Today’s world is awash in wine clubs, from those run by sommeliers and publications to others operated by standalone businesses and specific wineries. But it wasn’t that way 27 years ago, when Santa Barbara’s David Chesterfield left his telecom career to start the Gold Medal Wine Club, which is now one of the most successful in the world.
“They had this black-sheep image in the wine industry because that was where all the stuff ended up that wineries couldn’t sell,” said Chesterfield of the clubs back then. “It dawned on me that there was probably a market out there for people who wanted to get wines they would enjoy tasting. That was the overall promise — we knew we could source better wines and make the presentation better.”
With strategic advertisements in wine and in-flight magazines, the Gold Medal Wine Club launched in 1992 and was an immediate hit. “We had positive cash flow within three months,” said Chesterfield, an Indiana native who moved to Santa Barbara after college in 1971 and worked for the Deckers shoe company in its nascent days. His wife, Linda, has also been involved since day one, and she serves as president of the company today.
Finally able to get hand-crafted wines without visiting a winery, consumers across the country quickly became the loudest promoters — the bonus bottles for referrals don’t hurt! — and participating wineries loved it too. “It’s like a mass wine tasting directly in front of people who are keen on finding hard-to-find, good wines,” said Chesterfield, explaining that many of their customers also became direct buyers from the featured wineries.
What really set the Gold Medal package apart, though, was Chesterfield’s 16-page, full-color newsletters, all dedicated to explaining the two wines in each delivery. “I always want to know the story behind the wines, and who is the owner, and how did they get into the business,” he explained. He eventually cut the publication down to eight pages, but it still relies on firsthand reporting he does with each vintner and includes plenty of information about the region, variety, and more.
The formula is more or less the same now, although there are six different clubs, ranging in price from $40 to $180 a shipment, in frequency from monthly to quarterly, and in theme from pinot noir to garagiste to 93+-point wines. Chesterfield estimates that he distributes about 25,000 cases per year to nearly 500,000 customers, all from his warehouse in Goleta, where he employs 18 people.
In 2010, he also opened Corks n’ Crowns in the Funk Zone, a wine bar that serves as a brick-and-mortar face of the club. It’s made Santa Barbara the club’s number-one market, and California is the number-one state despite our proximity to so many wine countries. Though he loves getting people into grenache blanc and gamay noir, Chesterfield reports that cab is still king, followed by chardonnay and pinot noir.
He feels sorry for people trying to enter the business now, as there is so much competition, especially from the wineries, for which direct-to-consumer clubs are the lifeblood. He credits the Gold Medal Wine Club’s success with timing more than anything.
“That was the start of the California wine craze,” said Chesterfield of his 1992 start. “We just happened to catch the wave at the right time, and we have been riding it ever since.”
More S.B.-Based Wine Clubs
WINC: After five years of making wine for his family’s eponymous winery in the Sta. Rita Hills, Ryan Zotovich jumped for a job as head of winemaking with Winc, a club that makes more than 100 different wines from around the world that play to each customer’s preferences.
“This experience was an amazing opportunity, and I was tired of making wine in only one area of the world,” said Zotovich. “I get to go to France, New Zealand, Argentina, Chile, and we make wine from Sonoma all the way down to here. It’s fulfilled my career at a whole different level.”
Winc was founded as Club W in 2012 by entrepreneurs Xander Oxman and Geoff McFarlane and sommelier Brian Smith. It employs Netflix-like algorithms to connect consumers with wines that fit their tastes, whether that’s sweet or bone-dry, delicate or powerful.
“There’s wine for everybody,” said Zotovich, who oversees the production of about 200,000 annual cases of nearly 130 different wines. About 40,000 cases of that is Winc’s rosé, the awesomely named Summerwater, and the other batches are 500 to 5,000 cases each. Bottles cost $13-$42, but most are under $20. There’s an array of membership types available. And because Zotovich and his team are constantly visiting vineyards and monitoring winemaking, which is in part down by partner wineries, they ensure quality results.
“The goal is never to get you a bad wine,” said Zotovich. “It sounds flowery and hippie, but our goal is to get people into wine.”
BOTTLE SHOP CLUBS: A fantastic way to taste wines from around the world would be to join one of the clubs operated by the various bottle shops in town. Programs vary widely, but many allow in-store pickups, where you can engage further with the proprietors to really go deep on the selections, and maybe even influence the future choices. Details on the websites of Savoy (savoywinessb.com), Wine + Beer (wineplusbeer.com), Renegade (renegadewines.com), and Les Marchands (lesmarchandswine.com).
RAJ PARR WINE CLUB: The celebrated sommelier turned vintner also runs a wine club whose 200 members receive two shipments a year of either six ($500) or 12 ($1,000) bottles. The wines are made from vineyards that Parr selects, and members also can buy more affordable “daily drinker glug-glug” wines, like pais (or mission grape), from Amador County, Candyfloss rosé from the Sta. Rita Hills, and pinot noir-gamay from Oregon. See rajparrwineclub.com.