Biz Buzz: Interest in wine club membership a constant

Local wine club managers who saw dips or slowed growth in 2009 said they have seen an uptick in new memberships this year.

Others reported no recessionary effect on club memberships.

“We expected slower growth last and this year due to the economy, but that never really happened,” said Jason Haas, general manager of Tablas Creek Vineyard in Paso Robles.

Clubs play different roles depending on the size and personality of a given winery. In some cases, membership is the only direct-sales tool. In others, these shipments are a small percentage compared to wholesale or tasting-room sales.

Most clubs require members to buy either biannual or quarterly shipments of two to eight bottles. In exchange, they get hefty discounts, access to limited wines, special events or merchandise.

“This year, we have a little more,” said Claire Silver, co-owner of Tobin James Cellars in Paso Robles. “2010 was better.”

Dubbed the James Gang, the club now boasts 22,000 members and may be the largest wine club in the nation, she said. It’s difficult to know since no one tracks such numbers.

Getting personal

Longtime members asked the James Gang to revive its club cruises. Between 2000 and 2003, the colorful winery on Highway 46 East organized several chartered trips.

But the winery wasn’t sure cruises would sell in this economy.

“We partnered with a company that does wine club cruises,” Silver said. “They offered to send a survey to our wine club members.”

In October, she and her two co-owners joined 300 “gang” members, some winery staff and a “celebrity” chef on a Windstar Cruise around France, Italy and a few Mediterranean islands.

Tobin James’ Caribbean cruise in February and Mediterranean trip next July are planned. Member rates start at $2,500 and $2,900 and meals highlight — of course — the cellar’s own wines.

Traveling for a week gives vintners and buyers a chance to have a “deeper relationship” than a short tasting-room encounter, Silver said.

“I don’t know if it really helps with retention,” she added, “but it doesn’t hurt to have great public relations this way.”

Carving a niche

But Silver and other winery managers generally agree: parties, perks and trips don’t sell club memberships. People sign up because they want the wines at a bargain price.

Those who provide more unusual or “niche” wines say they experienced little or no dip in growth over the past few years; demand among their loyal fans remains constant.

Tablas Creek, for example, is known for its traditional Rhône-style wines. Another Paso winery, Vista Del Rey Vineyards, has found an even narrower niche: it specializes in dry-farmed barbera, a fairly rare variety.

With 40 percent of his sales coming from his club, Vista Del Rey owner Dave King stresses affordability and flexibility as keys to retention.

“Wine club members have been with me 10 years or more,” King said. “The thing that really helps sustain us is that we have a unique product.”

— Raven J. Railey

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