by Sarah Abbott MW

Wine clubs: what’s your tribe?

“I have a mind to join a club, and beat you over the head with it.” Groucho Marx

As a child, I was often at my nan’s for the Methodist ladies bible club. They got together weekly for mutual confidence and enlightenment, and copious spiritual discussion, coffee and cake.

Clubs have always seemed benign, to me. They harness the power of common interest, and create a richer and more diverse experience. We club in every aspect of human achievement. One of my naughtiest friends – part time comedian and teacher – enthralled us with tales of his member-ship of London’s fetish clubs during the 1990s. I’m particularly fond of the Learned Societies, in the same way I love the weekly slot on obscure trade journals in Have I got News for You. (Modern Ferret is my favourite. Surely Drinks Business deserves a slot.)

Clubs are about finding your tribe. Together let’s get competitive/transcendent/greenfingered/enlightened/learned/happy/fit/wealthy/powerful/laid. But they can inspire ridicule, and even hostility, from those who are outside.

Clubs can be seen to be protecting advantage – hogging insights and contacts for the chosen few. The ridicule springs from a sense of, “You weirdos find that interesting?” Ridicule is useful for wine, which is still trying to shake off the whisper of the wanker, because it at least inspires explanation, and engagement.

Many “Wine Clubs” were not founded as clubs, but as subscription purchase schemes, powered by direct marketing, huge investment, and a dash of customer inertia. Those ‘£40 Wine Vouchers’ in with your Tyrwhitt shirt, or Hello Fresh food box, are placed, in their millions, by affinity marketing companies whose business it is to target. Their target is the mildly curious suit-wearer, and the convenience-loving foodie, not the dedicated wine geek. The cut price case is bait. With that purchase, the buyer is signed up to ongoing direct debits and wine cases of varying frequency, at full price. They can cancel. But the business model is predicated on the knowledge that just enough will not.

The tensions inherent in these non-clubs are clear from the ways in which the leaders have evolved. Gone are the bad old days of Wine Clubs being just down from Book Clubs on the ASA’s naughty list. All offer immediate cancellation, transparency, flexibility, tailoring, and no-quibble guarantees. Complaints still come, however, from consumers who do not realise that they are committing to more than just their bargain. But Virgin et al are increasingly relying on value and loyalty, rather than inertia. They talk of quality and genuine prices, and there is interest and innovation to be found in their ranges.

Many have become clubbier, and channel the sense of belonging, and of access to member-only perks. Laithwaites vintage festivals are attended by 1000s on big winey days out. Visitors include wine tasting clubs of varying formality. Naked have harnessed the emotion of community better than any other, while keeping the fundamental business model of the subscription wine service. But their customer quest for “a deal” is still a source of tension. It is expensive to be flexible, to run forums, and to service, and it is telling that only the specialists in service-led mail order have kept with it. Tesco closed its excellent wine community website in 2015, and is winding up its wine subscription club.

While Tesco is moving closer to the no-frills-discounter model in wine, one of the no-frills daddies is moving towards greater wine engagement. Aldi holds frequent tastings in-store and at festivals (disclosure: I do host some of these). “Aldi Wine Club” is not selling wine. Rather, it recruits normal human punters to join a virtual tasting panel. Members receive free wine samples, and share their views with their friends, and on social media, with the hashtag #aldiwineclub.

The Wine Society’s new forum is another example of community power. The genesis of this mutual society arose from the need to move on several barrels Portuguese wine left unsold from the great Albert Hall exhibitions of the 1870s. (Poor Portuguese wine. Delicious and underrated since 1874.) Today, the Wine Society has 400,000 members, no sales department, and hundreds of events every year. The online forum has been created to engage members who can’t make it to the events, and to increase the engagement and registration of ‘younger members’. Discussion topics are broad and social. At first, they were seeded by consultant Robert McIntosh and Wine Society team. Increasingly, they are started by members. The most popular thread so far is: ‘What wine do you hate, and what would it take to get you to try it.” It contains my favourite post, as a Skoda-driving rosé lover: “Rosé. Rosés are much like Skodas: my head says I have to accept they can now be very good; but my heart still wouldn’t let me actually buy one.”

The Wine Society community forum was inspired by examples beyond wine, and the Lego forum. Currently, it is open to members, but not producers, who are active participants in the forum over at Naked Wines. Naked customers find extra savour and meaning in this interaction, and it sets them apart from the subscription plan competition. It must be tough for a winemaker to read that Sue from Croydon thinks your Malbec is a bit rubbish. It’s brilliant that many of them engage with such grace, although I would quite like to see a full-on row there, Daily Mail forum style.

But the world’s biggest wine community was not – at first – attached to any commercial proposition. ViVino, the wine bottle scanning app, launched in 2011 with the slogan “Never forget another wine.” You can trace the growth and direction of ViVino if you compare that with its current slogan “Buy your next bottle of wine with the help of 26 million friends.” I tried ViVino briefly in 2014. I found much of information the app gave was incorrect, and I didn’t try again until recently. Several million-dollar rounds of investment later, it is a slick, social, (mostly) accurate force, with 65 million ratings on more than 10 million wines. Their new Wine Market sales service – launched in Spring 2017 – harnesses the ‘big data’ shared by the community for targeted sales to the community. It’s an inversion of the conventional model, in which the old targets are the new creators. It is the power of the club that is creating itself.

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