The Fassina family owns and operates a chain of liquor stores in South Australia (SA). Why is Fassina an SA family treasure? Because they have heart and creativity and good honest values. I chatted to Ross Fassina and his daughter Elise about their business, philosophy and aims.
A potted history of Fassina S.A. Family Liquor Merchants
The Fassina business was born in 1975 when Joe and Ross Fassina bought Chateau Marbay Wines at Payneham and then moved to the current Somerton Park site turning it into a bottling hall and liquor warehouse. Later this became a retail liquor outlet. In 1986 they joined forces with Martin Bailey and formed the Vintage Cellars brand. The chain grew to 25 stores and two hotels in SA and 40 stores in Victoria, at which point it was sold to Coles in 1992. Four stores were retained by the Fassina family and this became the Super Cellars chain, which grew to 10 stores in Adelaide and three stores in Victoria before being sold in 2003.
In 2005 Fassina S.A. Family Liquor Merchants was born at the Somerton Park store, the site where it all began. It is truly a family business having Joe the patriarch of the family working with his son Ross (Managing Director), daughter Eleanor (Office Manager), granddaughter Elise (Marketing Manager) and grandson Adam (Operations Manager). The stores specialise in fine wines, with a large range of local and back vintage wines and an unerring focus on “customer service and everyday low prices”.
What makes Fassina different?
I am lucky enough to live near the Somerton Park store which is their largest store in SA. I have become a regular customer, both for my supplies, and also the wine club events.
So what makes Fassina different? I would sum it up in three points:
• the people
• the product – range and value
• the Wine Club
The people: The first thing you notice about the Fassina staff is that they are open and friendly. The second thing? They all have the passion for wine that I have, backed up with knowledge and experience, while also having the pragmatism to know just how much customers want to know or to discuss about their choices. As Ross says,
“Some want their bottle of Jacob’s Creek shiraz cabernet every week and are happy with that forever and a day. There is also a growing number of people who want to be introduced to something different.”
As I have come to know the Fassinas, and being invited to participate in their industry tasting sessions, I realise this is due to the business philosophy of including all staff in wine purchasing decisions, making everyone feel on an equal pegging, that they matter. In return, the staff are all incredibly knowledgeable, not just about wine in general, but about the specific wines on their shelves – because they have tasted them and discussed them in the process of deciding whether or not to buy them.
“Our staff are encouraged to go to as many tastings as they can fit in, and taste the wines that are tasted at the stores. Wines are tasted at all stores, every week, and the staff are encouraged to try them too. Any new lines we put in, the people representing the wine will go round the stores and leave a bottle for staff to try, with notes. So it is a wine culture we try to have through the whole group.”
The product: Being an SA business, there is an emphasis on SA wines. As a wine lover myself, I was happy to note that there are a number of wineries selling exclusively through Fassina. As Ross says, “part of our philosophy is to have some wines exclusive to us”.
So you can find your usual everyday brands that you are familiar with, and also try some you may otherwise not have known about. An SA example is the Inkwell primitivo – a beautiful, complex, intense and rich wine from McLaren Vale.
“Wine is becoming a lot like food – people are looking to have different experiences with wines. When we come across something with a new set of flavours, standing out from the rest, if we think it is worth it we look to stock it, like the Inkwell.”
More examples Ross tells me are the Gibson Bridge pinot gris from Marlborough, New Zealand, and the range of BK Wines from the Adelaide Hills:
“I tried the Gibson Bridge pinot gris at the cellar door in Marlborough. No one else has it in Australia. Five of us at the cellar door that day all thought ‘wow’ – that doesn’t happen very often. The BK Wines – we have always loved those – they have a big wow factor. The quality is massive at very reasonable prices.”
