Wineries: Don’t insult your club members

July 6th, 2010

Wine shipment. From:

Wine shipment.

A wine club is a way for wine lovers to get current releases from wineries they like and to experience a broad spectrum of wines – regardless where they live. Many look forward to their periodic shipments. They don’t deserve to be disappointed.

Over the course the past six months or so, we’ve received some wine shipments with flawed wines. I suspect that people making these wines knew they were problematic. Yet, they released them and they were sent out to customers. And that is just a bad business decision.

The first wine came in my wife’s club shipment from a prominent Santa Barbara County producer which is one of two in the AVA owned by a larger, state-wide, portfolio of brands. They make very good Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Syrah from their vineyards on the Santa Maria bench. The problem wine was a half-bottle (375 ml) of estate, vineyard-designated Pinot Noir. The wine tasted cooked, and blatantly so. This was not the case with the full-size bottles of the same wine. A few months later, another half-bottle of this same wine arrived with a different order. It also had minimal and dull fruit, stale caramel and what can be described as maple leaf tea aromas and flavors – leading me to conclude that the lot of half-bottles of this wine was badly heat damaged.

My suspicion is that other club members must have complained about this wine but emails to the club manager regarding this problem (sent in January) were not returned. (Emails were sent from my address, my Yahoo account and my wife’s Hotmail account) During a recent visit to Santa Barbara County, a conversation with an employee of the company (who said local staff was aware of the problem) indicates that, at some level, the staff of this company knew about the flawed bottles. The wines are sent from a northern California warehouse, so one could defend the situation by saying that there is a breakdown in communication. Even if that is the case, it is not an acceptable excuse.

The other wine is a dry Riesling from an independent, family-owned winery in Edna Valley. They have an eclectic assortment of varieties, the most unusual being their estate Teroldego. This winery usually makes clean and enjoyable wines. Six months ago, this 2007 Riesling was dark golden, tasting of bruised, bitter apples and stale nuts. No bright floral or fruit aromas. Last week, another bottle had the same problem. I am inclined to say the wine is grossly oxidized, although the nuttiness may lead some to say it is maderized. The owners of this winery have not yet responded to emails regarding this issue.

This wine received a Bronze Medal at the 2009 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. I was hoping that I just had an off bottle the first time around but that proved not to be the case. The argument could be made that the wine showed much better during the competition than it is showing now. It is possible that it became oxidized between the competition and the time I tasted it, but the severity of the flaw makes me doubt this. It is quite possible that the wine is being sent out precisely because it got a medal in some competition.

I don’t know if the problem with this wine is a more damning indictment of poor skill on the part of the judges who gave this wine a medal, the value and meaning of a Bronze Medal or of the apparent cynicism on the part of the winery in sending a flawed wine, assuming that customers will accept it since it got a medal in some competition.

It stands to reason that a wine club is a way for a winery to move a considerable part of their inventory. It is also a way for consumers to stay connected to producers whose wines they previously enjoyed and expect to continue enjoying. The former should not come at the expense of the latter.

Most flaws – cooked, maderized, oxidized, mercaptans and TCA-taint  – are unpleasant. Even if most of your club members can’t articulate the flaw or problem, they still are likely to not enjoy the wine.

As an aside, one argument likely to be made in defense of these flawed wines having been sent out would probably hinge on the myth of “subjectivity of wine”, which asserts that quality is subjective and “different people like different things” and that “one person’s perceptions of a wine are vastly different from those of other people’s”. The topic at hand is a perfect illustration of how and why this myth is so insidious and pernicious: These statements are true only to a very limited extent and with numerous qualifications and caveats. There is much more commonality to the human sensory experience than some would like to accept and there are absolute benchmarks of quality (independent of personal preference or marketing)- to the chagrin of those tasked with promoting and selling a less-than-stellar product.

It’s a tough situation when something goes wrong in the winery and an entire lot of wine is spoiled. I know the economy is putting the squeeze on many producers. Once a wine is made, a producer must recover their investment by selling the finished wine. That notwithstanding, If a club member’s dissatisfaction with their shipment is frequent or intense enough, they will cancel their membership with a quick click of a mouse.

