage of this company. We have a nice platform of course, of course the retail, and the HoReCa business-to-business is around 20% of the business. I’m creating more of a team for that and it’s gaining speed. 

MEININGER’S: What do you think are the biggest mistakes that people make when trying to sell wine to Poland? 

MIELŻYŃSKI: Firstly, when a producer thinks he is going to get huge sales. The market is not there yet, but they read about how fantastic the economy is doing. Unemployment is very low, but that doesn’t mean that people have a lot of money. And it’s hard to get the right distribution. Today, you have a lot of smaller importers who are not professionals in the wine business. People who have maybe made money somewhere else say, “I want to go into the wine business”, and they start a small company and price too highly, then they dump the wine like crazy in January, February because they bought too much of it for Christmas. I love retail, so I always think that the producer should make sure that he’s in some kind of a retail system. And then look to see if that importer also has a certain portfolio or a team going into the HoReCa. I always get nervous when I hear about an importer who only does HoReCa, because I wonder how often he is not being paid.

MEININGER’S: What do you see happening with Mielżyński over the next 10 years?

MIELŻYŃSKI: Do I see a Mielżyński in London or in Amsterdam, for example, or even in France? It could happen, but going into those countries means a partnership with a company there because you have to do the importing, so you have to create the whole structure again. We have to get around Poland first.

MEININGER’S: Bookshops now often have coffee bars. Could you imagine your wine and food business sharing with a bookshop or fashion outlet, for example?

MIELŻYŃSKI: When we do some new Mielżyńskis I would love to be next to a butcher’s shop, but in Poland there are no real butchers with nice shops like in Toronto today. But I think real butchers will come back. So I can see being next to a little food or flower or book business, because it just pulls in more people and shows that you’re interested in the client. A guy in Bosnia wanted me to take over his micro-brewery. I said, no, no, no, I’m not going to run it. But if a micro-brewery is next to me, why not?

MEININGER’S: How many stores do you think you’ll have?

MIELŻYŃSKI: Right now we have three bigger 600 [square] metre Mielżyński shops. To have three more would be very nice. There will be a new project coming up. I can’t say too much, but it’s called Renewable Mielżyński, and it might help to go into the smaller cities. It’s going to be crazy, but very much wine thinking, very much retail thinking.

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