a practical theory of wine clubs

by Stevie on September 30, 2009

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I’m thinking about wine clubs lately because I just received my September shipment from Stryker Sonoma the other day. They produce several kinds of zinfandel which I really like. They’ve got a cool tasting room too, which makes any visit to Alexander Valley a treat. Next time I go, I’m going to write about it on weirdcombos. But today it’s all about wine clubs, mailing lists and waiting lists. I’ve been in a lot of wine clubs though I’ve recently cut the number down to around two, depending on how you count.

Stryker Sonoma Sept 2009 club shipment

Stryker Sonoma Sept 2009 club shipment

When I first was getting into wine, my parents gave us a year membership in a sort of generic wine club that offered wines throughout the world. We received two bottles a month of mostly reds. It was fun, gave us the chance to try wines from all over the place, and since it was a gift, didn’t cost us anything but the time we spent drinking and critiquing the bottlings. The next year, I asked them to sign us up for an Italian club. That one was more expensive so arrived bi-monthly. Each shipment brought three exciting bottles of red Italian wine to our door. The following year we tried French. Unfortunately the wines were poor quality in that club. However, they intrigued us about French wine and helped me get over my mental block about French wine labels and nomenclature. I really credit that club with launching my obsession for French wine. Once I signed Hegui up for an Australian wine club. They were a bit disorganized, so it fizzled out after a few shipments, but the wines were interesting. I also briefly tried the Italian club offered by K and L but quit when I decided that I knew enough already and didn’t like the ones that they were picking.

So if there’s any take-home message here, I’d say that one valuable reason for joining a wine club, particularly of the national, regional or international kind, would be to learn more about a variety of wines over a fairly short time. The main advantages are that you’d try different things and wouldn’t have to pick them on your own when you don’t yet know that much. Then you can figure out what you like and dislike, which will help you develop your own connoisseurship. Now that I’m a bit more confident about wine, I skip these regional clubs. However, if I ever stumble across a good sake club, I might consider joining that for a while.

The next kind of wine club that I’ll cover is the type offered by specific vineyards or wineries. Usually Hegui and I will go wine tasting at these places and become members on the spot. We’ve been in a few of them so far. Right now, we’re members of Stryker Sonoma and Adelaida. I’ve joined and later quit Sausal, Schramsberg, Spring Mountain, Calcareous and Bonny Doon. For me, the main advantage these days for being in a wine club is that they will send wines that you cannot find on your own. Sometimes wine clubs will offer you little incentives like discounts on the wines, small gifts (Spring Mountain used to send us a bottle of the olive oil that they produce on their property each year), free shipping (Adelaida) and free tastings and members-only events at the wineries. As you can tell, I’ve quit quite a few of them. Usually that’s because I started to think that they were getting too expensive for my wine budget (Schramsberg and Spring Mountain), Hegui or I decided after more tasting that we weren’t big fans after all (Hegui disliked Calcareous and we both rejected Bonny Doon), or I’ve come to learn that I can find the same wines in San Francisco at my local wine shops, often for less (Sausal). So far I’m holding onto Adelaida and Stryker Sonoma because we like their wines and I can’t find them here. This might be especially relevant if you live in other parts of the country far from wineries that you admire.

One problem that people get into with wine clubs is quitting them when the time is right for you. I’ve a friend in about ten or twelve clubs. She doesn’t like all of the wineries anymore because her tastes have changed, but she’s reluctant to quit them. I say don’t be shy! These places are businesses, not your friends or relatives. If you don’t like their products, you should vote with your money. Quit boldly!

A lesser issue that occasionally comes up is that you can sometimes be made to feel pressured to join a wine club that you’re not that excited about. That happened to us once at Jordan in Sonoma County. They offer an expensive but really interesting tour and tasting. At the end, I felt that they were a bit hard sell on purchasing wines and joining the club. Jordan wines were way over our budget at the time. If you’re ever in a similar situation, do what we did and politely but firmly say “no.”

Then there are those wineries that are such highly sought after small producers that they take on a kind of cult status. A famous example of this is Screaming Eagle in Napa, though there are many many more. These places will sometimes offer waiting lists to join. I’ve been on the wait list for Saxum in Paso Robles for well over a year. Just this week I got an e-mail from them telling me that unfortunately I still must wait. I’ve had better luck with Williams Selyem Winery in Sonoma County. They’re famous for pinot noir. I waited a mere fifteen months or so on their list before I was allowed to join. Unlike “traditional” wine clubs, these folks have rankings of club members. They’re based upon how long you’ve been a member and how much you buy. The ranks determine what wines they’ll let you order and how much of them. It’s all a bit confusing. At any rate, I didn’t order anything last spring but when they offered to let me buy last month, I got several pinots and asked to be put on a waiting list for two kinds of zinfandel. We go there Halloween weekend to pick up the wines, so more to come! I’ve seen Williams Selyem wines in town but it feels sexy to be on this exclusive mailing list, and they’re a bit less expensive directly from the winery.

The last way to connect with a winery is through mailing lists. You’re not really in a wine club but get informed about activities, promotions and you can always order wine if you want without further commitment. We’re on the mailing lists of most of the wineries that we joined and quit as well as several others. Yesterday I signed up for the e-mail list of Eric Kent after I became inspired by their label on a bottle of syrah. (I know labels are not a reason to join a wine club, but it might be fun to tour the place someday). I get the large, rather formal announcement from Flowers semi-annually, though have yet to order their wines, mainly because of cost. This week I also got the Mayacamas newsletter.

If you’re really just shopping for wine that you like and happen to be with others that are members of a club from a winery you enjoy, you can have your friend use their membership to get you a discount. That’s what we did last time at Trentadue. This way, you get a benefit and your friend has the responsibilities inherent in any club. Great deal for you!

Join wisely, have fun and cheers!

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Holly Z October 1, 2009 at 5:58 am

Great article! I have fallen into almost all of these traps at one point or another…most often joining and sticking to a club that I just can’t afford. However, I always look forward to my shipments and having such great wine at my finger tips at all times has been I perk that Eric & I constantly (except for recently) enjoy. I have attended many of Lambert’s members only events and often use these opportunities to entertain out of town guests.
Having said all of that, you have definitely inspired me to weed through the clubs to which I belong and decide which of those I am truly enjoying.
Keep up the great work!!!

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