How to Start an Online Wine Club for Your Restaurant

Internet wine clubs abound. The pandemic turned wine shops into veritable community centers. And the rise of to-go cocktails has shown that innovative revenue sources — and alcohol — can boost restaurants in bad times and beyond. Naturally you’re looking at your hand-curated wine cellar and your mad-genius sommelier, and you’re wondering: Could we launch a restaurant wine club?

It’s a daunting thought, maybe, but as you scan Instagram and wince at the profusion of online wine clubs, you should trust in the secret weapon your restaurant already has: Your customers. They know you. They like you. They trust you. You’ve cultivated a relationship that makes people try that Condrieu when they think they don’t like Viognier, or sample a Slovenian pét-nat instead of Prosecco. You’re a real human, you’re surrounded by people who want to see you succeed, and you have an existing brand that’s working.

The restaurant industry is suffering pivot fatigue after years of Covid-y uncertainty, and maybe you’re over it — but hear me out, this one isn’t hard. You may not be able to compete against the entire internet on price (nor should that be your aim, if you want to keep your sanity). Instead, you can win on your own terms, by building a lucrative retail side-hustle that draws on your strengths as a hospitality professional.

For starters, you already have someone curating your wine list. You already have the wine. You already know customers who like your wine, and you have some kind of loyalty program or online marketing strategy. From there, it’s just a matter of combining these things. Take for example Brooklyn Winery (and Capital Winery in DC). They leverage the marketing team they already have in place for their event spaces to keep people engaged, using social media and email to tout the wine club, especially around holidays. And anyone who tours the winery or eats at the restaurant gets the club pitch. People are generally more receptive to the idea of a wine club as they’re drinking your delicious wine than they are when they’re scrolling Instagram or flipping through junk-mail flyers. Score points already for the brick-and-mortar crowd.

Most restaurants also have a structural leg up on other retailers. In general, winemakers prefer to place their wines in restaurants. Right away you have access to hard-to-get bottles. This is not to say you can’t find very nice wines at your high-end shops, but various state laws also hamper the range they’ll be able to offer. Do you special order? People adore the notion of exclusivity. This is your chance to hype your beast.

You can take this opportunity to “impose” some of those gems you have that for no damn reason just won’t move. (Why doesn’t anyone want this delightful St. Laurent???) But you also want to dangle some jewels for the true wine nerds among your customer base. The arrival of that new vintage of the Preisinger Puszta Libre will get their attention. And if you can get those bottles in a few months before and keep them after, that’s great too.

Now that you’re convinced, let's talk how. Depending on your situation, this can go several ways.

Leverage your somm

Many of us in the wine world have nudged our audience to reach beyond the tastes of the traditional — i.e., older, white, male — sommelier (*cries in Chenin Blanc*). Yet wine still mystifies many people. The basics make them nervous! So this is where you hold their hand and remind them it’s going to be OK. Then sell them something they didn’t know they liked.

At the center of this approach is your sommelier. Lean into their tastes and strengths. How well-known is this wine expert of yours? Are they someone who specializes in the Baltics? Premier Cru Burgundy? Grower Champagne? Let them show off. Let them make room for the things to come! Spring in most places is still a great time for Bovale and Malbec, but you know you need to make room for those rosés on their way. A sommelier who puts their stamp on the selections and gets people excited for their allocation will create a personal following. Wine is a drink for sharing and comparing. Support your somm and watch the conversation flower.

Pick a theme and run with it

Wine is an endless galaxy of geography, climate, cultures, and tastes. Make your club members feel like mini-experts by choosing one lane of focus and helping them to master it. And make it fun. Rhone if You Want to, Rhone Around the World: GSM blends from anywhere but France. Pull Up to My Bubbles, Baby: An Intro to Pet-Nats and Cremants. February is a great time to highlight BIPOC winemakers. In March, the ladies can rule. See where the list takes you!

If clever isn’t the vibe, you can always go classic. Highlighting Northern Italy — take the A4 highway from Milan to Turin as your inspiration. Feeling French? Follow the Saone, Rhone, or Loire rivers. Seasonal options are also an easy answer, and letting people switch between their three (whites, red or mixed) options throughout the year keeps the club at Brooklyn Winery relevant.

Remember that you’re also in the food business

You will want to sell food with these wine offerings, so consider your pairings. Does your chicken liver mousse just sing with the Alsatian Cremant? Put it there in the info. Blast the seasonal goods! Introduce folks to that herbaceous Schioppettino alongside your ramps. You want the at-home experience to be special. You know it won’t compare to what you offer in-person, but it turns out, there are a long list of reasons to stay in these days. And why not participate in (aka profit off) those nights too?

Make your club an extension of your restaurant’s personality

For a wine fan, navigating the wide world of wine clubs can get confusing. It’s hard to tell what’s worth it. You, the restaurant, can change that equation. You have a wine list that’s been curated with something in mind. If your bar is known for something — funky, natty wines or obscure Italian — people know what they are literally signing up for. So lean into what you already do best. Take this opportunity to get that case break and order extra Pecorino or Rosso Piceno for your Le Marche Club. Your wine club might expand the definition of what you do well, and that’s great. But it also might deepen your connection with people who love what you’re already creating.

Take the setup at Valley Bar and Bottle, in Sonoma, California, where the wine club expresses a vibrant cross-section of the restaurant’s personality — the season, the influences on the menu, and the general vibe of the place. While they do feature new releases from international wineries they’ve stocked in the past, “we try to incorporate as many local producers as we can, and support our winemaker friends who come through Valley,” says Tanner Walle, one of the co-owners. The wines come packaged with a host of other goodies, as well. They include what Valley calls a Cultural Pairing: wine notes, a contribution from a local producer or a farmer, local event listings and news, an info sheet with notes about the wine, recipes, podcast recommendations, and other odds and ends. Club perks!

You’re adding value for your customers, so get paid for it

Then, there’s price. If you’re going to launch something elaborate, you better make sure there’s an appetite for it and that it covers your somm’s time. Customers can justify the spend when you clearly explain why these particular wines are special and sweeten the deal with other add-ins. You can tinker with price points, depending what you’re pushing that month. You aren’t giving the wine away, but you can keep ‘em guessing if you mix in pricey bottles with more affordable options one month, equal-priced bottles the next. Apply the same idea to familiar versus obscure (unless you’ve promised one or the other).

Valley’s club members get an additional discount in the bottle shop. Brooklyn Winery offers discounts on wine tours and “Member Mondays” with a complimentary glass of wine at the bar for members and a friend. If you play it right, you make the people who trust you feel special, like a part of your little family. In that sense, membership has a cachet of its own.

[Photo by Elle Hughes on Unsplash]