Two years ago, as part of King Restaurant’s Covid-19 pivot, the New York City eatery launched a wine club, giving patrons an opportunity to continue enjoying its curated French and Italian wine offerings during lockdown while also providing a revenue lifeline for the venue. “We had a huge inventory of wine and had to close down,” recalls general manager and partner Annie Shi. “Many of our regular customers weren’t living in the city anymore and asked us how they could find wines like those that we offer.” That’s when the restaurant introduced the wine club, whereby members receive three bottles each month for $140. “The club helped them feel part of the old routine,” she says. “And it’s grown from there.”
Similarly, at Donato Restaurant Group, with three locations in Berkeley and Redwood City, California, the pandemic served as the impetus for the creation of the company’s two-tier wine club. “While we had the idea of offering a wine club for a while, closure during Covid-19 gave us the opportunity to focus on doing those things we always wanted to do,” wine director Juan Morante says. The Donato Wine Club launched in 2021, with offerings ranging from three bottles a month for $75 to six bottles monthly for $160. Zoom wine tastings staged in the early days of the pandemic helped reinforce the notion, Morante notes, as attendees frequently “asked us about starting a wine club.”
Indeed, like cocktails to-go, wine clubs offered by restaurants have emerged as one of the hospitality industry’s silver linings of the Covid-19 pandemic. The clubs have been popular marketing tools for leading wine and spirits retailers for years but now their availability has widened, and consumers and merchants alike are benefitting.
For off-premise retailers, wine clubs run the gamut, from value-focused offerings to exclusive bottles for collectors. As with the restaurant programs, the pandemic impacted retailer wine clubs, some for the better and some for the worse. “We saw 30% growth in our wine club memberships over the pandemic,” says Michael DeFrance, wine club manager at Hi-Time Wine Cellars in Costa Mesa, California. “We had many new customers try the club and stay subscribed even when things started to open up again.” The Hi-Time wine club, first launched about 20 years ago, today offers six different plans at two price points, $30 and $50, for either one or two bottles, depending on the plan. The goal of the club, according to DeFrance, is to expand customers’ wine horizons with quality bottlings at an affordable price. “It’s also a great vehicle to show our customers how many top-quality wines are available, from Argentinian Malbecs to French Rieslings to Greek Assyrtikos,” the retailer remarks.
Hi-Time’s wine club currently comprises about 120 members, mostly from southern California, although DeFrance notes, “we have wine club customers all across the country.” The club doesn’t require a long-term commitment; subscribers can cancel at any time. Of the six club options, the Platinum Selection I plan, featuring two bottles of red wine for $50, and the Gold Selection I, offering two reds for $30, are the most popular, the retailer says. The 2020 Casa Castillo El Molar Garnacha was recently included in the Platinum Selection I tier, while the 2021 Kevin Descombes Cuvee Kéké Beaujolais was featured in the Gold Selection I program. According to DeFrance, subscribers have been pleased with the offerings. “We’ve seen many repeat buys of our featured selections,” he notes.
At the Bottles Up store in Chicago, the monthly BU Club boasts three levels: Magnum (two bottles for $30), Jeroboam (two bottles for $60), and Methuselah (one or two bottles of rare or aged wine for $90). Other incentives, such as discounts on classes and invitations to members-only events, are also included in the membership. According to owner Melissa Zeman, about 440 customers subscribe to the club, and the Magnum level is most popular. The wine club has been offered since the store opened four years ago, and Zeman notes an uptick in interest during the pandemic. “People had more time to discover new things and wanted to support local businesses,” she says.
Most BU Club members pick up their monthly selection at the store, but a few customers have it shipped for a nominal fee, Zeman says (Bottles Up only ships wine within the Prairie State). Monthly selection is usually focused on a theme or region, such as spring wines, female winemakers, and Chile. Some of the offerings are even chosen by local wine professionals, a tactic Zeman began during the pandemic when many Chicago sommeliers and other hospitality professionals were out of work.
