What the Hell is a Wine Club? Final Post.

This is my final post on my wine club series. In my first post I illustrated the difference between retail and DTC clubs. In post 2 I illustrated the genesis of why wine clubs even exist. In this post I will hypothesize the future of wine clubs in the rapidly changing world of hand-crafted adult beverages and end this series with my 7 tips on choosing a wine club.

Craft Beer is Here!

Santa Rosa Brews
Where wine country meets beer city

As I’ve mentioned before I live in Sonoma County. A county once best known as a premium wine producer. That was until 2 years ago when my home town of Santa Rosa was named Microbrew Capital of the US. My wife and I own a home downtown within a mile of the famed Russian River Brewing Co. We have an Airbnb which is often booked up 20+ days a month. You would think that is because I offer wine tours and advice to my guests, but you would be wrong. Nearly half of our guests are beer tourists and most are a blend of beer and wine, as well as cider and spirits.

Craft brewing has swept the nation. I visit Bend, OR every year where brew pubs outnumber coffee shops. In my birth town of Milwaukee, WI, once dominated by Miller Brewing, craft breweries are popping up everywhere. In fact, it is arguably hard to find a town in the US that doesn’t have one. People are excited to try each new limited release and pay upwards of $10/pint! Stand outside RRBC at 11a on Sunday morning you will see scores of beer tourists and locals walking out with their case of Pliny the Elder. Come back in February and you’ll see them lined up around the block for week to get their 2 pints of Pliny the Younger. It’s a phenomenon that has swept the nation. People have come to realize that small batch beer…well, tastes better.

Line at RRBC
Published by the Press Democrat

What’s Good for Beer is Good for Wine, Right?

As I discuss in my Tale of Two Counties series, quality small batch wine has been around here in California since before the 1960s. One would think recent rise in trends like craft breweries and farm-to-table food can only benefit the wine industry. Well, not quite. There is one glaring advantage why small batch beer, cider, spirits, and even food, have over wine…they can be made ANYWHERE. As I’ve said 1,000 times quality wine comes from vineyards and quality vineyards can’t thrive just anywhere. Plus, the faster you can get those grapes from vine to fermentation, the better your chances of a quality product. The same is not true of grains, hops, or apples.

Pubs Not Clubs

A beer made in Lincoln, Nebraska has the same potential quality as a beer made here in Santa Rosa. For that reason, microbrews focus solely their local market where they can depend on local brew pubs and restaurants for distribution. As breweries increase they are facing the same limited distribution issue as wine. The days of starting a Lagunitas Brewing Company story are fast closing, so new establishments don’t even try. Stay small, local, and thrive is the new model. Subsequently, new wineries are adopting the same model–which is great…if you live here. Not so much if you live in Lincoln. Although I’ve never been there, I’m reasonable certain I could find a good local brew. However, I am also certain I could not find a local wine of the same caliber as I can here in Santa Rosa. Sure, I would likely find a good quality small batch wine from CA, OR, WA, etc… in a local shop or restaurant, but as I discussed in my last post over time that is likely to change. The wine industry is rapidly bifurcating into local small batch vs. mass produced distribution–with very little in between. It’s the same for beer, but with less consequences depending on where you live.

Keep the Club Alive

That is why winery wine clubs are so important. Unfortunately, many of wineries have turned their clubs into overly aggressive sales programs. For some wineries it’s out of greed, for others it’s a desperate act of survival. Don’t get me wrong, even the best wineries have to be clever in the face of competition, but there is a point of diminishing returns. As a club salesman, I have witnessed it first hand. Today I work as a software developer in wine marketing where I hope to help evolve the club system into something more friendly and accessible to consumers. My wish is some day we can eliminate the need for aggressive tasting room sales tactics. I believe if we don’t throttle this, eventually clubs will turn consumers away from wine rather than towards it.

For now I can at least recommend to wine lovers my 7 tips on how to pick a good wine club:

  1. Beware of the conglomerates: I want to be clear not to steer you away from conglomerate owned wineries. There are honest business models out there where subsidiaries are producing quality small batch wines. Many allow you to enjoy your discounts at their sister wineries, which is a big benefit. Simply do your research before signing up. For instance, when the salesman tells you, “You can’t find this in any stores,” casually pull out your phone and look it up. It’s not that they’re lying to you, just more likely they don’t know what happens in the boardroom. Another easy trick is look for a barcode sku on the label. All distributed wines require one, while DTC wines do not. Never join a club where any of the wines may be distributed. You’re better off joining a club at your local wine shop.
  2. What’s their story? The genesis of a winery tells a lot about what goes into making the product. There are lots of very small wineries with stories like, “John Doe made a ton of money as a hedge fund investor. He learned a lot about wine on his (multiple) trips to France. So, 3 years ago he and his wife thought, ‘Why not?’ and here we are. His wife now runs the winery. This bottle is named after his daughter.” At this point, I usually like to ask questions like, “Is his wife on the property right now?” “Do they make the wine?” “Do they live here full time?” I think you know what the answers are. These are what we call “lifestyle” vintners. To them, winemaking is a tax-deductible hobby…not a passion. Steer clear.
  3. Vineyard relationships: Good wine starts with great vineyards. Great vineyards are hard to find and even harder to maintain. Wineries that establish long-term contracts with vineyards usually produce quality wines from them year-over-year. This is important if you plan to be a long-term member. Wineries that own vineyards are even better, because they have full control and generally have more cash to put towards winemaking. If a winery commonly produces wine from different vineyards every year, unless the winemaker really knows his craft, there is a likelihood consistency will suffer.
  4. Ecology matters: Wine is an agricultural product. It is essentially farming. Anyone who takes it seriously cares about the land and community it comes from. Vineyard sustainability, dry farming, climate change, watershed preservation, local wild life, community and farm worker support are all topics of conversation you should be hearing and having at the winery. Bad behavior is well documented. Know who the good guys are.
  5. Buy wine, not trophies: Wines costing over $100/bottle are basically like printing money. Despite all the accolades you might hear about them, there is nothing in the vineyard or cellar that can justify that price other than demand–and demand is usually driven by hype, not quality. Unless you are looking to impress the likes of Robert Parker with your wine cellar, focus on wines you can taste, afford, and enjoy every day. Besides, nobody likes a snob.
  6. Be wary of scarcity: Small batch wines are by nature limited in quantity. However, there are wineries that take advantage of scarcity as a business model. There are famous examples called cult wines, which are almost impossible to come by and often run in excess of $500/bottle. This can be an expensive and frustrating game to play where wines are often doled out in what’s called “allocation”. For every day wine drinkers the experience can sometimes feel indignant and humiliating. There are good allocation models where access is guaranteed with some benefits, but I consider these programs different than a traditional wine club. They are strictly about the wine.
  7. Membership should have privileges: Most wine clubs come with benefits. Discounts should be at the top of the list, but many offer free or discounted events, tours, winemaker dinners, merchandise, etc.. For those of us who love the winery “experience” as much as the wine, these perks are important. As a member you are virtually a stock holder in their business. A good winery should always make you feel like a VIP.

That’s it! Hopefully, now you know what the hell a wine club is and whether it’s something you want to get into to. Feel free to reach out to me with questions and comments on this often controversial topic.