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Wine

So Everyone’s in a Wine Club Now?

November 29, 2021

Story: Megan Krigbaum

photo: Kimberley Hasselbrink

Wine

So Everyone’s in a Wine Club Now?

November 29, 2021

Story: Megan Krigbaum

photo: Kimberley Hasselbrink

Over the last 50-plus years, the wine club has gone from stuffy boys’ club fodder to niche restaurant selections. The pandemic has led to an explosion of options that go beyond a passive doorstep drop.

In the past two years, much of what we took for granted when it comes to procuring and drinking wine has been turned on its head. Restaurants have become wine shops; wine shops have cultivated night club–like lines out the door; sommeliers and shop owners are tech stars. That sommeliers from beloved restaurants across the country are now getting into the wine club game feels about right, here in this last stretch of 2021.

You’d be forgiven for asking if we actually need more wine clubs. Over the last 50-some years, the wine club model has evolved from old boys’ clubs suited to those hunting Bordeaux and California cabernets to the more boutique outfits, like Fat Cork, which specializes in grower Champagne. Retailers have long had wine clubs, the quality of which is directly related to the quality of the shops themselves. Even media brands like NPR, The New York Times and Eater have created clubs. And, more recently, there’s been an onslaught of clubs from sommeliers who no longer work in restaurants, from large (SommSelect, Viticole) to small (Crunchy Red Fruit, Cantina Sauvage, Salutay). Rajat Parr, the well-known sommelier and now winemaker, has a new club, too, with two six-bottle shipments annually for $500. (Parr’s cell number is included should you have any questions.)

The newest breed? The restaurant wine club, which was largely born during the pandemic as a means of self-preservation—or at least a means of staying connected with guests. “You know you have similar taste,” says Jen O’Neil, wine director for the Sea Creatures group of restaurants in Seattle and The Whale Wins Wine Club, of the easy sell of bringing home an experience and aesthetic that customers seek in the restaurant. It’s also a practical way of supporting the restaurants you love. “It’s a matter of shopping on taste and principle,” she says. While a lack of restrictions allowed these clubs to thrive in the earlier days of COVID-19, they continue to remain a part of many restaurants’ models as dining (and drinking) returns to some version of normalcy.

“Restaurants are expanding the scope of how they live in their guests’ lives—beyond their four physical walls,” says Sam Bernstein, whose company, Table22, created a platform for restaurants who were looking to find more points of contact with things like dinner kits and clubs. Table22 launched in May 2020 and now works with 250 restaurants around the country. Those who have begun wine clubs through Table22 range from The Meteor, a bike shop meets coffee shop meets natural wine bar in Austin, Texas, to Brooklyn’s Frankies Spuntino, a neighborhood Italian spot with an impressive European cellar, to Rose’s Luxury, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Washington, D.C. Each has its own program, set of member benefits (free tastings, Zoom classes, events) and wines that are meant to evoke the experience of being in the restaurant. For now, Table22 wine club subscriptions are either picked up directly from the restaurants or are delivered locally, as nationwide shipping is a web of laws and regulations that will take time and staff to sort out, says Bernstein.

Other restaurants, like New York’s King, have forgone third parties in favor of running their clubs on their own. Annie Shi, partner and general manager, launched the King Wine Club as an answer to a simple question: “How do you connect with a restaurant that you can’t go to as much?” It has become a means of regular communication with guests that already have a cultish affection for the restaurant. Over the last year, Shi has put together three-bottle boxes every month at $140 each, with her write-ups on the wines tucked into the boxes. Those who aren’t in the dining room can still have a bottle of Marco Tinessa Ognostro, an aglianico, and be regaled with the sort of tableside banter they’ve come to expect: “I’d just gotten back from Campania and kept thinking about this wine.”

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The King Wine Club is one of few restaurant clubs that ship nationally. In New York City, an about-face change in laws enacted during the pandemic made it so that, as of July 2021, restaurants could no longer sell wine at retail. Those with clubs suddenly had to scramble to find a retailer to whom they could outsource the buying and distribution of the bottles; Shi is working with Parcelle. In September, Cote, a modern Korean barbecue restaurant in New York, launched the monthly Cote-to-Go wine club, with three wines chosen by wine directors Victoria James and Mia Van de Water, for $165. They’re collaborating with East Village wine store Convive. And Zwann Grays, wine director at Olmsted in Brooklyn, has paired up with Copake Wine Works in upstate New York to make it work.

Grays, who runs her wine club—Zwann’s Wine Club—separate from her role at Olmsted, actually delivers the wines to her club members herself. “We’re talking grassroots,” she says. For $160 a month, her club members receive six bottles of natural wine. While her list at Olmsted is also all-natural, the wine club wines “might be more of a deeper cut,” she says, making room for more esoteric wines. “They’re a little more B-side than what’s on the wine list. Everybody’s getting the hits, it’s the same album, it’s just a different set.” This summer she put out an all-Greek wine box, but the others have been a little more free-form. “We’ve done a couple themed ones, but mostly it’s a feeling, like wines to drink for sweater weather,” Grays says.

