Happy Thanksgiving everyone!!! I hope everyone is with family and/or friends celebrating over a nice, hot meal and a good bottle of wine. Since this is a time for giving thanks, thank you, the readers, for following along on this deep dive into Napa wineries with a dose of Willamette Valley as well. Soon, we will have a look at some in France, in case anyone is thinking of vacationing there at some point. Some topics have continuously come up in feedback from you, so I’d like to take some time to write about one of them today: Wine Memberships. Wine memberships is a broad topic and could be discussed in the context of several different segments of the wine industry - e.g. Wine Bars, Distributors/Wine Stores, Wineries. Today we will focus the conversation on memberships as they pertain to wineries, but much of the same logic applies for other membership types.
Full discloser: I have been or recently became a member at several of the wineries I’ve written about so far. This is not a coincidence - what better way to start writing than to write about things you really like? My situation is a bit unusual though - I consume wine at a faster rate than most and use some of my membership wines for tastings with customers as well. The normal consumer can likely handle around 3 memberships for various reasons discussed below, though if you handle 7 or more, I’d love to hear from you!! We’ll discuss the pros/cons below.
But what are wine memberships and why do they exist? Wine membership is a contract of sorts - it is a commitment from you (the consumer) to purchase a certain number of bottles at each allocation point during the year in return for benefits and other privileges that non-members do not have access to. It’s obvious to understand why consumers participate, but why do wineries have these programs? It’s all about the economics. Each year, wineries invest a significant portion (for smaller ones, it can be all) of their available capital to produce the current vintage - the breakdown of these costs deserves its own article… This is a huge risk - if all their capital is tied up in wine and they can’t sell that wine, or even if they can’t sell it at the rate that they need to in order to pay their bills, they will go under.
This is the basis of the “En Primeur” system in France, where large/famous estates (e.g. Lafite-Rothschild, Cheval Blanc) will sell futures in wine (you pay now for a bottle in 2-4 years) that is a lower price than what the wines will cost on release (when the wines are actually ready). To some, this may seem like an ancient version of the “derivative” financial instrument and they would be right. This is practiced much more efficiently today in the Agriculture industry (e.g. Corn Futures), but derivatives may never work for the wine industry as a whole. That’s because no two wines taste the same or cost the same to produce. If each product is slighly different, how can you manage to track the cost/value of each one to price the derivative? Wine would need its own stock market!! (That might be an idea… Haha).
Ok, that’s enough background from me - I always seem to excitedly dig into the history of wine. Now that we know why membership programs benefit both the consumer and producer (and therefore know why they exist), let’s actually dig into more of the details for consumers. Generally, the membership benefits at a given winery are a combination of the following. Wineries may have incremental membership programs too where the more bottles you commit to buying, the greater the number of benefits and the degree of those benefits (e.g. price discount) are in return.
List of Potential Benefits from a Winery Membership
- Price Discount on Purchases - Who doesn’t want to pay less for wine?
- Free or Discounted Tours and Tastings at the Winery - Again, who doesn’t want to pay less for wine?
- Access to Limited Production Wines, Library Wines, and Larger Formats) - This benefit is tailored to the wine collector types. Those who crave the rare, highly rated, hard-to-access wines. This definitely includes me to a degree, especially since I don’t want to wait 10 years when I buy a wine to drink it at its optimal point. So I purchase library wines that have already undergone that aging in an optimal environment and are ready for consumption when I buy it.
- Guaranteed Availability of Wines for Purchase - Some wineries become so popular that their entire inventory is spoken for, even before they release the wine. Sometimes in order to even get access to purchase they wine they produce, you need to join their wine club. The most popular small producers, sometimes referred to as cult producers, may have waiting lists that last years before they have room for your allocation.
