The time was ripe for a wine club
The gig: Plug in “wine of the month club” and you’ll come up with thousands of search-engine hits. But the folks who say they started the trend operate out of a 15,000-square-foot office-warehouse off the 210 Freeway in Monrovia. And despite massive changes in the global wine industry since the club’s founding in 1972, the Wine of the Month Club still follows the same basic model: Two wines a month -- one white, one red -- selected by the club and delivered for a fee.
Getting started: Paul Kalemkiarian Sr. was running a small string of pharmacies around the Los Angeles area in the early 1970s when he struck a deal to buy a drugstore in Palos Verdes and the liquor store next door. A fan of good wine, he upgraded the shop’s selection, which helped business. But it also required him, clad in his druggist’s smock, to make frequent trips next door to rescue clueless shoppers (remember, this was the early ‘70s, when consumers were less knowledgeable about wine).
“I was interrupted many times during the day to select wines for my customers and I thought, ‘Why don’t I select the wines once a month and have them on display?’ And that is how it all started. Customers began to ask if the wines could be delivered to them on a monthly basis.”
A burgeoning industry: The club got going just as the California wine industry was beginning to mature. Paul Sr., who was always on the lookout for new and exciting wines for club members, got to know many of the winemakers who would eventually make places like Napa and Sonoma household names. They included Jim Barrett, whose Chateau Montelena Chardonnay was a winner at the 1976 French competition that put California winemakers on the map.
“Some of these wineries still write to us, thanking us for making them a Wine of the Month Club selection,” Paul Sr. said. “They say, ‘It was a great boost for us, both in terms of sales and reputation.’ ”
A good day to be at the office: Tuesday is tasting day, when Paul Jr. and his staff sample 100 or so wines in their in-house tasting room.
“We taste everything you see at your favorite stores and compare them side by side,” says Paul Jr., who took over the business in 1990 and personally chooses each month’s club selections. “We taste all the $15 bottles against each other and all the $20 bottles against each other, and we find there are $7 wines that are better than some $20 wines and some $15 wines that are undrinkable.”
The sincerest form of flattery: Although the Kalemkiarians trademarked the “Wine of the Month Club” name, that hasn’t stopped a slew of imitators from popping up. Paul Jr. has sought to keep a competitive edge by offering personalized services to his 15,000 members.
“Over the years we have consulted on our members’ personal wine collections, paired wines for wedding dinners, found special vintages for anniversaries and have been a host to many home wine tasting parties,” he said.
Members also get a monthly newsletter with detailed notes about that month’s selections and recipes with food and wine pairings.
Keeping it fresh: Upgrading the website, at www.wineofthe monthclub.com, has been a top priority. Beginning this week, for instance, the entire 37-year archive of monthly club newsletters will be available on the site. The club is also dabbling in artisanal olive oils. And if you enjoy watching other people have fun, you can watch the weekly wine tastings at www.wineofthemonthclub.tv.
Handing down the business: The trickiest time for a family-run business often comes when the younger generation takes over the reins. The Kalemkiarians seem to have managed the transition well. After Paul Jr. took over the business, he didn’t hesitate to turn to his dad for advice on the monthly selections or take advantage of his wide-ranging contacts in the wine industry.
“Even today, I can go to wine tastings and people still say to me, ‘Where’s your dad?’ ” Paul Jr. says. “It wasn’t hard for me to live in that shadow -- it was a good shadow.”
What are you drinking these days? Paul Sr. was particularly taken with one of his son’s club selections for July, a 2007 Pannotia Vineyards Riesling from the Rheinhessen region of Germany. Paul Jr. recommends a 2006 Pinot Noir by Canaletto from the Venice area of Italy.