(Most) winery clubs are for suckers
Winery clubs (such as Mazocco or Coppola) are a brilliant marketing invention. They are a way to seize the buzzed moment in their tasting room to forge a deeper relationship with the customer, and sell a lot more wine at a much higher profit margin than they can through their distributors.
To this, I say: “Great for the wineries, but what’s in it for me?” When I do the math, and consider my usual consumption patterns, the answer is usually: not so much.
Here’s my story: In 2002, I signed up for 4 clubs (=12 ish bottles per month) on a single trip to the Central Coast. My thinking was simple: we know we love these wines, so why not put the orders on autopilot and let them come to us?
Months #1 and 2 were awesome. We drank half, and happily put away the rest for later. But by month 6, I was starting to dread the next shipment, because we started drinking less of these 4 wineries, so they became increasingly dominant in our cellar. At that point, I realized two things: 1) we rarely drink a case of any producer’s wine in a given year, and 2) the cost of convenience (higher-priced wine, plus shipping) is about 20-35% higher than I would pay if I was buying that bottle at will from my favorite local retailers.
My winery club ‘dealbreaker’ came one September afternoon about 7 years ago when we received 6 bottles from a famous Central Coast winery, 4 of which which were obviously cooked (wine oozing out the cork due to overheating). The winery protested, and told me they (nor UPS) were not liable for the condition of the wine that arrived to my doorstep. Huh?
So that was it. Within 7 months, I fell completely off the winery club wagon and never got back on. I have not since heard of one winery club that was worth signing up for...but I realize that I may be a different kind of consumer...I do really well just rooting around SF shops in my spare time, and lean on about 6 great wine professionals to be my 'club' managers.
Having said my peace about winery clubs, I am curious: is your experience about the same, or have you found some wineries out there that are doing clubs right? (Right = you get tremendous value out of the membership, worth the extra overall cost)?
I have been down this road a lot over 15 years...originally sharing some of your experiences but have now found that selective use of wine clubs can be both a good value and a way to taste things not readily available. What I look for is:
a "real" discount versus retail (check retail prices at "winesearcher.com") ; options on quantities (I too do not want a case of one label all at once unless it is of mixed varietals); low cost shipping and exclusive opportunities for low volume wines and winery events. With this mix I create great value and get some really good finds.
Agree with the OP that winery-based clubs get old fast and deliver less value over time. Instead, I've joined wine clubs from very selective wine retailers who select hard to find wine matched to your exact price and pallet. You call the flavor profile and price range. They select for you.
ACME in St Helena. It's "under the radar" club gets you access to premier producers who make only 50-250 cases per year. Impossible to find these wines in big stores or outside of CA.
750 Wines, also in St Helena. Similar to ACME: edited, selective with excellent relationships with top producers in the $35-150 range per bottle. My personal club focuses on reds $35-60.
Backroom Wines in downtown Napa. Strong in California stuff but excellent as well in European selections. My personal club covers European whites from $15-50.
D&M, San Francisco. My French Champagne club focused on small grower/producer (RM) Champagnes. Delicious and reasonably priced. No Veuve, Moët, etc in this group. I receive 2-3 bottles each quarter. $100-130 per shipment.
Because of their variety and customization to my tastes and budget, I've stayed with these clubs for years and dropped all winery-based clubs.
Like many, I can't really justify getting a whole case a year from just one producer, since I like to drink a variety of different wines. However, I've been part of a couple "low-commitment" wine clubs that don't have as many shipments.
One is a very small producer (Woodside Vineyards) in the Santa Cruz mountains that I haven't seen in retail (except for one of their cabs that they sell at the Mountain View BevMo only). Their prices are reasonable (especially after the 20% discount) and I only get 4 shipments of 2 bottles each a year (8 total).
The other is the Ridge Monte Bello club, which is just one shipment of 2 bottles a year, and the price is much lower than what you can find at retail stores for Monte Bello. I've been tempted to join Ridge's ATP program which has a lot of single-vineyard wines that you can't buy elsewhere (not even at their winery in some cases)...but it's just too much money and too many wines for me.
I will second the notion of joining clubs if you don't have access to the wines in your home state. I live in Minnesota, and I am (so far) enjoy getting my club shipments of wine that I cannot buy locally.
I usually just get the smallest membership so I am not drowning in certain types of wine, then I drop the clubs that don't perform. It doesn't break the budget this way, and it is a nice break from my local purchases.
I'll give one good example. I visited Rideau in Central Coast and they had an introductory promotion if you join the club you get 50% off of full cases. I loved their syrah rose and the duplantier cuvee blend, so I signed up for the smallest club (three bottles) and got both selections for half price. Now I have a nice $7 rose for this summer and another of their top wines for half price too.
You can only buy these wines directly from the winery, but you can purchase them online without a membership and still get a 20% case discount, but the 50% discount was worth it alone.
If I don't like how they select the club wines, then I will just quit after a year and enjoy the nice discount.
Some good reasons for joining a "wine club." For me, availabilities, or lack thereof, will be a strong motivator for me.
