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The Wine Club Revolution

Instead of sameness and rigidity, new wine clubs offer unprecedented diversity and flexibility to suit younger drinkers' tastes
Club W uses feedback from members to personalize its wine recommendations.
Photo by: Courtesy of Club W
Club W uses feedback from members to personalize its wine recommendations.

Ben O'Donnell
Posted: March 22, 2016

In the past, wine clubs seemed to be for wine drinkers who didn’t want to think too hard. Rather than doing their research at local shops or in wine country, they paid a monthly fee to have a box of mystery juice sent their way. And often what arrived were private-label wines created from large wineries’ excess production.

But now a new breed of clubs has cropped up, hoping to attract younger wine drinkers with several different strategies: "curated" deliveries of diverse, small-production wines chosen by credentialed experts; flexibility in price and order size; algorithms that track customer ratings and buying patterns to customize recommendations; and non-standard bottle sizes to accommodate a variety of selections and occasions. "Our customer base is really drawn to the idea of discovery and adventure, and they want to expand their horizons, try new things," said Xander Oxman, founder and CEO of Club W.

Club W's strategy is bringing a granular level of personalization to its member recommendations. The firm is a license-holding winery that has offered 130 different bottlings from 10 countries and 60-plus appellations, and grown to 200,000 cases in two years. Founded in 2012, it was among the first of the "new" wine clubs, with a model that focuses on value wines and data-driven recommendations. Users are not committed to a subscription period and order a minimum of three bottles per month, with bottle price starting at $13.

New club members answer an online "icebreaker" quiz asking how they take their coffee and salt their food, to establish a palate baseline, and then rate the wines they receive. "It's an affinity algorithm so it's kind of similar to the original Netflix algorithm," said Oxman. "People who like this also like this. So for a customer we have 20-plus data points on, we can do an incredibly accurate job of picking new wines for them they're going to like." It's essentially a wine club with a winery, rather than the traditional inverse.

Other clubs, like Global Wine Cellars, Winestyr and Wine Awesomeness focus on exclusivity of producers and the promise of thorough vetting. Winestyr partners with only small-production California wineries. Global Wine Cellars (GWC) often finds wines that are not otherwise imported into the U.S.

Rather than create a customized experience, GWC promises members that it picks winners. The five members of the sourcing team include wine educators and sommeliers who have worked at well-known restaurants like New York’s Masa. GWC estimates the team tastes 6,000 to 8,000 wines a year, meaning for every wine offered, "15 to 20 bottles did not make the spot," said senior buyer Martin Reyes.

"For this team to reach consensus is a big deal," said vice president of marketing Deanna Moen. "We don't use any bulk juice or fake labels." GWC's parent company also runs or ran clubs for Williams Sonoma and restaurateur Michael Mina, whose club folded into GWC.

The hook for Vinebox, which began shipping in January 2016, is that it offers three wines a month in 187ml single-serving vials. "The first by-the-glass club in the U.S.," is how cofounder Matt Dukes describes it. Vinebox works with wineries that have partnered with the France-based packaging company Wine in Tube. The company charges $35 per month, but the bottles are small because the wines are big-time: Classified-growth Burgundies and Bordeauxs, for example. The current-release box includes Château Kirwan Margaux 2008, and the Vinebox Instagram account shows tubes of Château d'Arche La Perle d'Arche Sauternes, Lucien Muzard Nuits-St.-Georges Premier Cru Les Perrières, as well as picks from the Rhône and Provence.

Recipe-and-ingredient delivery company Blue Apron began delivering wine in September to pair with its dinners. They also use non-standard packaging: 500ml bottles, "sized to pair perfectly with Blue Apron meals for two," says CEO Matt Salzberg.

Vinebox is ideal, said Dukes, for drinkers who "don't have access to [high-end] European wines. It forces you to step a little outside your comfort zone and maybe try something you wouldn't select for yourself." As direct-to-consumer shipping continues to gain traction and is poised to become a major avenue of fine wine sales, these new models for wine clubs are well-positioned to succeed. According to the company, Global Wine Cellars is growing by double digits each year. Vinebox has picked up the backing of startup investor Y Combinator. Club W has received $13.1 million in investments since its founding.

For wineries, especially small ones with limited retail distribution, direct-to-consumer wine clubs have been an opportunity to find new customers. "We're just so small that I take advantage of just about any opportunity to get my product into new hands," said Melanie Brain, director of sales and marketing for Baker & Brain in San Luis Obispo, Calif. Baker & Brain sells through its own club, as well as Winestyr. For wineries like Baker & Brain that make lesser-known styles—Edna Valley Grüner Veltliner and Grenache Blanc, in their case—the new clubs connect them with drinkers who are open to experimentation.

"I think that when they go to that website or decide to be a part of that wine club they're saying, 'I trust you,'" said Brain. "'You might send me home with something I'm not familiar with, but I trust that it's going to be something cool, new and unique and that I wouldn't have just picked off the shelf myself.'"

The clubs’ staff members have been pleased to see the diverse tastes of their members and have responded with less conventional wines. "Some of the things we've been surprised by are like, we've done a lot with Valdiguié, which is a pretty off-the-beaten-path varietal, but it delivers a lot of the characteristics people like in Pinot Noir or Gamay at a much better value," said Oxman. Obscure wines from Portugal, Greece and Chile are also performing well.

GWC buyer Tim Marson sees similar patterns. "We want to show them a world of wine they never knew existed," he said, but it still "surprises us when the Pinotage or the Slovenian wine is what is popular."

Each of the new wine clubs is taking a different track toward a similar goal. Said Reyes, "We're trying to break the perception of what clubs are about."

Ned Osborn
Phillydelpia —  March 24, 2016 10:51pm ET
If you were really into discovery and adventure, why would you have someone pick your wines for you? Do people pick their dinner choices also?

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