Over his years of loving wine, Eric Nielsen built up quite the collection of wine club memberships. But he eventually realized that they weren’t quite doing the trick.
“I was paying too much to too many wine clubs, and I just wasn’t getting the variety that I enjoy most about wine,” explains Nielsen, who moved to Santa Barbara in 2011 to work for Sonos and now does public relations for the video game industry. “I’m not one of those people who find one winery and want to keep drinking that wine over and over again. I like the exploration. I like experiencing new things. And honestly, I love value. Finding those amazing $15 wines that should be $30 to $40 is something that I enjoy.”
Five years ago, Nielsen and his brother, Boyd Nielsen, who then worked at a Bay Area wine shop, made a unique case for themselves that spanned the wine world and its many grape varieties. They shared that with friends, who wanted in on the next case, and then suddenly they were packing 12 cases at a time for other fans.
Eric, who’s worked in tech-related sales and marketing for his whole career, smelled business potential. He filed the paperwork and paid the modest fees to become an online wine dealer, which included putting up one of those yellow Alcohol Beverage Control signs in his suburban front yard. “I had to tell the neighbors that there’d be no discos,” laughed Nielsen.
The Nielsen brothers named their company Kompas Wine Club as a nod to their Danish surname — “kompas” translates to “compass” — and were officially enlisting members in 2018. They’ve been shipping quarterly ever since, growing to a few dozen dedicated members across the country, and even getting a shout-out in Sunset Magazine.
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Each case of 12 wines comes from all over — the December shipment, for instance, included assyrtiko from Macedonia, tempranillo from Rioja, syrah from Walla Walla, gamay from Oregon, and more from Italy, France, Spain, and California. With an average price of about $22 per bottle, the typical Kompas breakdown features eight wines costing less than $21, which Nielsen calls “Tuesday night wines”; three “minor splurge” wines between $24 to $32, to share over dinner with friends, perhaps; and then one “baller wine” that’s $48 or more. “That’s the one you want to lay down,” said Nielsen, suggesting those bottles for anniversaries or similarly special affairs.
Both Eric and Boyd spend their free time building direct relationships with distributors, tasting wines at their homes to develop each shipment. “They are, by and large, open to little guys like me,” said Eric of the distributors. The brothers are looking primarily for organic and/or biodynamic wines that are “punching well above their weight class,” and they regularly taste 20 wines for every one they select. “We’re not going on anybody’s recommendations,” said Nielsen. “There are a lot of bad wines that come through. It really is hard work.”
Like most wine clubs, each shipment comes with a detailed newsletter that tells the story behind the bottles’ grapes, regions, producers, and so forth. But most helpful is that Kompas provides a small sticker with an abbreviated description and price of each wine that members can slap on their bottles to remind them of what’s inside. So you’ll still have the intel on hand when you lose the newsletter but need to know which wine goes with the duck, and you’ll be better prepared to avoid “bad wine decisions,” said Nielsen, like grabbing that $50 wine for the third bottle of a late night when you really should have just picked the $15 one.
While Kompas is sending wines to Florida, Nebraska, Colorado, Texas, and other states these days, members who live in Santa Barbara needn’t worry about the associated shipping fees. Nielsen will hand-deliver the wines to you directly, or you can easily pick them up from his house each quarter.
The driving goal of Kompas remains the same as it was five years ago: to send wine lovers in new directions. “They may know what a Sta. Rita Hills pinot tastes like, but when was the last time they had a burgundy? When was the last time they had pinot’s cousin blaufränkisch from Austria?” asked Nielsen. “We’re trying to expand their palates.”