Lauren Feldman always imagined there would one day be a retail component to Valley, the bar and restaurant she cofounded in Sonoma last July. But when the pandemic hit, she launched direct-to-consumer wine sales before Valley even opened its doors.
“We started with isolation deliveries, where we drove around to get wine to people, order by order,” says Feldman.
This was from March to June 2020.
“We figured, people still need wine, maybe now more than ever,” she says.
This month, as Valley celebrates its one-year anniversary, its pandemic pivot endures with The Valley Bottle Club. The subscription-based service offers three bottles for pickup at the restaurant each month, or six-bottle shipments available quarterly in select states.
“People come to Valley because they like the food and the vibe,” says Tanner Walle, one of Valley’s cofounders. The wine club appeals, he says, because “it connects you to a lifestyle.”
Restaurants create wine clubs for an array of reasons. Some do it to build loyalty. Others use it to distribute allocated bottles. Some simply want steady income in a notoriously unpredictable business.
During the darkest days of the pandemic, wine clubs provided a means of survival for some beleaguered restaurants and linked up isolated patrons.
This sense of connection is vital to Feldman.
“For me, it very much comes down to community,” she says. “It’s about seeing people’s faces and having a location to connect to.”
In Philadelphia, Jet Wine Bar’s club also prioritizes locals.
“We’re a teeny-tiny wine bar,” says Jill Weber, owner of Jet. “During the pandemic, we had to make money the way everyone else was, by becoming a bottle shop.”
Earlier this year, Jet transitioned those a la carte sales into a subscription-based wine club. Each month, premium members come to the bar to pick up two bottles chosen by Beverage Director and General Manager Nick Baitzel.
“We have a small, but very loyal customer base,” says Weber, who estimates the club has around 100 premium members. “We’re a neighborhood spot. More than anything, the club is a perk for our most loyal customers.”
New York City restaurant King launched its wine club in November 2020. Unlike Jet and Valley, which run primarily on pickups, King Wine Club delivers three bottles a month to subscribers nationwide.
“It was part of a larger attempt to make up for lost revenue at that time,” says Annie Shi, a partner at the restaurant. “A lot of our regulars had scattered at this point, whether temporarily or permanently, and we thought this was a way to bring a little of King to wherever they were during the pandemic.”
Similarly, in Asheville, North Carolina, Cúrate created a pandemic-era club that features three bottles of Spanish wine each month. All are available for onsite pickup or via delivery for a $10 flat fee.
Even if diners can’t sit at a table and interact with a sommelier, clubs can connect them to a restaurant’s area of expertise.
The club from San Francisco’s Che Fico restaurant features rare or hard-to-find bottles. Members of a planned club from Santa Monica’s Crudo e Nudo will be able to choose from “modern” or “traditional” bottlings off the restaurant’s primarily biodynamic and minimal-intervention wine list.
“We figured, people still need wine, maybe now more than ever.” —Lauren Feldman, cofounder, Valley
Several restaurant wine clubs include an educational element.
Ray Gadzinski, wine director at Vernick Food + Drink in Philadelphia, selects four bottles from the primarily organic and minimal-intervention list for monthly subscribers, and includes tasting notes and pairing suggestions.
The wine club from Chicago’s Press Room encourages subscribers to conduct blind tastings at home. It includes two bottles of the same variety from different regions each month, and there are three tiers of difficulty.
Rami Ezzat, general manager of Robert et Fils in Chicago, also hopes to provide insight via the restaurant’s wine club. Every month, he selects four bottles from one wine region. Each package includes tasting notes and an introduction to the destination’s wine culture.
“For the familiar regions, we explore varietals that may not be as popular or recognized,” says Ezzat. One month, Robert et Fils Wine Club featured a selection of Loire Valley Muscadets, since “most people will go straight to Sancerre as their Loire Valley white wine,” he says.
Robert et Fils’ subscription boxes are only available for local pickup. Ezzat hopes to expand its reach but, in the meantime, he’s happy with how the wine club connects his team to their community.
Especially lately, he says, “when the world’s current state didn’t allow us to swirl and sip with a new, friendly face.”