Two major technological innovations hit American consumers in 1972. Pocket calculators debuted (average price: $100 and up), decades before smartphones would render them useless. Subscription-based monthly wine clubs also launched, providing generations of fallback gifts for that weird uncle nobody really knows, and the wellspring of California Cab your dad sips while watching reruns of M*A*S*H (which also happened to premier on television in 1972).
Now that mail-order model is in the midst of a 21st-century reinvention. Over the past three years, a wave of sommelier-curated wine clubs has emerged. Viticole Wine, SommSelect, and Weekly Tasting all feature personal selections from Master Sommeliers — to overwhelming success. SommSelect has over 2,000 regular members, and Viticole’s popularity necessitates a wait list.
While some claim that top sommeliers are upending the traditional wine club, these sommelier-curated wine clubs are actually exactly in line with the model created 45 years ago. Today’s wine drinkers may have different drinking sensibilities than their M*A*S*H*-loving forebears, but their wine-buying habits aren’t all that different. They simply favor a different kind of expert.
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For modern wine club members, it’s a somm’s world. The rest of us are just drinking in it.
The OG Model
The first-ever subscription model, the aptly named Wine of the Month Club, was created by southern California wine shop owner Paul Kalemkiarian. The proposition was simple: Kalemkiarian would taste all of California’s latest releases to discern the best two values from this still-emerging wine region, creating a model based on expert advice, good value, and exploration of insider wines.
Others caught on. By the mid-to-late aughts, such publications as the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times launched their own versions. Both operate independently of the publications, relying on name recognition to instill confidence and partnering with outside wine partners to curate selections. Many of these first- and second-wave wine clubs still feel geared to boomer and Gen X drinkers, with selections dominated by well-known wine regions and advertising plastered with 90+ point scores.
Adapting to Millennials
In the last few years, the American wine market has undergone a sea change. As of 2015, millennials comprise the majority of U.S. wine drinkers. Just as the Netflix generation would be hard-pressed to name a recent infomercial, they would rarely favor a Robert Parker score over feedback derived from crowd-sourced apps like Vivino and Delectable.
A new model of wine clubs subsequently emerged to try to adapt to this generational shift. Based on subscriber preferences, rather than expert ones, the millennial wine club model aims to appeal to “generation me.” Winc (formerly Club W) and Tasting Room by Lot 18 spearheaded the personalized, millennial wine club model, launching in 2012 and 2013, respectively. These services ask subscribers to describe their wine preferences through ratings or a questionnaire, and then provide personalized wine selections for each user’s unique palate.
These customized wine clubs appealed to such millennial wine sensibilities as variety and value, but their buzz was short-lived. While both still have active users, Tasting Room has a dismal one-star rating on Yelp. Winc rebranded because its primarily female demographic wasn’t diverse enough for future initiatives.
We’ll Have What the Somms Are Having
“People were encouraging me to do a wine club,” Brian McClintic, Master Sommelier and founder of Viticole Wine, says. “I said, ‘I hate wine clubs. I don’t think there is a single wine club I would join out there.’ So naturally, I created a wine club — a wine club I would want to join.”
The 2013 documentary “SOMM” caused the sommelier profession to shoot to fame. More people than ever are pursuing certification through the Court of Master Sommeliers, and some sommeliers have gained celebrity followings on social media. As somms become increasingly visible, they have become trusted sources of wine recommendations, making them the natural experts for the next generation of wine clubs.
“Guests want and ask for wine recommendations from sommeliers,” Laura Maniec, Master Sommelier, CEO of Corkbuzz in New York and Charlotte, North Carolina, and sommelier for the wine club Weekly Tasting, says. “If you follow a specific sommelier or Master Sommelier and they have picked the wines, then it is likely going to be wine that you will like.”
Unlike previous models, somm-driven wine clubs aren’t necessarily putting the consumer’s palate first. Clubs like Weekly Tasting and Viticole hinge on the fact that consumers will want what the pros are drinking.
Maniec alternates with another sommelier to craft weekly four-packs along different themes for Weekly Tasting, which is operated by popular wine deals site Wines ‘Til Sold Out. Recent packs like Holiday Leftovers, featuring insider wines like cru Beaujolais and Falanghina from Campania, include a video lesson on the wines from Maniec herself.
“I curate the wine club extremely authentically, which is a nice way of saying selfishly,” McClintic says of Viticole. “I choose what I want to drink, when I want to drink it, and then see who wants in.” Launched in 2016, Viticole offers members exclusive producers or cuvées that McClintic sources from around the world. One of the cast members of “SOMM,” McClintic credits the social media platform created by the film for Viticole’s wide reach. Viticole’s first offering, in fact, was sold exclusively on Instagram.
“All the wines are organically farmed and attack a mid-range price point that just happens to be my personal sweet spot for wine,” McClintic says. Basic Viticole members pay $105 per month for two to three bottles, which might seem steep for some wine drinkers. To put that into perspective, however, the current December allocation consists of one bottle each of vintage and non-vintage grower Champagne; the average bottle of non-vintage grower Champagne starts between $50 and $70 at a retail shop.
While many aspects of these next-gen wine clubs fit the traditional club model, sommeliers use experience from the floor to make changes, like the notion of hospitality.
“Customer service and satisfaction are key,” Maniec notes. Rather than requiring members to commit to a monthly or quarterly wine shipment, Weekly Tasting allows members to opt-in after learning about each week’s four-pack. Weekly Tasting has a return customer rate of 45 percent. “If your guests keep ordering even though it isn’t a mandatory subscription, then you know you are successful.”
The challenge for these next-generation wine clubs won’t be finding an audience, as their growing popularity illustrates. It will be maintaining the quality of the insider wines offered as quantity increases.
One solution is to limit the number of people who can become members, as Viticole does. This makes the clubs feel even more elite and exclusive.
But if somms can keep their minds open to new sources of cool bottles to share with their club members, the growth potential of these clubs is limitless. After all, when the first wine club debuted 45 years ago, the Napa Valley was an emerging wine appellation. Today it’s a world-renowned classic, and insider wines are coming from areas as varied as Croatia, the Canary Islands, and Tasmania.
As long as wine professionals continue to pursue growth, in their clubs and on the floor, consumer wine appreciation will only continue to grow. If they can’t, well, one thing is certain: The next generation of wine experts will inevitably arrive, ready to fill their shoes.
Cover photo credit: Facebook/Weekly Tasting.