I have to agree with all of these wines – they all are simply delicious! One of my personal favourites of SA chardonnays is the BK Wines One Ball Chardonnay – anyone who thinks chardonnay is going away should think again and try this elegant, complex, heavenly creation by Brendon Keys. He also produces a range of syrahs and pinot noirs and a pinot gris – all exceptionally well made, bursting with fruit flavours with great length and varietal expression. Brendon also makes wines for Mayhem & Co. – see this little Tig excerpt on the Mayhem pinot noir – another amazing quality wine that I first tasted at a Fassina Wine Club event.
While the focus is undoubtedly on SA, you will also find great value Argentinean malbec, French champagne, a range of New Zealand chardonnays, pinot gris and sauvignon blancs, for example – as long as they pass the industry winetasting panel, i.e. the Fassina staff!
Not only is there the range but the prices are competitive across the board – the wines, beers and spirits!
The Wine Club: The Somerton Park store is the venue for Wine Club events. My readers will be aware of the d’Arenberg event, Langmeil and multiple winery events, where I have shared my experiences on this site (to find these search for Fassina).
What makes these events stand out from all the other tastings you come across? They are friendly, accessible and affordable events and there is usually the chance to ‘press the flesh’ – i.e. meet the winemaker or someone who works at the winery – and with an informal, relaxed and spacious setting, the customers can mingle and try wines at ease, and nibble on the delicious spread that is always provided.
Ross: “We have done some great regional nights – Adelaide Hills, Clare, Barossa, etc. We don’t pick all the obvious wineries, we include some smaller ones that people won’t have had access to before – for example, they may still be Barossa but with different flavours, from different aspects, or a different hillside, with different afternoon sun, morning sun, reflecting specific areas, etc. This way you get the nuances – like the Inkwell from McLaren Vale, which is a treat and stands out as being a bit unusual.”
The Fassina staff are encouraged to attend these events and they mingle. Ross tells me, “They don’t have to come but they are encouraged and they want to because they want to try the wines themselves and learn more about the wineries, meet the people involved. A positive culture in the company makes them feel involved and included, and this is better for customers too.”
Elise adds, “It’s also about empowering people. A lot of people want to know more about their wines but are too afraid to ask, especially if they haven’t grown up with a wine culture in their family, they may be afraid to say what they think about a wine or delve further into trying new wines. There is no wrong answer. It’s good to hear people talking about wines, just saying what they think.
“The more they talk about it they realise – this isn’t so hard to pick a wine I like. They start thinking about why they like a wine and then it is easier to find more that they like. What flavours do I like? Do you like cherry, raspberry, spicy, not spicy? That can translate into understanding more about what wines you like and why.
“We want them to come out of their shells.”
Fassina’s plans and opportunities
I asked Ross and Elise what they saw as the key opportunities for their business into the longer term.
Ross: “Opportunities are becoming limited because of the chains. People are becoming more price driven and this can affect their focus on interesting wines because people can lose that passion. Our philosophy is to introduce the passion back into the wine through our industry tastings, Wine Club, etc., finding new lines. We can compete on price, we have our specials and the chains have their specials. Occasionally they beat our specials and occasionally we beat their specials.
“To have the interest and introduce new wines we need tastings – winemakers need to come and promote their wines or advertise in the Fassina brochure. We need input from the wineries too to spread the word. Otherwise people have plenty of well-priced wines and a lot of choice.
“It is encouraging to see growing interest from consumers in terms of different varietals. This is supported through the Wine Club. We get some interesting and different stuff in our stores – Coles and Woolworths can’t corner the market on all of that. We can offer something different.”
Elise: “We want to keep people interested, give them titbits of info, and this is supported by our social media approach – we tie in the Twitter presence with our Facebook page and the mailouts. We are looking at upgrading the website this year too, and our online sales are increasing. We want to encourage as much feedback as information sending. It’s an easy way for everyone to communicate with us – if they like a wine and they write that on Facebook or Twitter then we know, and that’s important information for us. Not only does it give us valuable contact with the customer, but it puts a face on the company.”
Many thanks to Ross and Elise for their time and their ongoing devotion to keeping us SA wine drinkers happy!