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Tony Greenberg

Tony Greenberg

Posted: August 25, 2010 09:35 AM

What Happens When A Wine Club Is Anything But Exclusive

"I'd never join a club that would allow a person like me to become a member."Groucho Marx

Recently, I got a cold call at the office from a wine club I recently had joined (mostly for research, actually). The club had a hot deal, what the caller said was a great wine at a phenomenal price, and the cases were sure to be gone soon. It seems everyone everywhere has a deal on a bottle of wine.

Okay, that got me going. If the wine was selling so fast, and it was already nearly gone, how come he had to call me to sell more of it? Well, he wanted to make sure I got a chance to buy before the wine was gone. But, I asked, won't you get more if it's selling so well? Oh no, it wouldn't be restocked for 18 months, or maybe ever, once it was gone.

Now I was really getting wound up. All this hooey grinds my guts sometimes. So I asked what was all that background noise on the call? Of course, the noise came from his co-workers, maybe 30 to 40 of them, he said, all working in what was likely to be a sort of boiler-room operation to push that "hot-selling" wine to club members.

I knew the cold caller worked for a company that provides fulfillment services for several wine clubs that are each tied to big luxury brands. So, what was the difference between the clubs, I asked sweetly.

He said he couldn't really answer, and transferred me to Customer Service, to a very nice woman whom I'll call Michelle.

What Michelle then told me was so perfectly goofy, I couldn't believe this wasn't a prank call, written by pals just to push my buttons. Amazingly, it wasn't, and more importantly, Michelle unwittingly illustrated the shortcomings of most wine clubs, and why we can do better for wine lovers.

Which, it turns out, Michelle isn't. Yes, Michelle was there to help customers understand more about wines they were buying from her company. But Michelle said she really didn't drink wine, except (wait for it) "white zinfandel."

"I really don't like all those dry wines, " she said. I asked if her employer had a white Zinfandel wine club. "Unfortunately not," she said.

Then I asked where sweet (and sweet-wine-drinking) Michelle learned about wine, given that she didn't like it much. Other than a few swills of Sutter Home, she said they gave her two weeks of training in wine issues to handle any consumer questions.

Now I wanted to know what the differences were between the big clubs her company ran. She confessed the clubs really weren't that different at all. Members of each club receive pretty much the same wines the members of the other clubs get, at pretty much the same price.

So, what's wrong here? Nothing, if you want to buy your wine based on a generic branding exercise designed to move a lot of random juice to a moneyed class of not-very-discriminating consumers.

But there has to be a better way to run a wine club.

Wine lovers deserve clubs that target a specific group of consumers with specific sets of shared taste (not just brand) preferences. Those clubs should provide affordable access to wines that this group is most likely to enjoy. That means some smart cookie will create a White Zinfandel club for Michelle and other sweet blush wine lovers out there. In the interim Michelle, may I humbly acquaint you with a lovely sweeter Rose'?

Side bar: White Zinfandel may not be an actual grape, but nor is a Meritage. So stuff that in my pretentious Riedel and quaff it. Cheers and L'chaim to anyone who loves a wine they can afford and they can get when they want it.

 

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