Wine club

Author: Marco Negro

We define a club as a circle or association of people who engage in a common activity for leisure and pastime, often comparing and exchanging opinions. The phenomenon of wine clubs is experiencing a resurgence with new variations and proposals.

Wine club sign made from corks

Wine enthusiast clubs originated in the early 1970s in the United States, hence the use of the term ‘wine club’. The first associations typically offered an annual subscription, with monthly installments. In exchange, members received a box containing 6 bottles of wine each month, the so-called “wine box“. The system continues to be popular in North America and has a following in other markets as well. The organizers of this sales method still strive to keep interest in their offers alive by proposing selections of wines from different nations and regions, sometimes introducing themes that stimulate deeper understanding or comparison. Some examples of “box of the month” include Pinot Noir from 6 different regions of the world, a selection of 6 wines from volcanic-origin soils, 6 wines from the Langhe region, and so on. At other times, the box simply contains wines that are thought to appeal to the average taste of the members: one sparkling wine, two white wines, and three red wines! I had the opportunity to meet a California-based expert taster who worked as a consultant and selector for four different wine clubs. He told me that the main challenge was to start from the tasting notes, recorded for hundreds of wines tasted, calculate the final costs of arrival in the warehouse, and thus create proposals for “wine boxes” with the same average price, to be offered month after month.

Hand of a person holding a glass of red wine while with the other hand taking notes on a sheet of paper

The modern communication systems, particularly social networks, have brought wine club members and producers closer together. Today, wine clubs can add dynamic and short-lived content to the static content published on newsletters and websites, such as Twitter comments or short videos on Instagram. While these platforms may not provide the same depth of analysis as longer articles, they are a good way to disseminate small pieces of information related to a grape variety or terroir. This is a great opportunity for wineries to “speak” to thousands of end customers.

The sales system of wines through wine club subscriptions, which originated in the United States, has since been adopted in other countries. It was a sales method that required a heterogeneous audience, devoid of cultural legacies in the area of wine consumption, just like the Anglo-Saxon one. The North American market, always an anticipator and precursor of sales methods and techniques, soon offered wine club members point accumulation systems to incentivize loyalty, as well as pyramid discount systems that rewarded the introduction of new members. Several wine enthusiast associations are actually present even in markets considered more traditional, such as France. Thanks to small trade fairs in wine-producing regions, wine club selectors often meet with family-run wineries. These are an important source of new wines to try, review, and introduce to their thousands of members.

A more recent phenomenon in Italy

In Italy, the phenomenon of wine clubs has arrived more recently, in the midst of the transformation of communication towards the use of digital channels. Italian consumers have not had the opportunity to know about wine club catalogs printed and mailed to them. The recent diffusion of wine clubs has mainly occurred through the Instagram channel, which is now the primary means of communication between companies and consumers. Italian wine clubs focused on dissemination and offering the possibility to purchase bottles, are centered around the good reputation of a sommelier or an industry expert, who can organize the narrative thread of the wineries and wines proposed, leading members to the “box of the month” offer.

Boxes containing some bottles of wine

However, in recent years, the term “wine club” has also been used by several wineries. These are usually wineries that have staff dedicated to promoting their activities on digital social channels and have already experimented – not always successfully – with online sales through their website. The proposal to join their wine club allows the winery to profile new customers, as well as offer packages and combinations different from those regularly available on the e-commerce site. Some prestigious Italian winery wine clubs provide access, for example, to the purchase of rare vintages not found on the market, expertly set aside in previous years. Conversely, other companies have decided to offer member access to pre-sales of some of their reserves. Other winemakers offer limited editions or cases of wines paired with local gastronomic specialties. Some also combine discounts and free experiences for wine tourism enthusiasts, such as overnight stays, excursions, cooking classes, or sports activities. Finally, some dare to propose a pact of absolute trust between consumer and producer; the proposal is called the “mystery box”, where the contents (such as bottles and vintages) remain mysterious until delivered to the passionate consumer.

Opportunity and advantages

To borrow the slogan of a well-known wine club, this way of distributing wine bottles is a bridge between winemakers and enthusiasts. It is certainly not the main sales channel for a winery, nor does it guarantee the producer a reliable continuity, unlike sales to a traditional distributor. However, it is an opportunity, more relevant than ever, that could also enliven consumption among customers who tend to be more conservative and less open to new things.

However, we must avoid the risk of interpreting this opportunity as a passing trend. First of all, commercial efforts are needed to make oneself known to the wine club selectors. One must seek them out, offer oneself, and establish a business relationship with them. In addition, like every branch of business, adequate investments and human resources are needed to achieve results.

People taking an online wine class

Let’s imagine, for example, that a wine is selected by a foreign wine club: in a few weeks, thousands of consumers now know about a new wine! It’s likely that some of them will soon be ready to buy it again and will soon look for it in traditional channels in their country, such as wine shops. Selling wine through wine clubs can be more than just a temporary and seasonal operation. Interesting collaboration scenarios could be opened up with a traditional distributor, which does not compete at all with the wine club organizer. The winery’s communication should therefore be ready to disseminate both the temporary release in a “box of the month” by the wine club and to tell where the same wine can be found at the end of the club’s limited promotion.

Recent years have shown us the importance of articulating wine distribution through multiple channels. May sales through circles of enthusiasts be one of the opportunities we give to the extraordinary variety of wines from our beautiful country!

10th November 2021,

Marco Negro

Picture of Marco Negro
Marco Negro
Expert of communication of Italian wine. He has a knack for connecting people.
Picture of Marco Negro
Marco Negro
Expert of communication of Italian wine. He has a knack for connecting people.

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