Sep 29, 2023
Why Wine Clubs are Rising in Popularity
The programs have proven to deepen relationships with restaurant guests. In
The programs have proven to deepen relationships with restaurant guests.
In restaurants’ ongoing quest for guest connection, wine clubs offer an increasingly popular way to build relationships beyond an establishment's four walls. Driving engagement, awareness, and fresh revenue streams, these oenophile circles offer curated collections that reflect bespoke in-house dining experiences at home and via exclusive events.
"Not everyone's open seven days a week or for brunch, lunch, and dinner service, and more post-pandemic restaurants … need to make sure that they’re generating income, even when the doors aren't open—how do you do that?" says Alex Bell, beverage director and managing partner at Austin, Texas–based Aviary Wine & Kitchen, which runs Steady Sippers Case Club at 25 members.
"A wine club is always available to the public, that add-to-cart button and swipe of the card are always available with technology … every single moment you’re open and available, and that's a smart thing to do to always try to generate and automate income," he adds.
At Arizona-based Postino WineCafe (under parent company Upward Projects), beverage director Brent Karlicek says launching Wine Cult provided a new platform to interact with the brand's most loyal guests. The program also encouraged members to share their passion for boutique wines with friends and family who might have never stepped inside Postino's doors.
Wine Cult's formulation was spurred by Covid lockdowns as a way to bridge the gap when dine-in wasn't an option and to bring Postino to the people, no matter where they were enjoying their wine time, Karlicek says.
But even with these inherent advantages, clubs like Wine Cult still had to swivel through Covid, whether that was changing monthly bottle numbers and seeing a slight boost or crafting chef-driven three-course takeout meals paired with select wines that brought diners closer to the brand.
The pandemic notwithstanding, operators say off-premises wine programs remain a great option to branch into, especially for brands that excel in logistics and customer perks.
For one company in South Florida, the wine club preceded its two brick-and-mortar locations. Vinya Drinking Cru had amassed some 100-odd members when it expanded into the restaurant and physical market spaces.
"I’ve seen the key essential of the brick-and-mortar in growing a subscription model," says Allegra Angelo, cofounder and beverage director of restaurant Vinya Table in Coral Gables and retail spot Vinya Wine & Market in Key Biscayne. "Having brick-and-mortar in a high-traffic zone is a huge help to drive members. It's so hard for a brand to live purely online. Once Coral Gables opened in May, that helped a lot of new people sign up."
Attracting members is only part of a much larger equation. Factors like designing a dedicated website for the wine club, setting up payment processing, and coordinating pickups and/or delivery also come into play—and should be considered early in the process.
"[Restaurant owners] need to know how they’re going to administer the wine club on the backend first because we started out on Squarespace and found it challenging to manage all the different fees, income, and communications that go around subscriptions," says Andrew Werth, director of café operations and general manager at The Meteor, whose Worthy Wine Club serves 40 members in Austin, Texas.
The structure, subscription options, and pricing of wine clubs run the gamut, with restaurants tailoring their programs to fit their brand and customers. For example, Meteor's Worthy Wine Club offers monthly six-packs ($150 with free delivery) or 12-packs ($300 with free delivery and a $25 gift card); Vinya, on the other hand, dropped from a four-pack to a monthly two-pack with an included party game for $49. Postino operates at four quarterly bottles for $60 (or $220 annually), and Aviary's offerings sit at three or six bottles per month in subscriptions of three or six months from $380 to $1,475.
Only after considering the value brought to members and logistics can restaurants begin ironing out wine club perks, Angelo says. Perks can include discounts, rewards when dining in or shopping retail, weekly or private tastings, secret wine deals, cancel-anytime subscriptions, wine playlists, and free glasses of wine at box pickup.
"That [free glass of wine] gets them hanging out at our space and also enjoying our other offerings, like food and coffee. And [we can] offer participation in our weekly tasting," Werth says. "We also market wines chosen for the club within our retail space, so that allows folks who aren't necessarily subscribed to see what's been curated and what they’d like from that selection."
Postino grew its club through authenticity, quality, and convenient access to great wines, Karlicek says. A deep understanding of how crucial guest connection is to the brand also helped inform the restaurant's approach.
"Even though it's only $49 a month, [our Drinking Cru] are like top VIP customers, and yes, we have people in store spending a hundred times that amount of money, but [our Cru] are our top-tier VIPs," Angelo says. "They’re physically giving you their money every month and putting faith in you and trusting you."
When thinking through increased membership, Meteor focuses on multiple, in-restaurant, scannable QR codes; its website; and its referral program where members can mail postcards to friends for a 20 percent discount on their first month. Meteor also ships notes in each wine box and trains staff to share personal stories as another means of connecting with customers.
To position a wine club for member growth, Werth recommends restaurants start with their inner circle, including colleagues, and then focus on retention and building. "People's behavior is going to continue to evolve and change as we come out of Covid," Werth says. "We can change on our heels and think fast and see what works," he says.
Enthusiasm is contagious, and Aviary's Bell says one surefire way to build momentum with guests is to first drum up buy-in behind the scenes. After all, if the operators themselves are fans of the wine selection, chances are their guests will be, too.
"Do your research; make sure the wines align with the things that are important now to your consumer," Bell says. "Make sure you’re as excited about the wines on the list as [customers] are going to be, and if you’re excited about them, convey that level of excitement so they can feel the electricity in the salesmanship."