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San Francisco Chronicle: The New Generation of Wine Clubs for The Bay Area

For its monthly release party, Foot of the Bed Cellars recently took over the Pacific Felt Factory, an 1865 Mission District warehouse that now houses art studios. Members of the 4-month-old wine club roamed the studios, mingling with the artists, glasses of Pinot Blanc in hand. They munched on hummus and satay. When it was time to leave, each picked up the box of wine labeled with her name and scurried off in a Lyft.

Ryan Williams, a member of the club since its inception, runs sales teams for local startups. He spoke excitedly over a glass of Merlot. “I’d never had an Albariño before I joined Foot of the Bed,” he said. “And I didn’t know anything about the Mendocino Ridge being one of the AVAs that has an elevation requirement!”

This is not your grandma’s wine club. Foot of the Bed, launched in San Francisco in October by Luc Bergevin and Martin Sheehan-Stross, is venturing to transform a once-staid model (the wine club) and a still-staid sourcing method (rebottling wine under private labels) into a vibrant community that can reach Bay Area Millennials. But unlike other new subscription-based wine clubs that consider themselves tech startups, Foot of the Bed isn’t using algorithms. Rather, it’s relying on old-fashioned sommelier expertise — and hoping that parties will win loyalty.

What’s in the bottle? Sheehan-Stross, the lead sommelier at Michael Mina, selects finished wines from West Coast wineries — including, so far, Barr Estate in Paso Robles (San Luis Obispo County), Oregon’s Yamhill Valley Vineyards and Atsina Cellars, which contributed a Sonoma Valley Syrah — which the company then re-bottles under Foot of the Bed’s private label. Customers get three bottles per month, in any permutation of red and white they choose, each $15. All wines are accompanied by Sheehan-Stross’ essays about who made it and where it comes from — hence the lesson on Mendocino Ridge elevation.

Sisters Kylie and Alexa Wagner had come to the Felt Factory party on the invitation of a friend. They weren’t yet members, but after tasting the wines had decided to join. “We usually buy Ménage à Trois,” said Alexa, referring to the inexpensive wine brand. “But these wines are the same price, plus you get the benefit of coming to a party.”

This genre’s oldest surviving player is the Wine of the Month Club, founded by Paul Kalemkiarian in 1972. Kalemkiarian, a pharmacist by trade, began offering a monthly subscription box in his Southern California shop, Palos Verdes Wine & Spirits. The club was so successful that he eventually abandoned the storefront.

“We started to solve a customer’s concern: The boss is coming over for dinner and I only have $5,” described Paul Jr., who now runs the business. It was a different landscape then not only for wine clubs, but for wine itself, the era of Blue Nun and Mateus. The Wine of the Month Club’s initial offering, in March 1972, included several grand cru 1969 Chablis for $6.29 “per fifth” — an antiquated term for a 750-ml bottle.

Competitors came along to target a higher price point. In 1992, David Chesterfield launched the Gold Medal Wine Club in Santa Barbara, which selects its wines based on third-party endorsements: wine competition medals and critics’ scores. “Wine clubs had been known as the dumping ground for wineries to get rid of Gewürztraminer they couldn’t sell,” said Chesterfield. “We knew there had to be a market for a better class of wines.”

Today’s market is a new frontier. Among a new wave of wine clubs, the distinguishing features often boil down to how they answer this question: How much choice do people really want? In the increasingly saturated world of the Internet, after all, choice can be a tyranny.

Rather than rely on the palate of one retailer or on Robert Parker 100-pointers, many of today’s digital newcomers promise personalized recommendations. Services like Bright Cellars, Tasting Room by Lot18 and Winc (formerly known as Club W) administer a palate-personality quiz — how do you like your coffee? Milk or dark chocolate? Apples or bananas? — which informs which wines they send you.

These clubs owe as much to the tech boom as to the wine boom.