As tempting as it may be, a problem wine should not be swept under the rug – in cynicism or desperation. A flawed, unpleasant wine should not be passed off as a clean product. To do so, puts a brand’s reputation, following and, ultimately, livelihood at stake. Never mind that some may see sending out a defective product and billing the customer’s credit card as unethical, to say the least.

Besides, it’s insulting.


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13 Responses to “Wineries: Don’t insult your club members”

  1. larry schaffer Says:


    Great writing on a subject near and dear to my heart. It continues to amaze me that in this day and age, as wineries are faced with the most competitive marketplace ever for their wares, they just don’t get that their direct consumers are ‘golden’ – and should be treated as such.

    It is unfathomable that you tried contacting the first winery via email from three different accounts and received no response from any of them. Unbelievable. Did you also try calling – just curious.

    ‘Subjectivity in wines’ will also be a factor when dealing with a wide range of consumers – and when taking into account ‘house palates’ of producers themselves. But the consumer should be given the benefit of the doubt – especially those that are members of your wine club and are therefore already ‘fans’.

    Please keep us posted as to the outcome of this – I’ll be curious to hear if the winery ‘makes good’ eventually.


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  3. Laura Mohseni Says:

    There is no excuse for knowingly sending anyone flawed wine, period. And ABSOLUTELY no excuse for not responding when a customer gets in touch with you regarding the issue. Arthur, didn’t you have a problem with this same winery sending something unacceptable out before? I seem to remember this being a familiar problem with them; just disgraceful.

    Weather must be considered when shipping wine nowadays; with programs like ShipCompliant, who not only provide compliance services, but also provide a daily detailed weather forecast for shipping purposes, there is no excuse.

    I truly believe that wineries who genuinely care for their customers, and value that relationship, are the ones who will overcome these challenging economic times. Those who ignore people who support them will be left in the cold.

  4. Arthur Says:

    Hi Laura.
    Thanks for the comments and I agree about the excuses part – with a few exceptions.
    I am not sure if I previously spoke publicly about the SMV producer’s problem lot, but I did get two separate shipments of the same wine, same size bottle and same flaw.
    In either case, I think it’s important to reiterate that both producers make solid, quality wines. These are bad flukes that somehow made it past QC measures. It is possible that the producers were aware of the problems but sent the wines anyway and I speculate why to illustrate possible motivations in these kinds of circumstances. I cannot say with any absolute certainty, however, that bad wines were deliberately sent out.
    While much of my post here focuses on speculating on how and why wines from seemingly spoiled batches/lots may get sent to club members, the ultimate point here is not to point fingers and castigate individual producers but to use the situations with these wines to make a general point:
    Sometimes, biting the bullet on a bad batch of wine hurts, but that pain is likely to be less severe than that of losing repeat customers.

  5. Wine-Know Says:

    I’ll bet that the wineries are gambling on their customers not being able to detect a bad bottle of wine. Wine consumers need to be educated on how to detect a bad bottle of wine. When they are educated they will gain the confidence to speak up, whether in a restaurant or to a retailer or winery that has sold them bad wine.

  6. Gary Stewart Says:


    I have the same rage with Wineries taking advantage of its best marketing tool, Club Members. Club Members should be treated as just that, “Club Members.” They should be able to get the wine for less money than anyone else can. They should be able to pick and choose what wine they may want for each shipment. They should never be sent a second bottle of wine unless they have requested that bottle or it is a gift. Most important they should be heard and responded to in a timely and respectful manner.

    In today’s market the Club Member is your biggest fan and the Winery should respect them in the same way. A happy Club Member will promote your wine better than any advertising campaign money can buy. Here is a great piece of advice from a good friend of mine, “Love they Club Member.”


  7. Mike Weber Says:

    @Gary – You just brought up my other big rub with wine clubs…

    “They should be able to get the wine for less money than anyone else can.”

