Making Sense of Wine Clubs

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First published in the Columbia River Reader

Most wineries these days have wine clubs and they can be fun and beneficial if you know how they work. If you are thinking about joining a wine club maybe these tips will help you get the most out of your membership. Make sure you join for the right reasons or you could be looking for ways to get out sooner than later The most common mistake goes something like this, you have an amazing experience in wine country at a venue that is both magical and memorable. You get out of town, meet the nicest people in the world, you talk with the winemaker, and you connect with your best friend, the wine was great and the story compelling. Voila! You’re a member! The problem starts when you get home and open one of the bottles that tasted so good at the winery, only to be disappointed when you pull the cork at home, in familiar surroundings and without the vineyard in your backyard!
Let’s talk about the good and bad things about wine club membership. Wine membership is a great way to support the wineries you love. It gives the winery a consistent cash flow and you get the wine you love delivered to your door on a regular basis. If you join high profile wine clubs, let’s say Opus One in Napa Valley, you get bragging rights in wine club conversations with friends, but your going to pay a fortune. The most compelling argument for joining a wine club for me is getting bottles of wine that are not available near me or that are limited in release, or better yet, only available to wine club members.
Discounts are an expected feature of wine clubs and can be significant, but they are probably the poorest reason for joining. Unless it is a winery near you where you can get the discount on additional purchases, you don’t get full value of your membership. It is common for wineries to give anyone a 15% discount on case purchases, if you ask for it; so unless the discounts are higher than that, this benefit is probably available to anyone.
What about wine club pick-up parties and member-only events? These can be fun social events where you can learn more about wine and connect with a wine community, but be aware, if you have to drive very far to attend, you may be forfeiting any discounts on wine for travel expenses. Most wine club members don’t ever attend the events unless they live close to the winery, so that Napa Valley cab that tasted so good, and the gala event that you were sure you would attend, once home, seems so far away. When joining a club, realize that you may have a conflict with event dates even if they are in your own area, thus making this benefit null.
Tasting fees at wineries are getting expensive, so tasting fee waivers for wine members and guests can be a good benefit, but only if you can take advantage of it. A typical tasting of five wines at 1 oz each amounts to a glass of wine, so this can be a nice way to introduce your friends to your favorite wine. But how often will you visit the winery? Nancy and I rarely use this benefit in the club we belong to.
The attrition rate of wine clubs is high. The average time people spend in a wine club is about two years. The biggest reason people quit is lack of customer service and winery engagement with their customers. Consumers can tell when a winery is just using the wine club to dispose of excess wine or to increase revenues only and not provide added value to the customer. When you select a wine club to join, make sure you will get the wines you love. If you like the red wine, but not the whites, make sure you can get what you want as a member, otherwise you may get that merlot that wasn’t particularly good. You may have to ask because usually it is not advertised as an option. Be sure to read the fine print for club membership. It is customary to commit to at least two cycles of shipments or about a year before you can get out. This is reasonable, but watch out for the process for getting out. Some clubs require that you give written notice at least 30 days before the next pick up or shipping date. I don’t like this because most of us are unaware when the next shipment is due and when we decide to quit, we want to be able to do it at anytime with a simple phone call or email. Wineries want to keep you on their list, so they put restrictions on leaving. Look for liberal get-out policies, because everyone wants to change it up from time to time, so it should be easy. The challenge for wineries is to please their customers so much that they will stick around awhile.

There really isn’t much difference in the benefits offered by most wine clubs. They seem pretty consistent with discounts, club-only events, shipping (sometimes free), waived tasting fees for members and guests, exclusive wines for members only, and invitations to participate in special events like wine excursions and winemaker dinners. Keep in mind that all of these ‘benefits’ are only good if you take advantage of them. Also keep in mind that wine clubs help wineries stay in business by providing them opportunities to sell wine. So you really aren’t getting anything free. But you are helping your favorite winery continue to make great wine. This is the best reason to join a club.
My advice is to avoid getting starry eyed over all the savings you’re going to get. You may come home from wine country somewhere in the world and realize you spent too much money for something that you could have picked up at More Wine for a lot less. The exception to this ,of course, is wine that is not exported or is only available to you from the winery.

So support your favorite winery by joining their wine club and take advantage of the benefits often. Live in the present and pay for the experience. Don’t join clubs because of the benefits; join because the wine is amazing. Get out of clubs that are not exciting or not giving you pleasure.

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