It was a cool, balmy evening in the center of Istanbul’s Şişli district, and summer was on the verge of slipping into fall. If you were sitting down outside, you could enjoy the calm, gentle breeze, but you’d break out in sweat the minute you started walking, thanks to the thick layer of humidity.
We opened a bottle of shiraz on a small back patio where a smattering of trees and bushes offered respite from the dense, urban maze and the skyscrapers that dominated its horizon just a stone’s throw away. This 2015 shiraz was bottled in the northwest province of Tekirdağ in Thrace, one of Turkey’s top wine regions. At 50 TL a bottle, we expected a competent, drinkable red, only to be blown away at first sip by the wine’s lively personality.
It tasted like a gracefully worn black leather motorcycle jacket looks: bold, imposing, but with finesse and timeless character. The past five years have certainly treated it well. When searching for the name of the winery, nothing came up on the Internet. But this wasn’t surprising given that the elusive bottle was purchased from Gözde Tekel, a tiny wine shop and convenience store packed to the gills with an impressive selection of wines from all over Turkey that often can’t be found elsewhere in Istanbul.
Nestled in a historic building on the main avenue of the Kurtuluş neighborhood, Gözde Tekel was opened by Muhammet and Süleyman Çelebi in 2007. (Gözde is Turkish for favorite, while tekel refers to a small convenience store selling liquor and cigarettes.) The brothers, who are two of nine siblings (three brothers and six sisters) in a family hailing from the eastern province of Van, have become a beloved fixture of the area due to their excellent, rotating selection of wines, impeccable customer service and a clever business model that keeps prices 25-30 percent lower than other shops.
Such a model is crucial when exorbitant taxes on alcohol continue to rise twice a year while purchasing power declines amid a difficult year for the Turkish lira, which has lost nearly a quarter of its value against the dollar since the beginning of 2020. It’s a “pile ‘em high, sell ‘em cheap” oriented scheme where the Çelebi brothers find out what is in demand, buy bulk quantities and sell their bottles as affordably as they can.
“We don’t have to make 40 lira off a bottle of wine, if we make 10 lira that’s enough. Alcohol price hikes are unbelievably high. We make agreements with companies and try to melt away the hikes accordingly,” Muhammet said.
Crammed into the limited space is a wide variety of wines, mostly from Turkey, but with other selections from France, Chile and some Moldovan wines that are a great bang for the buck. Everything is available from very decent whites and rosés made by Sevilen for 40 TL to Urla Tempus, a heady blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, shiraz, petit verdot and cabernet franc produced in Izmir’s Urla district, which ranks among the best red wines in the country and sells for 175 TL at Gözde Tekel. Opposite the wine shelves is a cooler filled with beers, including local staples, imports and choices from five to six of Turkey’s own microbreweries.
They also stock hard-to-find and small batch wines made from domestic grape varieties, such as Edrine’s Merzifon karası, a unique wine with a stupefying tinge that is between light red and amber, and which boasts a perplexing, intriguing taste to match. Also on offer is Diren’s karaoğlan, another Turkish grape that we had never tried before, and an excellent bottle of red wine at 45 TL. Early in the summer, we slowly sipped a tantalizing sangiovese rosé, made by Antioche, a winery in the southern province of Hatay. The wine’s name was “Summer Vibes” and its crisp, luscious flavor nearly took us back to simpler times when our vacation worries were limited to sunburns and hangovers rather than pandemics.
For his part, though Muhammet never had a drink before entering the wine business, nowadays his favorite grape is the celebrated Turkish öküzgözü and he enjoys a nice blush. After wine, his poison of choice is rakı, Turkey’s national spirit.
Muhammet and Süleyman pay close attention to their customer’s requests, and when they can’t find something locally, they hit the road. This way, by participating in tastings and meeting with different vineyards, the brothers have developed special relationships with the country’s winemakers and a deep knowledge of their wines. By prioritizing customer service in a competitive sector that is nevertheless filled with forgettable shops run by people with scant wine knowledge, the Çelebis have managed to expand their business, opening a second Gözde Tekel nearby in Osmanbey, which is run by their brother Ömer.
The brothers are planning to open a third location in Kurtuluş, though rather than a standard convenience store, it will be an expansive and chic shop with more of an elegant wine house vibe – think wooden shelves and barrels rather than neon lights and stacks of chewing gum and cigarettes. The new store will be a welcome and necessary addition to the neighborhood, as Gözde Tekel can only fit so many rows of wine bottles on the shelves, and customers are constantly shuffling in and out of the small space.
“When they ask me what I would recommend, they do so without the hesitation in their mind that I am trying to sell them something that isn’t selling.”
“When customers come here they can feel comfortable like they are in their own store. When they ask me what I would recommend, they do so without the hesitation in their mind that I am trying to sell them something that isn’t selling. You can be an esnaf (small business owner) but winning the trust of people is much better than just being an esnaf,” Muhammet said.
Thirty-three-year-old Muhammet came from Van to Istanbul as a youngster in the late 90s, showing up to the tiny bus station in his town without any money for a ticket. In exchange for the ride, Muhammet agreed to serve as the muavin (chauffeur’s assistant), handing out tea, coffee, snacks and wet wipes to passengers during the 26-hour journey.
He arrived at Istanbul’s mammoth bus terminal not knowing how to get in touch with his brother, who was living in the city at the time, as no one had cell phones at the time. Eventually he connected with his relatives, who were angry that he came without telling them and wanted to send him back, although they eventually allowed him to stay. Muhammet found his first job at a machine shop in Şişhane, a neighborhood in the central district of Beyoğlu. He worked there for a year, then got a job at a cosmetics store just a few doors down from Gözde Tekel; after a decade-long stint in cosmetics, his former boss, whom Muhammet credits with teaching him how to become an esnaf, rented out the storefront to the brothers so that they could forge their own way.
The early years, when the shop was a standard tekel, were rough: Muhammet recalls making the mistake of buying a gargantuan supply of chewing gum that they still couldn’t completely sell three years later, and having to take on second jobs, at one point closing the shop and then driving all night on no sleep to bring tourists to the central Anatolian city of Konya. He credits this difficult period as being instrumental in learning how to become successful. Part of that involved shifting their focus to wine, expanding nearly the entire left wall of the shop to hold wine bottles within the past couple of years.
There are a handful of solid wine shops in Istanbul, some with much larger selections than Gözde, but the brothers have focused first and foremost on building bonds with their customers. “During the summer, women in particular leave their keys with us so that we can water their plants. This is a great honor for us,” Muhammet said, adding that the majority of their customers are women.
“God bless the Armenian community here, we are here in part because of them, they have always loved us and trusted us,” Muhammet said. Kurtuluş is home to one of the largest Armenian populations in Istanbul, a quarter that remains as cosmopolitan as it is neighborly.
“We have to continually renew ourselves, otherwise we’ll stay in the same place, and we could not be gözde like our name. Our most important job is customer satisfaction,” he added.
Editor’s note: Inspired by our Wine Clubs in Tbilisi, Lisbon and Athens and the grape harvest season, we have asked our correspondents to share the stories of winemakers and wine shops that are making a splash in their city for our Wine Week 2020.
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