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With Deft Touch, Wine Clubs Increasingly Getting to Know Their Local Members

On top of free tastings, more wineries offering wine pickup events and local perks. At Carhartt Winery & Vineyard, you can even spend the night

Wine club members enjoy good drinks and fun times during wine pickup events. At Carhartt Winery & Vineyard’s “World’s Smallest Tasting Room” in Los Olivos, winemaker Chase Carhartt, at left, can often be found explaining the history and methods the winery uses to produce its wines. Click to view larger
Wine club members enjoy good drinks and fun times during wine pickup events. At Carhartt Winery & Vineyard’s “World’s Smallest Tasting Room” in Los Olivos, winemaker Chase Carhartt, at left, can often be found explaining the history and methods the winery uses to produce its wines. (Carhartt Winery & Vineyard photo)

In the beginning, wineries across Santa Barbara County drew in a regular stream of customers by primarily offering free tasting flights and discounts as part of a wine club.

Club members often were from outside the county — enjoying their favorite wines by paying for quarterly shipments of bottles — while just a handful lived locally, getting the same bottles without the shipping fees.

Those within the industry today say the focus has shifted to emphasize an overall experience for locals as well as faithful patrons from Southern California and beyond.

Pickup wine events are the norm, and wineries are getting more creative than ever with perks.

Most local wineries adopt at least some type of club, typically offering up to four free tastings per visit or discounts on merchandise. About 125 wineries are members of the Santa Barbara County Vintners Association, but the actual number is likely larger, according to the organization.

Take Carhartt Winery & Vineyard in Los Olivos, where wine club manager Joe Ramos puts a hospitality background to use at the small-production, artisan winery.

Among the Carhartt club benefits are four member-only pickup gatherings a year (the last one was a chili cook-off), first dibs on specialty wines, newsletters and extra exclusive events for a “robust” membership that’s about 90 percent California residents — about a third of them living between Los Olivos and Ventura.

A recent addition is The Carhartt Retreat, a two-bedroom hilltop home in the middle of Carhartt’​s nearby Sangiovese vineyard with special rental rates for club members.

“It could be the atmosphere,” Ramos said of how members come to sign up. “You’re from out of town or you’re a local and you say ‘Hey, I really like this wine.’ You’ve got all these locals, but they almost kind of assume that these wine clubs are for out-of-towners.

“There’s more for locals than there is for people who are from out of state. People want some fun thing to do and have on the calendar. We would love to see more locals.”

Carhartt Winery & Vineyard offers plenty of perks for its wine club members — a growing rewards business for many Santa Barbara County vineyards. (Carhartt Winery & Vineyard photo)
Carhartt Winery & Vineyard offers plenty of perks for its wine club members — a growing rewards business for many Santa Barbara County vineyards. (Carhartt Winery & Vineyard photo)

Three generations of the Carhartt family have helped forge a reputation around the club, which has become more about story-telling — often by the winemakers themselves: Brooke and Mike Carhartt and their son, Chase.

Social media help attract members of all ages to what the winery boasts is the “World’s Smallest Tasting Room” — a tiny bar and intimate enclosed patio at 2990 Grand Ave., at the far north end of Los Olivos.

Mentioning one of three different wine clubs to every visitor is a must at Foxen Vineyard & Winery at 7600 Foxen Canyon Road outside Santa Maria. Tasting room manager John Tevis said Foxen wine is distributed throughout the county, and about 70 percent of club members are from Southern California.

Wine clubs have evolved a lot since the early 1990s, he said, citing a focus on exclusivity, education and knowing members by name when they walk in.

“We have members all across the country,” Tevis said. “People don’t necessarily come in expecting or knowing that we have a wine club. People who live in Santa Maria and Santa Barbara seem as unaware of everything as someone from L.A.”

With exclusivity in mind, many wineries create club levels based on how much members are willing to spend. Others, including Santa Barbara Winery, 202 Anacapa St. in Santa Barbara, categorize members by which like to drink the reds, whites or a mix of both.

Of about 1,200 club members, about half live locally or as far as Thousand Oaks, Santa Barbara Winery tasting room manager Suzanne Fitzgerald said.

The Santa Barbara Winery wine club has been around for 20 years, and although membership fluctuates depending on the economy, Fitzgerald said the perks of free tastings and discounts have stayed the same for the most part.

Locals come in looking for a wine membership to enjoy bimonthly pickups, and the winery acquires a consistent shipment and income.

“It helps if they’re local because they can use the benefit of being a wine club member,” Fitzgerald said. “As anyone who lives here knows, you get lots of visitors. It helps them get a discount on wines, and it makes a great gift. It kind of creates a community.”

Tourists drive a ton of winery traffic in Santa Barbara, as is the case in the Santa Ynez Valley.

Business at Wandering Dog Wine Bar, 1539-C Mission Drive in Solvang, is about 85 percent fueled by visitors, who make up three-quarters of the wine bar’s club membership, co-owner Charles Williams said.

Wandering Dog doesn’t give away free tastings, but the wine bar does feature other winemakers’ bottles and hosts events.

Local wine club members serve as connoisseurs in some cases, trying out new labels.

At Alta Maria Vineyards, 2933 Grand Ave. in Los Olivos, tasting room manager Stephanie Varner said members can taste from any open bottles as opposed to paying for set flights. She said about half of all members choose to pick up wine.

“Since opening the tasting room in 2011, we have added small batch and unique wines that are offered as first releases and exclusively to wine club,” Varner said. “The benefit for us to have a wine club is a constant customer base and ones we can get feedback from.

“A club has given us a grouping of customers who will see the majority of what we produce and enable us to have customers for wines that maybe more expensive or limited to produce.”

Noozhawk staff writer Gina Potthoff can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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