Wine of-the-Month Club is South Africa’s oldest and biggest direct to customer wine club, offering the best wines online with something for everyone and at every budget. This family-run business was conceived by Colin Collard in 1986 and proudly celebrates its 35th anniversary next year. It is now headed up by Collard’s son Cliff.
This Heritage Month father and son sit down over a glass of wine to reminisce and answer some questions:
How did you get the idea for the Wine-of-the-Month Club?
Colin: My background is in advertising. Back in the ‘70s I ran an agency in Johannesburg called Collard & Leisegang. After experiencing the type of enthusiasm for wine that most people discover at one time or another in their lives, and not finding any way to learn more about the subject, I founded the Wine-of-the-Month Club in Cape Town in 1986. I modelled the club along the lines of the Book-of-the-Month Club in America, whose success I had read about. But instead of books chosen by a panel of literary experts, wine club members would receive a selection of wines chosen by wine connoisseurs, as well as a newsletter telling them about the wines, tasting notes, when best to enjoy them and what foods to pair them with. Importantly, the wines had to be selected by independent panellists who had no interest in promoting one wine over another and, very unlike the case of selecting books, the panel had to choose the wines blind.
What did you want members to get out of it?
Colin: My wish was for members to not only learn about wine, but also enjoy the competitive prices that come from bulk purchases and of course the convenience of a door-to-door delivery.
What did you do to make the club stand out from the competition?
Colin: There are a number of online distributors of wine but none of them have a panel of judges to assess wines before they buy them. In fact, the Wine-of-the-Month Club has always had the largest judging panel of its kind in South Africa and having so many panellists means the wine selections are the product of a broad consensus and not just the whim or fancy of one person.
Also, by tasting wines blind, our panel can assess wines without being influenced by the label, the packaging or even the producer’s past reputation. The judges assess wines simply on the basis of what they taste in the glass.
Tell us about the early days
Colin: The club began in the old premises of the Alphen Winery in Constantia with five staff. It now has its own building in Muizenberg with a team of over 130 people. A multi-award-winning magazine called Good Taste replaced the original eight-page newsletter, but like so many other magazines in the digital age it closed and the club now publishes for its members a mini-magazine called SA Connoisseur.
What are the biggest changes that have taken place over the past 35 years?
Cliff: An enormous increase in the sophistication of wine drinkers, coupled with a huge increase in the types, styles and ranges of wines that are now produced in South Africa. Not to forget of course a massive boost in production. In every aspect of wine culture South Africa now ranks right at the top.
Where do you see Wine -of-the-Month Club in the next few years?
Cliff: I think online sales will turn into a substantial sales channel for us. It is already growing by more than 150 percent year-on-year. That, combined with the right partners and a well-tested digital marketing strategy, is opening us up to a new audience, which is very exciting.
Wine -of-the-Month Club was revolutionary and ahead of its time, what do you do to still stay ahead of your competitors?
Cliff: Embrace change. It is in our company DNA to keeping changing and evolving. To think the business was founded on direct mail advertising and yet we haven’t sent something via “snail mail” in over 20 years. That, combined with our panel who assess more than 3 000 different wines in a year, will always attract the right customer. One who wants to taste new and exciting wines in the comfort of their home, on a regular basis and without the fuss and bother of trying to keep up with the latest trends and developments in the industry or wasting time having to read all the labels on the shelves in a liquor store and end up paying more for a wine that they could have got cheaper from the Club. Our independent panel of wine experts always make sure our customers receive the best value no matter what price range they choose. This is why we offer a money back guarantee.
What do you think are the three biggest benefits of joining a wine club like yours?
Cliff: Discovering new wines and getting extra info at the same time, like tasting notes, food pairing suggestions and when best to drink the wines. All on a neck tag, together with our complimentary magazine. Also, the convenience of delivery right to your door and the option to change club selections or pause or cancel membership.
What are you most proud of?
Cliff: Giving smaller producers that most people haven’t heard of a “foot in the door” to get their wines in front of the right audience.
What are some upcoming wine trends?
Cliff: I think Cabernet Franc will be South Africa’s next big varietal. Shiraz has run its course; there are too many indifferent bottles around. There have been some slight general improvements in Sauvignon Blanc but too many producers still harvest the grapes too early and turn out bland, tasteless wines.
What is your favourite food and wine pairing?
Cliff: My best pairings change constantly but two of my most recent are leftover braaied yellowtail, with lettuce and homemade mayo on a white roll, paired with De Morgenzon Reserve Chardonnay 2017. Andshakshuka paired with David & Nadia Aristargos 2016. Of course, you can never go wrong with a steak and a good quality cabernet sauvignon.
How has Covid-19 affected the South African wine industry and what do you see happening for the remainder of the year?
Cliff: I think, much like many industries, there has been a massive leap forward towards online sales direct to consumer. I am sure we will start to see online penetration well above 10 percent of retail and steadily growing from there. It is the catalyst that ecommerce needed in South Africa.
Has the wine drinker demographic changed over the years?
Cliff: Definitely, this is probably what makes me most excited about our business at the moment. Traditionally, our biggest audience has been males over the age of 45, but in the last five years we’ve seen a significant shift to females aged between 35 and 45 years old.
Do you have any members who have been with you since the start?
Colin: We have 61 people who have been with us since inception. Almost 6 000 have been with the club for more than 10 years; over 7 000 for six to 10 years, 10 552 for three to five years and 16 453 have joined within the last two years.
What are people ordering and drinking different to 10, 20 or 30 years ago?
Colin: Variety. Through greater sophistication people now enjoy their wines for the same reason they like fruit salad, variety. Talking of taste, the club caters for every liking. Red only, white only, dry white only, red and dry white only, sweet wine only and so on. Plus, there are premium selections, reserve selections, wine-of-the-month selections and best value selections. The club’s guiding motto has always been “Giving our customers a personal adventure in the enjoyment of wine.”
How will you be celebrating Heritage Day and what’s on the menu?
Cliff: A braai of course! A good friend recently showed me the best way to braai a Picanha (it is a cut that is very popular in Brazil) which is relatively inexpensive compared to other cuts. It comes from the rump cap … so as with any rump a full-bodied cabernet will always pair well. The Guardian Peak Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 at R89 is a perfect accompaniment to any braai. The panel recently selected it from their weekly blind tastings as a Best Value Club wine and is part of the same stable as Rust en Vrede one of SA’s oldest wine farms.