I get a lot of questions about the value of belonging to a wine club. Over the years, I have belonged to many types of wine clubs. I have also had the to-join-or-not-to-join discussion with many of my wine friends and colleagues. I hope this post begins to answer any questions you might have about becoming a wine club member, and give you some solid info that will help you make some decisions moving forward.
The very first thing that we need to do is define our terms because, in reality, most wine clubs aren’t really clubs at all. For our purposes we are going to make a distinction between becoming a winery member and joining a wine subscription service.
Winery Membership: Winery memberships are what local and regional boutique wineries offer under the title “wine club.” A winery membership is exclusive to the individual winery and doesn’t include any wines produced by other wineries.
Subscription Service: A wine subscription service is one you join, typically on-line, that allows you to receive a selection of wines, usually from around the world, at set times during the year.
In order to provide examples and talk about options to be considered, I just want to make sure you are all aware that I am not promoting one type of “club” over another, nor am I promoting any single winery or subscription service. (Sadly) no one is paying me to mention (or refrain from mentioning) their business. I’m writing from my own experience and the collective wisdom of my colleagues. The mention of any winery or subscription service is for informational purposes only.
This post is PART ONE of Join the Club and it is going to be about Winery Memberships. When I feature a winery on Wine of Enchantment, I generally like to point the way to their “wine club.” Winery memberships are great for small boutique wineries because, depending on the strictness of the membership structure, wineries can anticipate a steady, fairly consistent income from their club plans.
I’ve seen hundreds of winery membership programs over the years and they can be quite different in their structures. At the core, however, a winery membership generally requires the purchase of a specific number of bottles/cases in a 12-month period. For example, Black’s Smuggler and Jaramillo require the purchase of 2 cases of wine per year, but they do not charge a membership fee. Some wineries may pro-rate the number of bottles depending on when you join and then your membership automatically rolls over in January. Both the wineries above allow you to choose your own wines and the number of bottles purchased just accumulate over the year until you have purchased 24 bottles. (2 cases).
Sheehan winery is also free to join but they require a commitment to purchase 3, 6, or 12 bottles per quarter. You have the option of selecting your own wines within a particular time frame and if you don’t select wines, they are curated for you. Quarterly winery memberships are very popular and many wineries around the country offer that option—but they are not always free to join.
Layton’s Chance Winery, one of my favorites on the Eastern Shore of Maryland charges a one-time $50 membership fee. After that you are charged for 2 curated bottles per quarter. Closer to home, the Rio Grande Winery in the Mesilla Valley charges a one time fee of $19.95 and they also curate 3, 6, or 12 bottles for your enjoyment every quarter.
Many wineries have various levels of membership commitment from which to select. One of my favorite wineries is Brian Carter Cellars in Woodinville, WA. They do 3 to 4 releases a year depending on your level. All of the clubs are free to join, but you are committed for a full year and each release is going to be well into the hundreds of dollars. The highest level of membership at Brian Carter Cellars is by invitation only.
The Pros of Winery Membership
There are a lot of perks to having a winery membership. For every membership I’ve reviewed, benefits include:
Free or discounted tastings throughout the year—often up to 4 at a time so you can bring a friend.
Discounts on all bottles. Whether it’s the wine of the month, a new release, or the wine club selections, you can usually get a fairly substantial discount on bottle purchases. Generally the discounts are from 10% – 20%. On a rare occasion, you might get up to 25%. For example, Vivác Winery is currently running a special that allows you to take 25% off all bottles purchased the day you join.
A free or discounted glass of wine. Some wineries give you a free glass of wine when you come in to pick up your club order. They may allow you to have a glass of wine every time you come in or limit the number per month. Regardless, there is usually free wine involved.
Access to a special members’ lounge. Sheehan has a great members’ only space at their Old Town location.
Early access to new releases. If you have a favorite winery and you look forward to what they have coming out in the future, this is a great deal. A lot of boutique wineries bottle small quantities of wines—especially if it’s a new varietal or proprietary blend. As a perk, the wines are first made available to members before they go on the menu in the tasting room.
Members only invitations. From Harvest parties, to Christmas parties, to release parties, and more, if you love a good party with people who share your love of wine then a winery membership may be perfect for you. Every members-only event I have ever attended has been spectacular!
Special barrel tastings. If you’ve never done a barrel tasting, you don’t know what you’re missing. They are so much fun and you almost always have access to the winemaker to talk about the wine and, they often solicit input on the wine.
Discounted tickets to wine festivals. In New Mexico, some wineries will provide discounted wine festival tickets to their wine club members.
THE CONS TO WINERY MEMBERSHIP
I am a believer in winery memberships. I like the perks and I like knowing that I’m boosting small business and promoting the wine industry, but there are some downsides to consider.
Winery membership perks are mostly for the people who live in the area. If you’re having your wine shipped to Illinois, you aren’t going to get the free tastings, glasses, parties, etc. that local members have.
Shipping costs can get pretty high. Some wineries will offer free shipping when you purchase a full case and a full case of wine can weigh between 25 and 30 pounds so free shipping can be quite a perk. Generally, you’ll be getting 2, 3, or 6 bottles for your wine club commitment, so if you pick up the order, there are no shipping fees. If you have your wine shipped, though, the discount on the wine you are purchasing will often make up most of the difference in the cost of shipping. You need to check the wine club policies on shipping. DO NOT OVERLOOK this consideration when choosing a membership.
If you are in a fully-curated wine club, you don’t get to choose your own wine. So, if you aren’t very adventurous, you may want to pass unless the winery offers a variety of options the way Embudo Valley Vineyard does theirs.
You are making a commitment for a full year to a specific winery. For people who drink wine everyday and have the option of changing up “brands” every now and then, then it isn’t a problem. If, however, you only drink 2-3 bottles a month, then you need to make sure the plan meets your needs.
FINAL THOUGHTS ON WINERY MEMBERSHIP
I am 100% convinced that the pros far outweigh the cons when it comes to winery membership—especially if it is a local winery where you can take advantage of all the perks. There are, however, a couple of wineries across the country that I join just to have access to the wine. Generally, the discount makes up for the shipping, but the wine is worth it so I’m willing to pay the price.
I’m also a 100% believer in supporting my local/regional/state wineries and wine industry. Many wineries around the country, just like those in New Mexico, do not have the inventory or cannot afford the cost of a distributor to get their wines out onto the national wine scene. It’s up to those of us who believe in the product to encourage others to give it a try. A good way to do that is to join a winery near you, take your friends to tastings, or give your “commitment” wine to others as a gift. I only take New Mexico wines to parties and give them as hostess gifts.
If you’re on the fence about joining a local winery (wine club) and the commitment doesn’t strap you financially, then I say go for it!
In JOIN THE CLUB Part 2, I’ll highlight the pros and cons of joining a wine subscription club. If you belong to a subscription club, I’d LOVE to hear from you. As always, you can leave a comment on the page or you can send me an email.
Please check out my ARCHIVES PAGE to find more information on most of the wineries mentioned in the post, as well as other great wineries from around the country.
Until next time…