Wine Clubs: Should Your Restaurant Have One?

 
Kris Margerum shares wine gems through Auberge du Soleil's wine club.
Kris Margerum shares wine gems through Auberge du Soleil's wine club.

Some high-end restaurants have uncorked a new method of marketing their wine knowledge while padding their bottom lines.

Their sommelier or wine director forms a wine club.

Subscribers sign up to receive monthly or quarterly shipments of wines that are personally selected by the in-house wine expert.

Restaurant at Auberge du Soleil in Rutherford, California, in the winery-rich Napa Valley, debuted its Club Vin du Soleil last June.

To obtain members, wine director Kris Margerum marketed the new club throughout the Auberge du Soleil resort, tapping into a captive audience.

He created an informational display in the resort’s lobby and ensured that Club Vin du Soleil details were inserted into guests’ checks, as well as delivered to rooms as a part of the turndown service. A page within the restaurant’s wine list also touts the club.

“This is another time when the sommelier chooses the wines for you,” says Margerum, who estimates he tastes about 200 wines each week, of which 40 are of high quality. However, he can only add up to three bottles each week to the restaurant’s 1,500-selection wine list. Club Vin du Soleil is a perfect solution for sharing these gems.

The club has three membership levels—Grand Cru, Première Cru and Cru—priced at between $325 and $1,200 each quarter—which include between four and six bottles as well as invitations to wine events.

Grand Cru and Première Cru memberships allow 10 to 20 percent discounts on the resort’s hotel rooms, spa and food in the Michelin-starred restaurant (but not on wine), helping to brand the resort as a top destination for wine lovers.

To kick things off, Margerum gave away a few memberships. “We have sent out some free memberships, on the lower level, to some of our best hotel guests,” he says.

Madeline’s Restaurant in Cambria, California, launched its Big Red Wine Club—quarterly shipments of six red wines for between $130 and $190 a shipment—last March when chef-owner David Stoothoff bought Cambria Wine Shop, next door to his 32-seat restaurant. Dennis Zadell, who had developed the wine club at Madeline’s Wine Shop eight years earlier, picks out the wines.

Like Margerum, Zadell takes advantage of cross-promotional opportunities. Guests at Madeline’s Restaurant are offered between 30 and 40 percent off their initial shipment.

Of the 200 members in the club, some live as far away as New York and Georgia. “We only do red wines. We have a particular clientele,” Zadell says.

Being along the Central Coast, the club focuses hard on local wines, especially those with small allotments. “There’s no way I can compete with BevMo,” says Stoothoff, “so I have to make sure I have wines that are hard to find. A lot of the wines that we have (are from wineries that) don’t have tasting rooms or taste by appointment.”

Lettuce Entertain You, a Chicago-based restaurant group with 31 eateries including L20 in Chicago and Eiffel Tower in Las Vegas, launched a monthly wine club last summer. Like Madeline’s, it homes in on rare-to-find wines: in this case, affordable bottles from boutique wineries that are available exclusively through Lettuce Entertain You.

In each package choice—Discovery (two bottles, $32), Explorer (four bottles, $56) and Enthusiast (six bottles, $78)—is literature about the wineries represented. It’s in the form of a “Wine Cozy,” a wrap-around label for each bottle.

Adding an educational component is key—and precisely what club members want. “I don’t want to be like Wine Spectator in that I write up all the details in the wine,” says Margerum. “I like to say what I think about it and give it a personal touch.”

Because in the end, it might be those personal touches that convince people to take a leap and sign up for the newest source of wine in their communities.

By Kristine Hansen