- Discounted Shipping - If you live far enough away from the winery, you’ll know that shipping isn’t cheap. In addition, many things can go wrong during ground shipping and the storage they use that maybe you want to use 2-day or overnight shipping to make sure your expensive wine arrives in pristine condition. This can cost its own small fortune. Discounted/Free Shipping can sometimes be a bigger savings than the discounts they give you on their wines…
- Access to Private Areas at the Winery - In Napa, most larger wineries have special access areas that are available only to wine club members. Some even may have different areas for different member levels. If you are lucky enough to have a tasting in the owner’s tent out in the vineyards, you’ll know what I am talking about when I say this benefit means something (see my Chappellet Review for an example).
- Ability to Reserve the Winery for Private Events - You and your friends probably need to live close to the winery to take advantage of this benefit. Still, I can imagine having a great birthday party or wedding at one of my favorite wineries! After all, it seems like the views from every winery is great and relaxing. Though, imagining the cost of holding such events may be more nightmarish.
- Invitation to Winery Events - No event is more exciting at a winery than the annual release party. It’s a chance to thank the wine gods for a good harvest, thank all of the winery’s employees for their hard work, and thank the consumers for purchasing the wine and making this annual cycle possible. Access to this and other events (e.g. Some may host a summer bbq, a birthday party for the winery, etc.) is one of the lesser celebrated perks of being a winery member. What I would give to not just get a picture with my winemaking idols, but to get one at a party with unbridled joy on both of our faces.
- Less Thinking, More Drinking - Do you have a problem choosing new wines every time you go to the store? Do you just want to drink your favorite wine whenever you feel like it? Do you forget to purchase that wine or find it’s not in your local stores? A winery membership takes care of those problems.
List of Potential Drawbacks from a Winery Membership
- Commitment to Purchasing Bottles - Remember, the reward for the winery is that you purchase a minimum amount of their wine. While many winery memberships can be cancelled at any given time, if you want to continue to enjoy the perks, you will need to continue buying.
- Winery Co-Location - If you don’t live close to the winery, taking advantage of a majority of the membership benefits can be tough. Living in DC, I can only take advantage of my membership benefits a couple times a year (e.g. free/discounted tastings), and some not at all (e.g. winery events).
- Decreased Desire/Ability to Explore - Some people might not consider this a drawback but I do. Part of what I love about the wine world is you never know what amazing wine you might drink tomorrow. But if you are always going to the same wineries to take advantage of your membership benefits, you may not ever discover the amazing wine that is just down the street. If you keep getting their shipments too, you may not have the money nor space in your wine rack to explore other places either…
- Flexibility of Allocation Shipments - It may be that you joined a winery to get access to their Cabernet Sauvignon, but come springtime, you will also receive the Sauvignon Blanc that you may not be fond of. Many wineries are flexible in what gets shipped as part of your allocation, but some are not.
- Difficult Discontinuing the Membership - This may also be a drawback that only I feel, but I have cancelled a few winery memberships over the years and it was not easy. It wasn’t that the winery made the process hard, but it felt very personal to do it. When you discontinue a winery membership, depending on its size, it can feel like you are divorcing a friend.
As long as the winery isn’t outside your price range (it’ll likely be more expensive than your local grocery store’s selection, but may be the right price point for nice dinners or celebrations), the drawbacks don’t really seem to impact you until you hit that third winery. By then, you might be considering another winery membership, but may feel the need to discontinue a previous membership to make room in your budget and your cabinet. In addition, you may find yourself needing to plan a schedule of which wineries to visit which weekends to take advantage of the membership perks.
At the end of the day, there is no right answer. Or put more accurately, there may be different answers for different people. Just remember that when you drink that bottle of wine, many people contributed to getting that great juice into the bottle (and making the bottle too!). As long as you are paying hommage to that fact and treat those people and their products with respect, you are entitled to desiring that they put every effort forward to getting you the best bottle of wine they can manage at that price point. So get out there, visit some wineries, drinks some wines, give thanks to all of the people that contributed to those wines, and let the good times roll. Cheers!!