Wine: Join the club

Jun 30, 2009


Wine lovers with a wealth of experience and expertise get as much enjoyment out of researching, discussing and choosing a wine as they do drinking it. But for the less hard-core, the seemingly endless choice of styles, brands and vintages can be daunting. Enter the wine club, delivering your wine without your having to read a review or guidebook, or even the back label.

“We provide value and at-home convenience,” says Brad Banducci, CEO of Australia’s largest direct wine seller, Cellarmasters. “When we talk to our members the entire purchase history is all there. Our biggest issue is knowing what customers don’t like.”

But just who selects the wines? Most clubs claim an “expert panel”, but bear in mind that in-house experts might often have to base their selections on whether there is a large enough quantity available.

In Australia, wine clubs offer essentially the same service, but all have their marketing idiosyncrasies. The Wine Society is the only club with a $50 joining fee, which gets you a “welcome” sixpack of mixed wines, refunded if you choose to quit your membership. This society, started by Dr Gilbert Phillips and a few mates in 1946, has a membership of about 55,000 and turned over $46.5m in the 2007/2008 financial year. You need to spend $100 a year to keep your membership active, delivery is less than $6 per case and insurance is free. There’s a monthly magazine/catalogue and a 100 per cent money-back guarantee on all wines. The Wine Society buys in widely, as well as making and sourcing a number of its own wines, many of which are truly first-rate. Access to wide-ranging events and wine education is a bonus and profits are funnelled back into the club.

Cellarmasters was purchased from Fosters by Archer Capital, a private equity company, in 2007. It reports a turnover of $125m and an active membership of 220,000 (those who have purchased in the past 12 months). What it offers is along the lines of what the local liquor barn sells, with a few more colourful additions. You pay for delivery of up to three cases, insurance is an additional charge and Cellarmasters, too, has a 100 per cent money-back guarantee.

Wine Selectors (originally the Hunter Valley Wine Society), privately owned by Greg Walls, claims to be Australia’s largest independent direct supplier of wine. Its $63m annual turnover via some 120,000 active members is about half that of Cellarmasters, but Selectors claims that Cellarmasters makes much of the wine it sells, whereas Selectors buys it all in, hence the independence qualifier.

Some wines that Wine Selectors sells are either made by or affiliated with members of its expert tasting panel, but by and large the selections are reliable and offer decent diversity. Wine Selectors also charges a $22 membership fee that includes a copy of the quarterly magazine and regular communications about offers and events.

Retailers such as Vintage Cellars and Kemeny’s run wine clubs that account for a significant slice of sales in both volume and value terms. Many wineries run cellar door mailing lists (some call them wine clubs) with special wines and limited production bottlings. All of which makes it hard to pin down the value of the direct wine sales market, although Alex Meijnen, Wine Selectors’ general manager of marketing and planning, suggests it is around $400m per annum.

Joining a wine club is about more than just finding the cheapest price. Some look to build loyalty through offering wine education, food and wine experiences, and hosting special events. According to Cellarmasters’ Brad Banducci, “It’s about stories and places – and that’s what our customers really want.”

Clubbers' choice

2005 Dutschke St Jakobi Shiraz $41
One of the Barossa stalwarts from the southerly Lyndoch
area, this is certainly one to age. Terrific balance and buckets of red and dark berry fruit rolling in all directions on smooth, supple tannins, long and resolute finish.

2008 Peter Lehmann Eden Valley Riesling $14
A perennially stunning Eden Valley riesling, trading on intense citrus fruit appeal, some lime blossom lift and masterful precision. The palate delivers mouth-watering acidity, it’s a lesson in line, length and ageing potential.

Chandon NV Brut $25
Impressive, complex and authentic bottle-fermented character with bready yeast aromas, fresh pears and apple. Smooth palate texture, some rich pinot flavours, bright chardonnay citrus and savoury biscuit finish.

2004 Penfolds St Henri Shiraz $90
A modern classic in top form here, oozing understated style and measured power. Gracefully matured in larger oak, the palate trades on focused blackberry fruit flavour and gentle, elegant tannins. Retro-chic.

Source: Qantas The Australian Way July 2009

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