In general terms, I will only go with wineries, that do not have broad distribution to AZ. Though we are "next door" to Cal., we are a non-reciprocal ship state, and our distribution network is very limited to just the "usual suspects."
With clubs, like Jos. Phelps, I keep the membership to get the many great wines, that do not make their way here, like the Viognier, and Marsanne. I can buy my Insignia for about the same (or even better) price, but the others just never make it here - except for my shipments.
Other than on initial purchases and similar, there is usually not a monetary incentive involved.
Good luck, and enjoy,
When I started this sickness I belonged to 3-4 clubs. Now I am just down to one, a very low key one run by Sam in the Red Barn on Warden Road above Dundee. The clubs got me experienced in what good and not so good Oregon Pinot Noir was all about. I have evolved beyond the clubs and have spend enough time in Dundee and surrounds to meet winemakers and develop my own local sourcing. I am always however looking for that next great bottle!
I am sorry to hear of your experiences. I belong to several wineries' clubs, but mainly to get wines that are not available to me in AZ. Of these, I have only dropped one, and will soon drop another, unless they will ship my wines to me, in AZ. I have tired of having them shipped to my locker in Napa, paying for the receiving, storage, and then a major cost to finally ship to me, when the weather here is good. While the do offer some great wines, and several that have never seen distribution in AZ, it is getting to be too expensive. I will just pick up a couple of cases, when I am in Napa, and drive back with them.
The other "clubs" are worth my effort, as they provide me with wines that I cannot get here, or wines that are highly allocated, and for which I must pay nearly restaurant prices here. Also, I can get more than 2 btls. of each of these - about what I find at retail.
As for damaged wines, I have sent about 12 btls. back, or reported them. There has never been an issue. One club wanted to send wines to AZ every quarter, and as soon as they made their intentions evident, I severed ties. All of the rest will hold shipments, until the weather is much better - Nov. thru Mar. Otherwise, there is no way that I can allow wines to be shipped to me, even if it's overnight and I am waiting to sign.
From most of my clubs, I look very forward to receiving the wines. One does a lot of "Old World" varietals, that are not common in the US. Not only are most of these great examples, but are examples that I could never, otherwise get, unless I drove to the Santa Cruz Mountains.
I recently did an interview on "wine clubs" for a magazine, and shared some of my motivations. Mostly, it's for the specific wines.
Again, sorry that things did not work out for you.
BTW - one "club" that I belong to, ships my Holiday orders to my friends. One shipment was delivered in CO in a blizzard. The recipient called about some "crystals" in the Chard. The owner explained what these were, and then shipped replacements for everything, explaining that the wines were safe to drink and were probably not damaged, but he wanted them to have examples of the wine, without tartaric precipitation. In the end, my recipient got 4 magnums of the Reserve Chard, due to the diligence of the owner.
I belonged to a couple of winery clubs back before I really knew enough about wine to understand the complete landscape. After a few years I came to realize that there are four valid reasons for belonging to one:
1. You live somewhere that lacks general retail availability of the kinds of wine you like.
2. You really like the wines from a particular winery, but their production is so small that finding them at retail is difficult to impossible most of the time.
3. You really like the wines of a particular winery and they do not release some of their offerings to retail at all.
4. The winery does not sell ANY of their wine into retail channels. They're lucky enough to sell all of their production to allocation list members. If you get on the list, that's really the only way you'll be able to buy anything they produce at a reasonable price.
All that said.................. In many parts of the country there is enough availability of great, small-production wines to make it more fun to explore and experiment through your local wine retailers. If you have real winery favorites, a combination of club/allocation and retail exploration would be my recommendation. Just know that clubs and allocation lists often charge more than you'll pay at some retailers, so do your homework or just chalk it up to loving wine.
Right now I'm on only one list: Kosta-Browne. Their wines are almost impossible to buy at retail here and I love them. Unfortunately they're rather pricey, so I don't buy very much.
I still belong to Talley. They're hard to get and I pass through Arroyo Grande at least once a year so I can stock up on wines at a 20 percent discount.
I joined Garretson, though. Wow, that turned out to be a bad idea. Also, I've got Garretson sprinkled in threads all over Chowhound on wineries I'd recommend.
Someone like Navarro would be worth joining if they had a wine club because their wines are so hard to get and the prices are fair. You have to buy direct.
I'd join Ridge except they ship too much wine for me.
Also there's not much Oregon wine sold where I live so I've eyed some of the Oregon wineries.
Yes. Navarro makes some nice wines and claims they don't sell to retail at all. I HAVE seen their wine at one retailer here in OC (CA) but the Navarro people said their owner has known the store's owner for 35 years...........so..........things happen.
The Navarro online store has samplers that change, so it's sortof like a club except you have to remember to go online and buy. If you like to think you're getting special pricing as a club member, though, this isn't your thing. Just good wine!
Hi Time in Costa Mesa. Their online store is not showing any Navarro right now, but I've seen it there in past years. I'd bet they sell whatever they get rather quickly, if they still get it. Their staff is usually very helpful, so just call and ask for the California person.