“We’re very much a startup,” said Richard Yau, CEO of Bright Cellars in Milwaukee, 15,000 subscribers strong. Like other startup CEOs, Yau has a clear sense of his target demographic (25, out of college, curious about wine but not advanced) and distinguishes his business by its algorithm. As customers try new wines and rate them, the algorithm learns their preferences, possibly better than they can themselves. “A lot of people say they don’t like Merlot,” said Yau, “yet the profile of Merlot is exactly what they like.”

But is the palate quiz a specious model, built on the premise that “taste” means confining your preferences to a single band of flavors? If I tell the algorithm I like cream and sugar in my coffee, does it reason that I want only sweet wines? I love sweet wines when they’re good. I also love dry wines when they’re good. I love creamy wines and lean wines; citrusy wines and chocolaty wines; I love wines that taste like cotton candy or butter or raspberry Life Savers. When they’re good.

The question is, just how good can they be when you’re dealing with private labels, as Bright mainly does? Traditionally, “private label” refers to discounted wine purchased from anonymous wineries on the bulk market, then bottled, branded and sold under a new, invented label. You package the wine, but you don’t make it.

Winc uses the private-label model, too. But like Foot of the Bed, Winc is re-envisioning what a private label can be. Although it still buys from the bulk market, it also collaborates with reputable winemakers — Kenny Likitprakong of Hobo Wine Co., Ryan Zotovich of Zotovich Vineyards — who openly lend their names to Winc-exclusive brands like Summer Water rosé. (Winc also leases the historic Enz Vineyard in San Benito County.)

In this tech-enabled wine club landscape, knowledge of wine is no longer a prerequisite. Consider Wine Awesomeness, whose CEO Logan Lee took my call in the middle of a team-building movie night (“Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead”). Lee, though in Manhattan, speaks Silicon Valley-ese: “I had this Millennial moment where I wanted to be a part of something that was scalable,” he said of the impetus for founding Wine Awesomeness, which does not use a palate quiz. Rather, it employs a revolving roster of guest wine experts, which have included Peter Eastlake, Dustin Wilson and Victoria James, to choose each month’s products.

“Storytelling marketing is just tailor-made for the wine space,” said Lee. “Millennials love authenticity, and wine is just naturally authentic.”

It authentically appears to be going well. “Not to humble brag,” Lee said, “but we had a really great fourth quarter.”

Not all modern wine clubs consider themselves tech startups, however. Businesses like Plonk, Pour This and the Panel eschew personalization in favor of a different, but equally contemporary, buzzword: curation.

“Leaving the decision to the customer doesn’t end up getting them what they want,” said Etty Lewensztain, a former wine marketer and publicist who founded Plonk Wine Club in Los Angeles in 2010. Lewensztain, who focuses on organic and biodynamic wines, ultimately found that wine drinkers are a confused bunch: caught up in trends, swayed by branding, intimidated by the language of sensory description.

The solution? Buy someone else’s expertise. When you sign up for Pour This, for example, you’re putting yourself in the palate of Ashley Ragovin, a Los Angeles sommelier who worked at Osteria Mozza and Animal. Ragovin’s “Kinfolk”-esque website features photos of the wavy-haired somm holding bottles of rosé in torn jeans in the bed of a pickup truck.

Pour This, which counts “several hundred” subscribers, finds a more suitable analogue in a small, tightly focused wine shop than in a tech company with world-changing aspirations. Unlike, say, Wine Awesomeness, whose shipment might be “grilled cheese”-themed (as it was in January), a Pour This shipment ($98 for three bottles) might be themed around an obscure producer from the Jura, or skin-contact white wines. In complete defiance of modern technology, Ragovin throws in a CD, with playlists of Curtis Mayfield and Donald Byrd songs.

You’re not paying to tell Ragovin whether you take your coffee black. “You don’t tell me you only like reds,” she said. “You sign up for the adventure.”

The luxury of having your choices made for you: That’s what Foot of the Bed is banking on, too. As Sheehan-Stross points out: “People go to high end restaurants” — like Michael Mina, where he works — “to pay a lot of money for the experience of having me choose a wine for them.”

Now, that experience costs $15 a bottle.