You Can Find Me In the Club...

50 Cent is, in some people's eyes, an icon. He was shot a bunch of times and lived through it, he also made a song out of the classic nursery rhyme "you can find me in the club, rub a dub dub, three men in the tub." But this post has nothing to do with him, except the title. The last thing I want is to get into a "beef" with 50 Cent. The guy has massive pectorals and guns, and I don't have either. While classic hip hop beefs have only augmented an emcee's career (see Nas, Jay Z, Kool Moe Dee, and Big Daddy Kane) others have ended in tragedy. The most compelling and tragic ending being that between Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G. Basically I wrote this post to begin a discussion about wine clubs, and now here I am going down a tangent that could get me shot. On to wine clubs, then.

Wine clubs serve a variety of purposes for wineries and winemakers. Neil Cooper of Cooper Wine Company gave me the skinny on what wine club members mean to him. For one; they provide a stability in sales. Wine clubs often have various tiers of commitments, but even the lowest tier often commits a member to a case of wine annually. For smaller production wineries who typically have a nominal marketing budget, this guaranteed and repeat customer base certainly helps you sleep better at night. At a recent wine club launch by Laurelhurst Cellars, who only make a couple hundred cases of wine per vintage, there were about 60 people in attendance. New club members were in committing to either one case or two with Laurelhurst Cellars, which means they sold somewhere between 20 and 25% of their release just on this club launch.

Another thing that Neil talked about is having club members act as "brand ambassadors." Club members are obviously invested and as such, they're likely to spread the word about your wine to their friends. If I believe in something to the point that I’m willing to make a substantial commitment, I'm likely to share it with my friends and even passersby, whether it's the wait staff at a restaurant or diners who may have taken note of the bottle. Neil says that club members are also more likely to buy more wine simply because they come by the tasting room more often and purchase wine above their club commitments. Another element that you may notice is that club members often develop a relationship with the wineries and the staff. That relationship, particularly in the case of the smaller production wineries, is a very personal one. While they're financially invested they're often emotionally invested in the success of the winery or winemaker and so they bring friends, coworkers and acquaintances to a brand of wine.

As a customer and someone interested in a wine club, the question I asked was which club should I join? I know and have lots of great personal relationships with several winemakers. For the past four years I'd been a member of one wine club, as a gift from my brother-in-law. The Barnard Griffin Reserve wine club was a great club of which to be a member. The wines were very good, particularly their Merlot, and they did a lot of things really well, including offering club member-only wines. They make such a variety of wines, and the reserves are all so good that it provided a really well-rounded experience.

What was missing for me, however, was the personal relationship. The people in the tasting room were very nice, but as they’re in the Tri-Cities and given their size, I never got to know those folks. The other missing component was exclusivity. Excepting the member-only wines, the reserve wines I received in my shipment were also available at the state store and local groceries. Finding the wines in grocery stores for less than I paid as a club member didn't necessarily make me very happy. Having said all that, I enjoyed my four years as a member, particularly the year my brother-in-law paid for.

I recently changed clubs and am now a Silver Level member of Laurelhurst Cellars. I made this decision for a few reasons. For one, they offer different levels of commitment and I can afford one case of wine a year while still having a wine budget with which to sample other wines. Secondly, they're going to do wine club member-only releases and first offerings. These guys are only making a couple hundred cases and they sell through all of their wine each year. My membership guarantees me access. Thirdly, I have a personal relationship with them. I met Greg, Gabe and Dave through the course of writing a piece for the blog. Their story is inspiring, and it's easy to relate to them because they're a small operation and they're likable down-to-earth guys. Fourthly, as an additional bonus, they're not far from my house. I can get to the club events; I can pick up my wine and avoid shipping costs; and while I know I can find their wine around Seattle, I'm not going to see it deeply discounted.

So what wine club is right for you? How the hell am I supposed to know? I write a wine blog, I'm not a psychic. I'd certainly recommend the Laurelhurst Cellars club. If I had an unlimited budget, there are a few others I’d definitely join. Some clubs of note: Syncline Wines, Anam Cara Cellars, and Kiona. The first two because they make such great wines, and Kiona probably has a leg up on everyone when it comes to awesome club shipments. Their Spring 2010 shipment was all Merlot, 1993, 1996, 1999 2001 and 2005 Merlots. Awesome.