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Connecting Palates, People and Pinot

The Joys of Wine Clubs & Tastings

Millennials often enjoy a wine’s backstory as much as its ratings & reviews.

Millennials often enjoy a wine’s backstory as much as its ratings & reviews.

Ah, the good life … What’s not to love about sampling a few Cabs, Chardonnays, Syrahs and Zins at California’s Napa and Sonoma vineyards? And who knows? After savoring a limited edition vintage at a boutique winery tasting room, you might opt to join a monthly wine club. By signing up, you are assured the same great wine you enjoyed on vacation will be shipped to your home.

Fact is, few oenophiles – aka “wine lovers” – can take time off to escape to the Wine Country. For some a more efficient option is to join a popular online source like the Wall Street Journal’s Wine Club. WSJ marketing is straightforward. Promotions include “Get a premium wine club experience at an affordable price” or seasonal specials like “Get the perfect BBQ reds for $69.99 plus 3 BONUS bottles.”  

As aficionados Jerry and Carol Macon of Colorado Springs point out, the club helps them connect with sometimes-elusive brands. “We order from the Wall Street Journal, but use them mostly to buy Portuguese reds, which can be hard to find otherwise,” Carol says.

Today’s wine industry, however, is seeing a shift as Millennials enter the market. Fascinated by all things new and different, younger bibbers, for example, tend to resist the established 100-point numerical rating system. Instead they are lured by a unique backstory or hip new label – often to the dismay of veteran wine connoisseurs. “We get tons of requests for Slovenian Chardonnay,” L.A. chic restaurant owner Taylor Parsons lamented during a recent interview, adding that “so many Millennials are more interested in the narrative of the wine rather than the wine.”

Industry research shows that a vintage’s strongest selling point – especially with younger customers – is often its social appeal, explains California’s Michael Franzia of Bronco Wine Co., one of the nation’s largest family-owned wine producers. 

That’s why community-friendly tasting rooms where Millennials and their friends enjoy good times together have become an increasing focus --especially for smaller, boutique wineries. “A successful tasting room and building a wine club go hand in hand,” Franzia explains. One prime example: Rosenblum Cellars – one of Bronco Wine’s 180-plus brands produced at a small, prestigious Napa Valley winery. Founded by “The Zin Guy,” Kent Rosenblum, the company was acquired by Bronco in 2016. Franzia and his team have built on the iconic brand by opening an urban tasting room in Oakland – across the bay from Fisherman’s Wharf. The venue’s portside location is the site of on-the-lawn yoga classes, live music concerts, “Edu-Tastings,” Trivia Tuesdays and “Sips and Samples” evenings. Not only has a place to meet up helped reignite the brand’s popularity, it has driven consistent year-over-year growth in wine club membership. “My take is that Rosenblum Wine Club members share a great sense of community,” he explains. 

Closer to home, The Winery at Holy Cross Abbey in Canon City also provides a year-round tasting room and The Congregation Wine Club. Open daily, winery staff guide visitors through a flight tasting menu. During busy summers, tourists headed to the Royal Gorge and other attractions mix with locals to enjoy “VIP” wine and cheese tastings in the park or on the terrace. “Those have really become popular,” says manager Melodi Tezak. Off-season, The Abbey hosts birthday celebrations or family wedding gatherings and sees brisk holiday business. “We bring people together in a nice atmosphere,” she explains, noting that VIP tastings that usually take an hour and a half “often last three hours because people just enjoy themselves.”  

Retail stores also create tasting experiences and offer wine club memberships. Colorado Springs’ Sovereignty Wines founder and Gen Xer Ivars Spons, for example, says his customer profile varies widely. Some are seasoned connoisseurs who have belonged to clubs – or on the other end of the spectrum monthly book club groups. Some individuals study reviews and ratings before they buy. Millennials usually rely on social media – and a cool story. “They’ll find out that rock musician Dave Matthews owns a winery -- and that’s what they want.” For novices he offers the following advice: “Ask questions, find a neat place to shop and be experimental. Try a wine from Hungary or Israel. It’s easy to head straight for the $15 shelf. Why not set a budget of maybe $50? Buy your favorite instead of focusing on a certain price point.”  

Sovereignty’s Thursday afternoon in-store tastings offer a chance to try new and different varietals. Tastings connect samplers with fellow wine lovers – some of whom have joined the store’s wine club. Spons sees membership as “a good way to get your toe in the water.” Eventually, though, curiosity wins out. He’d rather match wines with an individual’s preference -- whether it’s reds, whites or a stellar wine from his cellar. “To me, that’s better than a one-size-fits-all approach,” he says. “I like to give my customers more control.”