The pandemic also impacted the wine club at New Jersey-based Gary’s Wine & Marketplace. According to Mike Fisch, director of innovation, with the chain’s resources “stretched thin” during the pandemic and demand for online sales up, operational focus on the wine club waned, necessitating an update post-pandemic. Last July, the monthly wine club was transitioned to a quarterly program and Fisch says the revamp has already seen tremendous growth. While he declines to reveal how many members are enrolled, the retailer notes, “we’ve had a great retention rate from the previous club.” Gary’s, which operates four stores in the Garden State and one in California, ships wine to all states it legally can.
Gary’s Wine Club now has three levels: Sommelier Society (six bottles for $150), Connoisseur Club (12 bottles for $350) and Napa Valley Select (six bottles for $1,000). The latter plan features red wines from Napa Valley, such as the recent 2018 Castiel Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, while the other levels can be customized with reds, whites, or a mix of both. Kayley Nugent, gifting and events manager at Gary’s, oversees the wine club, and says the Sommelier Society is the most popular plan. “It’s great as a gift option and is designed for people who enjoy wine but aren’t sure what they’re looking for,” she says.
The Connoisseur level at Gary’s is meant for consumers who want to expand their palates, and with a dozen bottles, it’s a great option for New Jerseyans who like to patronize BYOB restaurants, Fisch adds. “The Napa level is specifically for knowledgeable Napa Valley fans, offering wines that often can’t be found anywhere else,” he says. Indeed, Nugent adds that the customization of the new wine club reflects the retailer’s overall approach to customer service.
Restaurant Clubs Emerge
While many restaurant wine clubs are still in their infancy, they’re no less ambitious than their retail counterparts. At Donato—which operates Donato & Co., Donato Enoteca, and CRU wine bar in California—all the wines offered as part of the club are currently Italian, but according to Morante, the selection may be expanded “to wines that are somewhat similar, such as those from Slovenia or Austria.” He also aspires to expand the membership ranks, which, in late 2022, stood at just 20 members. Subscribers are largely customers of the Donato venues, who typically pick up their selections in person, although the company can ship wine to other states where allowed. According to Morante, the three-bottle Cru wine club, which recently featured the likes of the 2017 Fratelli Revelllo Barolo, is the most popular plan.
At King, the ranks of wine club membership (which can run for one or three months) typically ranges between 50-100 members during any given month, Shi says. “While that may sound low, that’s the way we prefer it,” she explains. “We only want to feature wines from small producers that we’re excited about.” The 2020 Tiberio Pecorino, recently featured in the club, is a good example. Because New York restaurants can no longer ship wine to consumers, King partners with the retailer Parcelle to handle shipments.
Another New York eatery, Cote Korean steak house, also recently launched a wine club. The Cote Wine Club, offered in partnership with Convive Wine & Spirits, features three bottles a month for $165 (including shipping and handling). The selection is curated by Cote’s James Beard Award-nominated sommelier team, and typically includes a mix of red, white, sparkling, and rosé wines, with a focus on organic and sustainable offerings. Subscriptions are available for one, three, and six months.
On- and off-premise retailers say wine clubs can be great tools to help educate consumers about new wines and regions. “It helps to expand the horizons and palates of our customers,” says Hi-Time’s DeFrance. But wine clubs can also be big assets to retailers in building customer loyalty and enticing new guests. Moreover, monthly clubs are a welcomed revenue stream. “It can be a nice boost to revenues on the first of the month,” says Bottles Up’s Zeman.
But wine clubs also provide challenges for on- and off-premise operators. Zeman, for example, points to the added labor that comes with maintaining and updating membership information. Others note that supply constraints—especially when small wine producers are featured—and rising costs on products and shipping can take a toll on wine club profitability.
Still, retailers and restaurant operators see opportunity to build further upon their wine clubs to garner even more customer loyalty. DeFrance, for example, notes that Hi-Time plans to offer tastings at its wine bar featuring wines from the club. Zeman would like to expand the frequency of wine events for members from quarterly to monthly, while Fisch says he’s considering offering exclusive tasting events for club members.
“Wine clubs are a wonderful way for our customers to stay connected and learn,” says King’s Shi. “People interact the most with wine at restaurants. By having the opportunity to take those wines home, it helps them continue the education.”