Wine clubs come in every shape and size, covering every region and varietal — and more than a few offbeat themes.
Since Haskell’s formed the Bacchus Wine Society in 1971 (still up and going, by the way), thousands of local wine enthusiasts have involved themselves in scores of clubs. Over the years, their gatherings generally have evolved from primarily educational to first and foremost social, but with an undercurrent of learning about wine at the pace members choose.
“We wanted to make it social, really form a community, make it possible for wine lovers to meet other people,” said Dave Jarvis, who started the Swirl Wine Club in Afton in 2010. “So they get to meet like-minded people and just have fun.”
That’s also the case outstate, said Northern Lights Wine Club founder Ross Otto. “The funniest thing is me trying to maintain order and have the group pay attention to my message,” said Otto, whose club has monthly gatherings in Aitkin and Mora, Minn. “It is a social event, and after a few sips of wine all they want to do is talk about it or whatever they are talking about.”
Otto’s group is both private and public — as in formed by private citizens (not store-sponsored) and open to the public. The same goes for groups as small as Doug Taplin’s Tannin Pigs (my first local club experience, and still my favorite), which finds a dozen friends convening once a month to imbibe flights of zin or Down Under wines and occasionally oink at one another.
Jill Eldring coordinates a similar but larger group via Meetup. About 50 of the TC Wine Enthusiasts’ 186 members will get together Friday for chocolate and “Wines That Make You Think of Love,” and a few dozen will partake of a March 2 tour at Cannon River Winery in Cannon Falls.
That’s the kind of format that has worked well for the MN Wine Club, operated by Dennis and Ellen Guldan: two events a month, usually one at a home and another at a local winery. In the winter that monthly mix might include a sleigh ride at Woodland Hills Winery in Delano and a “Weird Wine Label Event” at a home, with a free winemaking class at Midwest Homebrewing and Winemaking Supplies thrown in.
Clubs that are affiliated with stores, such as Bacchus and South Lyndale’s Grapevine Wine Club, generally make their events oriented toward the wine, with a guest expert walking attendees through the samples.
They also, of course, hope to sell some fermented grape juice, offering discounts on the wines being poured at the tasting.
Sales are built into the Swirl Wine Club: Members pay a monthly fee and get two or three bottles (reds, whites or a mix), and can repurchase any club wines for a discount and everyday wines for a smaller discount at the Afton store.
The 650 members also can attend free monthly tastings, often with themes such as tannat or Macedonian wines; get a complimentary summer boat cruise on the St. Croix River, and can sign up for trips to wine regions (Upstate New York this year, South Africa in 2014).
Jarvis caps those trips at 20, and most of the local clubs strive for a certain size for all their gatherings. “We usually limit our events to 30 or 40 people, the amount my wife and I can personally talk to at the event,” Dennis Guldan said.
The Guldans’ mix of fun ideas and keeping events small and informal has proven so popular that they have had to limit membership. It hasn’t hurt that they keep tabs on errant behavior.
“Manners are very important to our groups,” Guldan said. “If you come to push business cards or sell something, you will be shown the door. When we go to a venue, I tell security if anyone gives you any problems, throw them out and get me their name, so I can do the same. We just want to have fun in an already too stressed world.”
Bill Ward • 612-673-7643