While details vary, wine clubs tend to offer members free tastings when they come to the winery, and discounts of 15 to 20 percent or more off your wine purchases. In return, you agree to buy two or three bottles every two to three months, for at least a year (at the discounted price).
First of all, obviously, you should only join a club if you like their wines. But if you really like their wines, and would buy them on a regular basis anyways, there are great advantages to wine clubs.
I recently made a day trip to Santa Barbara County in California, the location for the great wine movie Sideways. I had visited there a year before, and went to a large number of wineries, buying wines and having them shipped back home. I didn’t join any wine clubs on the spot, although I signed up to be on a few mailing lists. I waited until I got home, and contemplated which clubs I really wanted to join. I then signed up for the wine clubs of Andrew Murray and Zaca Mesa through their web sites. Foxen had a waiting list for its club, but since I had signed up for emails, I received an email several months later letting me know that there were some openings, and I joined. (It may have helped that I had ordered some bottles through email in the interim, so they knew I was interested.)
This time I visited six wineries, which is about as many as one can do in a day (and that is pushing it). It was interesting to compare my experience at wineries where I was a member of a wine club and where I was not. At Foley, the first winery I visited, I paid the regular $10 fee and was given a taste of five or six wines. At Zaca Mesa, upon announcing that I was a member, they looked me up on the computer, then directed me to a separate room. This was for the Cellar Club members, and we (there were a number of other Cellar Club members present) were given tastes of a larger number of wines, and more of their special wines, than were given the fee-paying public in the other room. A number of wines were ones that had been shipped to us in previous quarters, and it was convenient to be able to taste those wines to get an idea of when they should be opened.
At Foxen and at Andrew Murray, there were no separate facilities for wine club members (they are rather smaller operations than Zaca Mesa), so the main advantage was not having to pay the tasting fee.
Another benefit of belonging to wine clubs is that members tend to get wines that are not otherwise available. When one reads through the ratings in the back of Wine Spectator or Wine Enthusiast, and sees the California wines that rate well into the 90-point range, upon closer examination those wines tend to be the limited production bottles that one cannot get in the tasting room, or in any wine shop on the East Coast. These bottles are often among those that are part of the quarterly shipments, and club members get first crack at getting more of those bottles. For example, the next shipment from Foxen will include its 2008 Pinot Noir from the Sea Smoke Vineyard, of which only 470 cases were made. Both Robert Parker and Wine Spectator gave this wine 94 points, if you care about such things. So I would never have a chance to try this wine, except for being in the wine club.
Many wineries have special events for club members throughout the year, or events at which club members get first crack or discounts. Since I don’t live in California, I have not been able to take advantage of them, but some look pretty nice. I am also a member of the wine club at Tarara, in Northern Virginia, and have been to some of their events.
One consideration when deciding whether to join a wine club that is not in your state is that, due to the residual effects of the repeal of Prohibition, there are numerous restrictions on shipping wine directly to consumers. Many states, like Virginia, require a winery to get a license specific to that state before wine can be shipped to a consumer in that state. I could not join Foley’s wine club if I wanted to, because they can’t ship to Virginia. Other states, like Florida, allow any winery to ship wine to consumers there. It must also be remembered that the cost of shipping heavy wine bottles is relatively high, often off-setting the discount.
Wine clubs, in short, are not for everyone, but if you find a winery that gives you consistently good wines that you would like to try again and again, it may be worth joining its wine club.
Paul W. Jameson is the owner of the Jameson Wine Experience. Along with more than 30 years of experience putting together and participating in wine tastings, Mr. Jameson has an Advanced Certificate from the Wine & Spirits Education Trust, a French Wine Scholar certificate from the French Wine Society, and is a Certified Specialist of Wine from the Society of Wine Educators. He is also a member of The Wine Century Club, for having tasted more than 100 different grape varieties.