retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kevin Coupe

The Wall Street Journal wine columnist Lettie Teague had a piece over the weekend about wine clubs. She started off by conceding that she'd never considered joining such a club, since she likes to either pick out her own wine or trust a local retailer. But for the purposes of this column, she decided to join several ... and, to be fair, found them to be a mixed bag.

"Although I have to admit it was fun not to know what sort of wine would show up in the post, the only great deals I found were from the Virgin club," she writes, referring to a club launched by Virgin Enterprises. " And yet I don’t think I’d like to belong to a club that only specialized in cheap wine - shipped in bulk. Or wine that’s cleverly packaged but not particularly - or reliably - good.

"For someone who is just learning about wine, the instructional nature of the clubs - the notes, the range of wines - certainly seemed useful. As for me, I’d still consider joining a club, but it would have to deliver consistently great wine every time - with handwritten notes."

As someone who actually belongs to three different wine clubs, I pretty much agree with her ... and think my experience offers an Eye-Opening insight into intelligent retailing.

The main wine club to which I belong is actually operated by my local wine guys, Nicholas Robert Ltd., providing me with three new wines each month. I can choose red, white or mixed boxes ... but beyond that, I have no choice in what I get. That's the lure, to be honest - the folks at Nicholas Roberts pride themselves on choosing unusual wines often from an unheard-of vineyard, and sometimes the selection will focus on a single country, or a single variety, or a single vineyard. But I've generally found that the choices are excellent, the notes (though not handwritten) are extensive, and I learn a lot about what I like. (Many of the wines that I write about in OffBeat on Fridays are culled from wine club selections.)

I also belong to a couple of Oregon-based wine clubs. One is the Carlton Cellars club; I belong because I know the owners, Dave Grooters and Robin Russell, like them and their wines a lot, and know that they do not yet have distribution in the northeast US, where I currently live. So this is a way of keeping in touch.

And, I belong to the Willamette Valley Vineyards wine club - while they do distribute to the northeast US, the club gives me access to wines that often don't make it this far east. Plus, I've made the acquaintance of a young woman who works there, Wende Bennett, who has declared herself to be my wine ambassador ... I talked more extensively about how this works here.

I've made a point here about wine clubs that I'd like to repeat: properly conceived and executed, they can get people to raise their spend in this category. Before I joined these clubs, I rarely spent more than $10 on a bottle of wine - I simply did not know enough to spend more with any degree of intelligence, so I went cheap.

Now, because they've improved and educated my palate, I think less about the cost of the wine than about what I like ... and, to be honest, this usually results in spending more. Which I'm sure they're all happy about, and I get to drink great wine.

It's been an Eye-Opener.
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