In other states, like California, the laws that enabled restaurants to sell bottles of wine at retail remain, which means that Shelley Lindgren, owner of San Francisco’s A16, is still boxing up wines in the restaurant dining room and shipping them out to her members around the country, half in California, half outside. Lindgren’s The New Italian Wine Club (the name a nod to her forthcoming book) centers on three bottles from one Italian region per month, for just $79. As a wine director who has long championed the little-known grapes and forgotten corners of Italy, she’s been able to leverage relationships with small distributors to access bottles that work within the $79 price confines. This November, Umbria is spotlighted with a white blend from Scacciadiavoli, Leonardo Bussoletti’s Ràmici ciliegiolo and Còlpetrone’s 2012 sagrantino, with notes from Lindgren and a recipe from A16’s chef for braised cannellini beans.

This promise of niche wines is something that Thatcher Baker-Briggs, a former sommelier at San Francisco’s Saison and Angler, has on his mind as his TWC Cellar Access Subscriptions expands. The bulk of his work with his company, Thatcher’s Wine Consulting, is helping big collectors build $50,000-plus cellars, but he says his club is “an outlet for us to showcase what we’re really excited about,” be it Champagne from wunderkind Dhondt-Grellet or Gevrey-Chambertin from Domaine Duroché. With two tiers, at $98 and $150 (three bottles each), Baker-Briggs is currently trying to figure out how small he has to keep the club in order to be able to get his hands on the wines he wants to pass along. “For us, the subscription is not our revenue center,” says Baker-Briggs. “We can get to 60 people or 100 people and cap it when I’m no longer able to get enough of the wines I want to include.”

Whereas larger clubs lean on producers and wines that are available in substantial quantities, these smaller clubs are often in a position to get access to smaller-production and more allocated wines—wines that would be unlikely to see a retail shelf because the production is too minuscule, or the wines are so highly sought after. That is part of the appeal. The other part? Picking a club today is also about who you want to support, or hang out with at home, so to speak. Will it be Claus Preisinger’s Puszta Libre with the bike gang at The Meteor, or Château Simone Palette Rouge with the ladies at King? Either way, says Shi, there is one thing that unites the appeal of any well-curated club: “It’s such an easy way to always have great wine on hand.”

Five Clubs to Gift This Season

Archaic laws can make shipping wine nationally a little tricky, but these clubs have it figured out.

King Wine Club | Three bottles monthly, $140 (excluding tax and shipping)Annie Shi, partner and wine director of New York City’s King has a following for her wine list, which highlights classic wines that are meant to jibe with the restaurant’s French- and Italian-inflected dishes. This style holds true through her year-old wine club, which has highlighted bottlings like Pattes Loup Vent d’Ange Chablis and Benanti Contrada Monte Serra Etna Rosso.

Cote-To-Go | Three bottles monthly, $165 (including tax and shipping)
That the Cote wine club can include wines that range from Pierre Gimonnet & Fils Cuvée Fleuron Blanc de Blancs Champagne to Viña González Bastías Naranjo, a natural orange wine from Chile’s Valle del Maule, is testament to the varied palates of wine directors Victoria James and Mia Van de Water. This is a club for someone who never wants to drink the same wine twice.

A16 The New Italian Wine Club | Three bottles monthly, $79 (excluding tax and shipping)
Sommelier Shelley Lindgren has led the way with her understanding of and commitment to Italian wines from native varieties and small producers for more than 15 years. This club takes on a different region of Italy every month, be it Istine Chianti, Terenzuola vermentino nero and Fontaleoni vernaccia from Tuscany, or Cave Mont Blanc de Morgex et La Salle Vini Estremi, La Vrille Cornalin and Château Feuillet Torrette from the Valle d’Aosta.

TWC Cellar Access Subscriptions | Three bottles monthly, $98 or $150 (excluding tax and shipping)
Thatcher Baker-Briggs spends his days advising on blue-chip wines for wealthy collectors, but his taste for wines that may never see the insides of those cellars, such as Emrich-Schönleber Monzinger Niederberg riesling and 2019 Chanterêves Bourgogne chardonnay, is what drives this monthly subscription. Well-attuned to producers in Burgundy, he has a knack for sourcing bottles from up-and-comers that offer tons of value.

Table22 | Various subscription levels
With 250 restaurants using the Table22 platform for their wine clubs, there are plenty of options in most big cities to consider when gifting a club subscription. Be sure to read the full descriptions of the wine clubs to get a sense of the extras that come with each one, as they can vary from free pizza to Zoom tastings. Table22 doesn’t ship nationally, but the opportunity to support local businesses is part of the appeal of the new wine club.

Disclosure: Eater is a media property of Punch’s parent company, Vox Media.

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