What better way to try new wines than by having unique varietals and appellations selected by knowledgeable wine buyers and delivered right to your doorstep?
Direct-mail programs do just that and more, often providing tasting notes, winery profiles and even food samples.
Once dominated by online retailers and brick-and-mortar wine merchants, such clubs are now gaining a following in the retail food industry.
Dayton, Ohio-based Dorothy Lane Market launched a three-level wine club in January based on the wine experience. Each shipment includes food-pairing tips, tasting notes, winery information and a piece of complementary cheese from Dorothy Lane's specialty cheese shop.
“Most people automatically go for a merlot or chardonnay,” Dorothy Lane wine buyer Todd Templin told SN. “This is a way for them to try something different.”
The Discovery Wine Club costs $30 per monthly shipment and includes two bottles of wine (one red, one white); The Collector's Wine Club is $70 per monthly shipment of two bottles of craft wine; and the Connoisseurs Wine Club is priced at $100 for two bottles of a limited handmade wine.
“The wines we choose are different and fun,” said Templin. “We're trying to get people out of their personal comfort level to try new wine.”
Once members sign up, they receive shipments on the first Tuesday of each month. Memberships can be canceled at any time. State law limits Dorothy Lane's shipments to the state of Ohio.
Dorothy Lane operated a similar wine club in the 1980s, but discontinued it due to lack of interest. In light of the nation's growing interest in wine, Dorothy Lane decided the time was right to bring the concept back to life.
“People are having fun by experimenting with different wines,” Templin said.
The club has about 30 members so far, but Templin expects membership to rise once Dorothy Lane starts advertising and marketing the program. It plans to run newspaper ads and market the offering online soon. For now, the only way for shoppers to find out about it is by word of mouth or by reading a tri-fold brochure available in Dorothy Lane's wine bars.
Another Ohio retailer, Heinen's Fine Foods, based in Warrensville Heights, also has a mail-order wine club. Shipments are delivered six times a year to the Greater Cleveland area.
Those who sign up for the Heinen's Wine Discovery Club choose one of three levels. First, there's the Heinen's Enthusiast Selection, offering two bottles for $27 per shipment, plus tax and $5 for shipping and handling. Heinen's Cellar Selection provides two bottles of high-end wine at $50 per shipment, plus tax and $5 for shipping and handling.
Heinen's also offers the Personal Selection, in which members can choose one bottle from the Enthusiast or Cellar collection for half the category's price, plus tax and $5 for shipping and handling.
“The purpose of Heinen's Wine Discovery Club is simple: to give you the opportunity to have some great wines, virtually unavailable to the general public, delivered right to your door six times a year,” Heinen's writes in promotional materials. “You can be assured that all Wine Discovery Club selections are wines of great merit.”
Membership to the Connoisseurs' Wine Club at Table & Vine, Northampton, Mass., a wholly owned subsidiary of Springfield, Mass.-based Big Y Supermarkets, has grown steadily since it launched three years ago, according to Paul Provost, the store's consultant and former general manager.
Six times per year, a six-pack of wine is shipped to the buyer's home. Each shipment costs $100 and is selected by Table & Vine's wine team. Memberships can be canceled at any time with 30 days notice.
“The wines are carefully selected to represent a high quality-to-price ratio,” said Provost.
If they like the wine and want more of it, members can buy cases for the discounted price of $183.49.
Along with wine, members get invitations to in-store events and tastings. In addition, each shipment includes a color brochure of the staff's detailed tasting notes and suggested wine and food pairings, as well as recipes and winemaker profiles.
To drum up interest in the club, Table & Vine offers a $99 trial membership during the holidays for a one-time shipment.
“We feel that if we can get one shipment into their hands, they'll see for themselves how great the program is, and will remain a member,” Provost said.
The goal of the three-year-old club is to help wine buyers learn about some of the 4,000 wines carried at Table & Vine, said Provost.
“Many people are intimidated by the overwhelming number of choices of wine,” he said. “This makes it easier.”
Each shipment contains wines that complement each other in terms of wine-growing region or the type of food they pair well with. For instance, the selections may all be from the Rhone Valley, or they may be a Riesling and a pinot noir from Germany.
“We try to make each shipment thematic,” Provost said.
About a year ago, Table & Vine enhanced the program by introducing a high-end Cellar Collection for wine collectors. Each shipment costs $200 and includes two bottles of collectible reds and two bottles of white.
“People with wine cellars expressed interest in higher-quality wines,” Provost said. “We felt we weren't serving them sufficiently, so we developed a club just for them.”
Provost declined to release membership numbers, saying only that the growth rate is marginal and on the rise. He attributes the modest increase to the fact that state law limits the club's U.S. wine shipments to Massachusetts. Membership would double if the company could also ship to Connecticut alone, Provost said.
There's also strong interest from other areas, including New York and even the West Coast.
“The strong reputation of our company has created interest out of state,” he said.
Wine clubs are a valuable promotional tool, because they provide the product and the information needed to stimulate sales, said beverage consultant Tom Pirko, president of Santa Ynez, Calif.-based Bevmark.
“The hardest part of selling wine is to supply consumers with enough information not only to recognize wine, but also to buy it on a regular basis,” he said.
He added that most retailers are moving to clubs to make the wine department less confusing.
“Consumers are baffled when they walk into a wine department,” he said, adding that shelf talkers “don't cut it.”
Wine is different from almost anything else a food store sells, in that it requires at least some type of knowledge about the various varietals and appellations.
“If a shopper doesn't feel comfortable about wine, she is going to get lost and not make a purchase,” he said.
Helping consumers navigate their way through the wine department is worthwhile, because wine is a high-margin category.
“Supermarkets can sell a can of peas and make 3 cents or a bottle of wine and make $7,” he said. “It's a very important area of the store.”
Retailers that don't have the resources to run a mail-order program can get involved in the wine-club trend in other ways.
For example, take Lund Food Holdings, Edina, Minn., operator of 10 Lunds and 11 Byerly's upscale supermarkets. It hosts a fee-based wine club that offers 15% discounts on wine and 10% off liquor; invitations to special events such as dinners and tastings; and private wine-club sales.
“Lunds and Byerly's understand that food alone cannot make an exceptional meal — it should always be partnered with a great bottle of wine,” Lund Food writes in promotional materials. “Whether you are a connoisseur or simply an avid learner, the Lunds and Byerly's Wine Club brings wine to your table.”
The club costs $75 for the first year of a single membership and $50 in subsequent years. A dual membership is $125 the first year, $75 in subsequent years.
Not all retailers charge a fee. U.K. retailer Tesco's wine club includes a free magazine packed with informative articles and expert advice on wine, along with coupons and exclusive offers.
“Whether you're an experienced wine lover keen to explore new directions, or you're a newcomer to wine and unsure where to start, the new Tesco Wine Club has something to offer you,” according to Tesco.