Michael Cook enjoys Christmas four times a year.
That’s how he characterizes his quarterly shipments of wine from 14 distinct wine clubs. If he likes what he tastes when visiting wineries, the Cathedral City resident signs up to receive two, three, or even six bottles on a regular basis.
“A lot of the reason [for joining] is I have somebody choosing the wines for me, as opposed to getting stuck in a rut and only drinking, say, cabernets. They send me a syrah or malbec or something that I have never had, and I like it,” Cook explains. “Instead of me experimenting on my own, I let the vintner choose wines for me to taste.”
Cook belongs to a list of clubs that encompass Napa Valley, Sonoma, Temecula Valley, Santa Barbara, and Lake County-based Tulip Hill Winery, which also has a tasting room in Rancho Mirage.
“You always get a discount on wines you purchase [through clubs] — anywhere from 20 to 25 percent,” he says. “Sometimes they have a membership special where you can get a case of wine for 30 bucks.”
They also offer free winery tastings to club members and their guests, discounts on winery shop merchandise, advance opportunities to buy limited releases, discounts on wine dinners, invitations to new-release events and members-only parties, and newsletters with winemaker notes and recipes. The cost of shipments may range; but Cook — who, as a member of 14 clubs, serves as a prime example — pays an average of $50 for each shipment of two to three bottles.
When it comes to boutique wineries, club members often are among an elite class of wine connoisseurs to enjoy limited-production bottlings. For example, Palumbo Family Vineyards & Winery in Temecula only produces 2,500 cases a year and limits sales to wine club members and its tasting room.
“Our wine club takes 80 percent of what we produce,” says owner and winemaker Nicholas Palumbo, who reports a one-year waiting list for his wine club of between 400 and 500 members.
On the other end of the scale is Justin Vineyards & Winery in Paso Robles, which produces between 50,000 and 60,000 cases a year and counts more than 8,000 members of its Wine Society. Retail sales manager April Sutton notes that there’s a waiting list — restricted to Society members — for shipments of its Isoceles Reserve. The Bordeaux blend is not distributed or even poured in the winery’s tasting room; only Society members can get an annual shipment of the limited-production wine. And with more than 4,000 people on the waiting list, the wait for the privilege runs from one to three years.
Justin’s extensive menu of benefits for those who sign up for twice-yearly shipments of six or 12 bottles of its other wines include the Wine Society Lounge (overlooking stacks of wine-aging barrels), where members and their guests can enjoy barrel samples and the latest releases with food pairings and entertainment. Other perks include free shipping on all orders of six bottles or more, VIP winery and cave tours, a 20 percent discount on lodging at the winery’s four-room Just Inn, priority seating in the winery’s restaurant, a free Wine Society gala in August, and invitations to the annual Wine Society fall golf tournament and winter ski trip. This month, Justin is leading a one-week trip to Alaska for a dozen of its wine club members; a trip to Spain is being planned for 2008.
Ancillary Justin clubs include the Just-In Case Cabernet Club, Just Big Reds Club, and Wine & Cheese Club.
Those who want to explore wines from multiple wineries (without joining 14 different clubs) may enjoy the benefits of groups such as The California Club, run by Bruce and Pam Boring of Camarillo. The couple visits small California wineries, talks with the winemakers, and then selects two bottles for club members. The California Club also offers a Signature Series membership for more exclusive wines and an International Selections membership for imported wines. Previously selected wines can be reordered, often at an even greater savings.
There are more wine clubs of this sort — including one specifically for those who like lighter, sweeter wines — available online at vinesse.com.
A slightly different option is Orbit, the wine club created by Oriel. Wines bearing the Oriel label are commissioned from two dozen respected winemakers all over the world. Oriel offers 27 wines from 24 appellations in eight countries, with production typically around 500 cases and always less than 3,000. While the standard Orbit membership runs $79 per month, Oriel also offers a three-year Founder membership for $11,000 that includes a concierge service providing VIP access to wineries, $5,000 worth of wine per year, 10 percent off additional purchases, free storage and online cellar management from Vintrust, and private events Oriel terms “of a very cool and unusual nature.”
Those who like smooth jazz music with their wine — and there’s a large contingent of them — can join the Smooth Wine & Jazz Club or the Smooth Wine Lounge Club. Each includes a new-release CD monthly and offers wine memberships in three tiers: Deluxe, Reserve, and Premium. Selections focus on limited-production wines, many of which have received 90 points or more from well-known wine raters.
Cook, who admits he has reached his limit at 14 clubs, is thinking about which memberships he may drop — in part to make way for an as-yet unexplored winery.