    If the wine is largely distributed I can almost ALWAYS find the wine cheaper in a local store (BevMo, Vons, Ralphs) than even the wine club price. The other week I picked up a bottle of Ferrari-Carano Tresor for about 33% off the retail / tasting room price while their wine club is only 20% off. Where’s the value?

  8. Gary Stewart Says:

    @ Mike

    Yes, I understand the frustration with the pricing. As a wine consumer this drives me crazy. As a Winery we work hard to make sure that our Club Members get the best deal. If someone wants to sell our wine at a lesser price than we remove the wine from the store. This is up to the individual winery no matter what they say. If you are a member at Ferrari-Carano I would call them and let them know you are upset that they are treating the “BevMo, Vons, Ralphs” Shopper better than a Club Member. I would be curios to hear what the response would be.


  9. Randy Says:


    It actually gets worse. Some of the wineries I personally belong to seem to be using the club as “dumping grounds” of wines that either were not well received by the three-tier OR were not apparently moving in the retail outlets… This is why we have proactively instated a “custom club” where as we send an email to our members two-three weeks prior to charging and shipping the wine and state, “these are the two, six or twelve wines coming your way, if you like them, great, they’re on their way. However if you’d like to swap for something else, below are 8-12 wines you can swap and they’ll be in your shipment with appropriate discounts applied.” In other words, they choose the exact wines they get AND they ultimately choose how much the club costs them annually. It’s kinda a bookkeeping, micro managing nightmare, but we’ve seen our club nearly double in two years (in this crappy economic period too!) and we enjoy I think one of the lowest cancellation rates in all of wine country. that is for us, a non-(haha) cult winery.

    Any member who receives a corked wine, they get a new btl no Q’s asked. If it happens a second time with tht e same client, we will then inquire. We respond within two days of every member inquiry. Those who neglect their members will find themselves on the business end of Darwin’s Evolutionary stick.

    We will not ship our wines in hot temp’s. My club manager monitors the weather closely and looks for cool window periods, contacts the members and then ships. In summer time, we’ll meet our clients half way with three-day shipping.

    Shipments should have a note or simple quarterly brochure describing the wines, maybe a recipe and a few words from the grower/winemaker. This is a great opportunity to connect and share with members as they open the shipment. 4 of the 5 clubs I belong to do not have anything like this in the allotments.

    My club is my bread and butter… we covet our club members.

  10. Good Reads Wednesday « Artisan Family of Wines Says:

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  11. DuncanM Says:

    The wine clubs passing off what they obviously know is a flawed product to their members may think they’re being very clever. When in fact they are being really stupid and then to ignore emails about the problem just confirms this to be the case.

    Perhaps when enough members stop buying they will finally get the message, somehow I doubt it.

  12. larry schaffer Says:


    Your last line is so very true – wineries will continue to get away with ‘all kinds of crap’ with their wine club members unless these members speak up and do something about it – and nothing speaks louder than doing something with their dollars!

    Unfortunately, some of the largest winery clubs could care less – they will simply sign on more new customers and not realize the trending that is taking place for quite some time.

    As far as wines being found cheaper at retail, there is always the possibility of this occurring, especially with the current economic state of the wine industry. Believe it or not, some things are truly out of the winery’s controls – for instance, if a distributor decides to drop a line but still has stock, they may ‘get rid of’ their remaining wines by selling them for whatever they can – regardless of what the winery might like them to do. Tis a fact.

    That said, wineries should be on the lookout for this, and step in whenever possible.


  13. MikeyMike Says:

    First, wineries who send bad or non-moving inventory out to club members are plain stupid. These folks are the winery’s BEST customers! Second, why would consumers join a wine club at a mega-winery in any case? There can’t be any personal contact or relationship and these comments show that there is no pricing advantage. For an authentic wine and wine club experience, I suggest that people check out producers and regions that aren’t puffed up by the Spectator and its ilk. The comment in our region is “this is just like Napa was 25 years ago”. No, it’s actually better. Get off the beaten path and you’ll be shown the love.