The Problems Wine Clubs Face

I am a Gen X-er and I have a serious wine hobby and habit. We only drink the “good stuff” and rarely are able to find wines we like at our local stores. This is why we are members of about a dozen direct-with-the-winery wine clubs, including Plumpjack, Beringer, Hestan Vineyards, Groth, Paradigm, HALL, O’Brien Estate, The Terraces, Mi Sueno, and the Vintner’s Collective. I’ve signed up for clubs that have a 6 bottle per year requirement and others that have a 4 case per year requirement, and others that are basically allocation clubs. I’m even a member at Odette Estate Winery which CHARGES me a $250 annual fee just to be a member, but I have no issue with that because of the personal attention and service I always receive.

It’s really interesting to read the comments from the other side (re: people in the industry) versus strictly a consumer like me. I’ve joined and dropped clubs over the years, but there are several things that are VERY important to me when deciding which clubs to join and which clubs to eventually drop, and I thought I’d share those here.

1. Special Events

I live out of state so having lots of special events, pick up parties, and other social activities doesn’t matter much at all to me. If the club has an annual big deal release party, I will sometimes fly out to Napa to attend.

2. Customization

This is the single most important factor for me. I must be able to pick and choose which wines I want to have shipped to me. This means I will never get any junk (I’ve dropped more than a dozen clubs, including repeat offenders Grgich Hills, Cosentino, and Paraduxx, that wouldn’t customize and sent me so much inferior wine or varietals I don’t like — obviously bottles they couldn’t sell otherwise and had to dump them on their loyal club members — that I would literally dread when the box would arrive). Needless to say, those clubs were out quickly and I was always so upset that I haven’t purchased any of their wines in the future. Pay attention, wine club managers: don’t send junk (or wine that’s not ready to be released; we recently got a shipment Groth and their 2013 cabernet sauvignon was absolutely horrible. We’ll be dropping them shortly).

3. Complimentary Tastings

Discounts aren’t as important as complimentary tastings whenever I am in town and drop by the tasting room. Even better is if I can bring guests (at least 3 is best), I can gift a tasting to someone else traveling to the area, and if I can stop by without restrictions (I really hate the new trend of allowing only one complimentary tasting visit per year, quarter, or month). If I’m one of your best customers and spend several thousands of dollars on your wine every year, the least you can do is roll out the red carpet whenever I visit your winery in person. I’m lucky enough to fly out to Napa about 6 times a year, and I want to be able to stop by, taste whatever’s new, and take home some bottles.

4. Preferred Treatment

I’m a long time club member at HALL and they have the best customer service ever. Club members truly get the VIP treatment, there’s a special picnic area for members only, they send me a complimentary “anniversary bottle” of wine every year to celebrate my club membership, I’m often called by name, and the host knows my preferences the second I am seated. I know not all wineries are capable of this type of service, and I don’t expect them to always remember my name or my occupation or the type of pets I have, but it’s pretty easy to make notes so you can at least pretend that you remembered all of those details about my husband and me. Excellent hosting when I visit is really critical: one club, Silenus Winery in Napa, lost my business when they gave my party subpar treatment (I had brought along two friends and they did not put their best foot forward). Always put your best hosts on when a club member visits, it truly makes a difference!

5. Shipping Deals

I live out of state and this is a big deal for me. Whenever there’s a special shipping deal on a case or especially a half case, I usually take the bait and buy. Discounts on individual bottles of wine are also nice, but it sometimes feels like you’re cheapening your brand by giving HUGE discounts to club members. When I see a 30% savings for club members, I feel like a chump if I’m not in the club because I will be overpaying for your bottles. (I am not a member of any club that extends a greater than 15% discount). Also weather holds are a huge deal for me too, as I live in a very hot desert climate.

6. Overzealous Sales

Nothing turns me off from a brand more than a tasting room host that immediately and forcefully pushes the wine club. It’s offensive. I’m tasting wine to learn, relax, and hopefully enjoy. I have been to more wineries than I can count where the person behind the bar starts yapping about the club before they have even poured me one taste of wine, the worst offenders being Clos Pegase and Sequoia Grove. It’s salesmanship 101. If I pick up the brochure it also doesn’t automatically mean I’m interested in joining, I just want to read a bit more information about it. If I want more info, I’ll ask.

The most offensive sales pitch ever happened earlier this year at a Valentine’s Day wine club event at Beringer Vineyards. We paid $200 per person to attend this dinner, and the entire time all the staff did was try to sell us wine. At the pre-dinner cocktail reception, staff made at least half a dozen announcements about buying wine. When we were seated at the table for dinner, there was a price sheet on top of the menu, and staff walked around to physically hand us pens and order forms, hovering behind us asking if we wanted to order anything. I left fuming, and I am considering dropping that club very soon (after nearly 5 years of loyal membership). Don’t be pushy. Don’t shove the wine club down our throats.

So what made us sign up for all of these clubs? Some places were no-brainers as soon as we tried the wine and fell in love. I like the convenience of having wine shipped directly to my office. I like knowing that I have a long list of wineries where we can go taste for free whenever we are in town. I like that there are sometimes events where I can have an excuse to hop on a plane and go out to Napa for a weekend.

Most clubs are just a bonus because it’s wine I would’ve ended up purchasing at the winery anyway, but why not enjoy the added benefits that come along with membership? Joining wine clubs is great for us because our everyday bottles happen to be very nice wines; we never drink wine from the supermarket or a mass market wine shop anymore. We want those special bottles because life’s too short to drink mediocre wine.

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