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Vadim Lavrusik Rss

News organizations seek new revenue in wine clubs

Posted on : 09-28-2009 | By : Vadim Lavrusik | In : Business

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

This post is also appearing on a Columbia Journalism School website I write for, which is still currently under construction but will launch some time this week.

USA Today launched a Wine Club earlier this month, joining the list of publications hoping to entice readers to an online community of wine drinkers who buy wines directly from them.

The national newspaper partnered with My Wines Direct to create a Web site wine club where readers can learn about wines that are selected by a tasting panel. Members can then purchase six bottles quarterly online for $69.99 plus shipping.

People gather to taste various wines at Slate's Wine Tasting at Sotheby's Aulden Cellars in August (Photo: Vadim Lavrusik)

People at Slate’s Wine Tasting at Sotheby’s Aulden Cellars in August. (Photo: Vadim Lavrusik)

Large publications are launching similar wine clubs and attaching their publications’ brands to the clubs as part of their exploration of new revenue to help close the gap from a decline in ad spending.

The New York Times launched its wine club in mid-August and other publications, including Forbes and The San Francisco Chronicle, have started their own clubs as well. The Wall Street Journal has had a wine club since last September, while online publications such as Slate are hosting wine tastings.

USA Today had been considering getting into the wine business for some time, said Christy Hartsell, director of brand licensing at USA Today, in an e-mail. The project was in the works for several months and the paper even held various tasting events before the launch, Hartsell said.

“Seeing other publications entering the same arena just shows that there is active interest in the space,” Hartsell said.

All the publications have been quiet on their revenue projections and levels of membership.

Alice Ting, executive director for brand development at The New York Times, would not disclose revenue from the new club but in an e-mail she said the company is pleased with the response.

“As we all know, all media companies are facing tough challenges with advertising revenues,” Ting said. “Pursuing other revenue streams helps diversify the types of revenues we realize.”

Because both the USA Today Wine Club and The New York Times Wine Club sites launched recently, numbers for Web site visits were unavailable. The Wall Street Journal wine club site peaked in August with 44,000 unique visits, with more than 20,000 in June and July, according to Compete.com statistics. The numbers, however, don’t show how many of the visitors actually join the clubs.

MyWinesDirect.com, which operates The USA Today Wine Club Web site, received some 57,000 unique visits in August.

USA Today Wine Club

The USA Today Wine Club Web site.

That makes Bryan Dougherty, president and CEO of My Wines Direct, optimistic. The appeal is that the 10 people who make up panels that select the wines for the club consist of regular people, said Dougherty.

“You don’t have to be an expert,” Dougherty said. “It’s not hard to know whether you like the wine or not.”

He said the wine business has always been driven by “expert” opinions, but the panel process gives it more of a consumer opinions focus, which he said people tend to value more. Dougherty gave the example of when he looks for a hotel: People’s reviews on the site make a big difference on whether he picks the hotel or not, he said.

But even if readers value the opinion of the panels and the name of the publication attached, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are willing to join the club.

At least not Pete Dybdahl, a Long Island wine enthusiast who attended Slate’s wine tasting at Aulden Cellars at Sotheby’s in Manhattan on Aug. 26.

Though the credibility of a wine recommendation and the source of it matters to Dybdahl, a former newspaper reporter, he said he still wouldn’t join a publication’s wine club because clubs aren’t really appealing to him. That doesn’t mean he’s not sympathetic toward a publication “doing what it has to do to stay afloat,” he said.

Slate’s wine tasting was free, which was one of the draws for the roughly 120 people who attended. The magazine’s wine critic, Mike Steinberger, led the tasting of several wines and discussed the opinions of readers in attendance, as well as those tweeting their critiques from home. The event included its own Twitter hashtag and account, allowing readers from across the country to participate in the event by following the feed and offering their own two cents.

Slate group chairman Jacob Weisberg said the event was aimed at engaging readers.

“A publication is a kind of club and so an event like this creates that idea,” Weisberg said.

The chairman’s assistant, Julia Felsenthal, said the magazine isn’t pursuing a wine club at the moment, but still hopes to host future tasting events.

Weisberg said the magazine didn’t make any money from the event, though attendees were welcome to buy wines from Aulden Cellars, which provided the wines.

Ben Bradford, assistant manager at Aulden Cellars, said that for the size of the event, sales from attendees were “decent,” but would not give specifics. Bradford said Aulden has considered partnering with a publication for a wine club, but said the store is looking to grow more and establish itself.

“I think a publication’s name attached matters,” Bradford said. “It adds credibility.”

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