All I know is that when I owned my own wine shop I called Navarro to ask if I could buy from them, I was told they don't sell to retail. I asked how it was that I'd seen their wines at Hi Time and was told that the Navarro owners had been selling Hi Time for 35 years and they were the only account anywhere around here.
I do not completely agree. If the wine club is narrowly focused on a single
varietal (or nearly so) and if you feel it represents the best quality at its
price point, a wine club can be a good deal. I joined the Moshin Pinot noir
only club a few years ago after deciding I enjoyed best its style of pinot
in the sub $40 price range (it is always easy to find great pinots
at any price). I never received a pinot I disliked from the club. Same thing
with the Vino Noceto club in the Sierra Foothills which is almost 100% Sangiovese.
The limited releases of these 2 wineries cannot be found in wine stores.
One option which is even better than wine clubs is when wineries have a mailing
list and offer a 20% discount for wines ordered before the release date.
This allows cherrypicking the list and ordering only the wines that one finds
In my experience, the top wines from small wineries can only be found either
at the winery itself, or by joining their club. The key is to stay disciplined
and resist the urge to join on the spur of the moment.
I will speak in favor of wine clubs generally. With a winery for which you generally like the wines, it can be a good way to get bottles that may be hard to obtain in your area. That's not so much an issue some place like SF for California wines, but if you live elsewhere, having a winery ship to you can get you bottles not otherwise available in your area. In my state, wine prices are heavily regulated, so I don't really get any price savings at a store, whether out of state or in state wines. I admit to being a Coppola member for more than 10 years (the wine club started 11 years ago, I believe). As the winery has grown, we have been less satisfied generally with the wines we receive, and we have talked about dropping out, but we haven't. On our 10 year anniversary, they sent us a wine fridge as a gift! (I am a sucker for such things). Some of the bottles I really love. We belong to another Cal winery club and are able to obtain bottles of yearly releases that sell out or are only sold at the winery. for both clubs, we get a 20% discount off the list price. We wouldn't do better through wine stores here.
we also belong to an Oregon pinot club. We get pinots that we have not seen available for sale in our area, and they are as advertised--small local wineries, only pinots. We haven't loved every bottle of wine, but we like the club. Obviously, we have to have faith in the guy that picks the wine each month.
we have belonged to other clubs as well that suited as for a period of time and then we dropped out when they stopped working for us. all of our current clubs stop shipping when it's hot, and we have not had a bad shipment in 10 years of belonging to several different clubs.
That is not true in all cases. Sometimes the benefits of the wine club include member-only events at the winery, in which case you would miss those events living out of state.
As others have said, you're not going to save much (if any) money by being in the wine club. so you have to look at what other benefits you might get as a member.
re: Bryan Gros
To me, the main benefit of a wine club is having access to small production wines. Many of these wines you will never find at retail, and many are very low in production. The other main benefit to me is the discounts for wine club members. But even with all of that said, I am down to my last wine club these days, as we have dropped all of the rest.
Now mailing lists, that is a while other story, and we're on well over 100 mailing lists...but obviously don't buy from them all. -mJ
I have also pared the memberships down, to but a few, and those are for wines that will never make their way into AZ, where I live. I care less about prices, and more about availabilities of wines, that I cannot get elsewhere, like Turley, Biale, Steven-Walker Trust and Lambert Bridge. All of the rest have gone by the way-side, at least for me.
This is interesting - I appreciate this discussion. I'd been thinking of joining a wine club and was searching for one that offered wines that intrigued me (of course), including hard-to-find or limited releases, as well as fun social events (I take a few weekend trips per year to Northern CA wine country). Ideally it'd be a winery whose business practices I admired as well as one I enjoyed spending time at. Perhaps too tall of an order, but I've been looking.
This thread is making me think twice about the whole idea - but I'm appreciating hearing about both positive and negative club experiences.
Well done. I hope people read this and learn they are not a good deal and you are right that they are buzzed and don't know what is going on.
I would also add the silly wine of the month clubs into this discussion. They prey on the beginners and of course ship during all months.
because i live about 6 minutes from LA Wine Company, and about 14 minutes from at least 6 additional solid wine stores, i've never been tempted to join a club.
if i lived in a more restrictive state, or in a more rural area, maybe there would be some advantage.
also, price, to me, is not an inconsequential factor,
thus paying for shipping is something i try to avoid.
i'd rather buy five bottles of an extremely good wine that doesn't need to be shipped than one bottle of an earth-shattering vintage with the attendant costs and risks of shipping.
Here is my take:
1. Most wine clubs are overpriced.
2. If the wine is available through retail outlets, it will almost always be less expensive
than if purchased through a club.
3. If you really love the wines of a certain vineyard and it is not available in your area, a
club may be your only option.
4. There are a few vineyard/wineries that do offer reasonable buying options and
excellent customer service. They offer the wines at close to or below retail and
charge a fair rate for shipping.
That being said, I am a member of one wine club (winery direct ship) and am pleased with the cost and wines.