By Warren Porter for Sommelier Service, a ‘Certified Good Food Fighter’
When asked if you want to join a wine “club” there are a few inevitable connotations that spring to mind. Sitting quietly in a room while the cardigan set discusses the subtle nuances of the most recent vintage from Bordeaux is one. Banding together with a group of like minded individuals to procure cases of the latest California cult wine is another. The reality is that there are numerous ways to increase your wine collection and education through participation in a club but few know all the options available to them.
There are two main types of wine club; those focused on events and tastings and those designed to purchase wine. In this issue we’ll focus on “buying clubs” and will explore “tasting clubs” in an upcoming article.
Wine buying clubs are a way to purchase Ontario and international wines that are not available on LCBO retail shelves. In Ontario there are approximately 10,000 wines that come into the province and less than 5,000 make it to LCBO shelves. The remainder are sold to private collectors, restaurants and wine clubs. One of the reasons for this is the LCBO is primarily a retailer and is only looking for certain wines, often in large quantity, for the 650 stores under their banner. Think of them like a Wal-Mart for alcohol. The remaining wines may not suit their current buying requirements, may be in too small of a quantity, or the producer or representative may not want to have their product sold through the retailer (not everyone wants to sell at Wal-Mart either!). These wines continue to be processed “thorough” the LCBO but are distributed out of the LCBO warehouse, not the stores. Because they come from the warehouse they are sold only by the case either to the individual/restaurant directly or to a club membership as a collective to share.
The Opimian Society
This group has been around since 1965 and is Canada’s largest buying group with over 19,000 members. It operates in all provinces and generates sales in excess of $10 million per year. Members of Opimian are sent a catalogue every 1.5 months giving them a number of wines to choose from, always by the case. Each “offering” includes a mixed case for purchase as well called Opimian Select. Members pay for the case(s) in advance and delivery can take up to 3-4 months. When the shipment arrives it can be picked up at the LCBO depot on Freeland St. Downtown Toronto or shipped to their local LCBO. Opimian also stages regional events for their members which are usually wine tasting dinners at a local restaurant featuring Opimian wines.
Annual Membership: $70 plus $40 one time initiation – www.opim.ca
Ontario Winery Clubs
Most of the major wineries in Ontario offer a wine club with delivery of as little as a single bottle to your door. This is a great way to explore wine from around your province without having to travel to the winery and many of these are not sold through the LCBO retail stores. Ontario winery clubs include Peller, Hillebrand and Henry of Pelham. There are also clubs operated by online distributors including WineOnline.ca and WineryToHome.com which package Ontario wines from numerous producers.
Sommelier Service delivers wines to their members that have been hand chosen by Good Food Rev’s resident Sommelier Jamie Drummond. When a member subscribes they provide details of what they want in their cases including percentage of white/red, bold/medium/light bodies and drinking dates. Private order agents submit non-LCBO wines to Jamie who ranks them on a scale of 1-10 for quality and value and everything over “7” is approved for purchase. Custom designed software then matches the approved wines with members individual preferences and creates custom cases shipped to their home or office every one, two or three months.
All wines come with a full write up of information including the story of the winery, family, grape or region and what foods it should be served with. If a member doesn’t like the wine, the remaining bottles can be returned for replacement without cost.
Sommelier Service is also different from the other clubs by shipping all wines in 100% reusable packaging. Their own drivers (or couriers outside of greater Toronto) pick up the previous months delivery bins each time they drop off a new case of wine so all packaging is used over and over again. Delivery is available throughout Ontario without additional cost to most major centers.
The club also offers benefits with local restaurants, member only education events and private in-home tastings. Each case can also have an offering of artisan cheeses added for an additional cost.
Annual Membership: Free – www.sommelierservice.com
Vin de Garde Club
The Vin de Garde club sends an online selection of International wines from Small Winemakers Collection every 2 weeks as an “offering”, none of which are available at LCBO retail stores. Members choose whatever quantity of bottles they want within the offering and pool the purchase with other members. This allows the club to buy case lot (as is required by the LCBO) yet share the case among the membership giving each member a mixed case of wine. Cases are delivered to the members home or office within a week of the close of the offering. Wine prices are anywhere from $10 to $75 per bottle.
For the time being the Vin de Garde Club is offering no processing, administration or delivery fee on any of its wines and delivery is available anywhere in Ontario or can be picked up downtown Toronto.
Annual Membership: Free – www.vindegardeclub.com
Other Buying Clubs
There are numerous other buying clubs operating out of private clubs (Albany, National) as well as a number of golf clubs. These are too numerous to list here and are not publically available so less relevant to those listed above.
If you’re looking for the exclusive wines that your friends and neighbours are not going to have seen at the LCBO then a buying club is the way to go. You may not want them for all your wines but it’s a great way to augment your purchasing outside of retail. It’s also exciting to get a delivery of wine to your door!
In a couple of weeks we’ll review major wine tasting clubs in the GTA.
Warren Porter is President of Iron Gate – Private Wine Management, an offsite wine storage facility and collector services company located in downtown Toronto. Warren opened Iron Gate in 2003 following a 20 year career in technology and telecommunications. The segue into this completely new industry came following an epiphany that wine was far more interesting then technology and would therefore be a much more fun business. In its short time Iron Gate has grown to service collector clients around North America, store over 70,000 bottles of wine, and manages the wine club, SommelierService.com, which is a ‘Certified Good Food Fighter‘.