Wine Clubs You’ll Wish You Were Part Of
Words by Katie Spain.
The first rule of Wine Club is: drink up. The second rule of Wine Club is: have fun. Or at least, it should be.
No lipstick, no perfume, no knickers. Sounds like the dress code to a kink club, doesn’t it? Not so. It is in fact, a theme set by a wine club many years ago. They were ahead of their time. Wine clubs (the gather to taste and talk variety) don’t have to be stuffy affairs. The really good ones can open minds and palates. Like my beloved (but unfortunately named) Wine Gang Bang; a wine club that meets semi-regularly to taste wine at BYO Gouger Street restaurants. We bring great booze, bang it on the lazy Susan and let the good times and conversation roll. Wine clubs happen all over Australia and range from the longstanding (like the Classic Wine Club - 50 years and counting) to casual catch-ups with oddball themes and prizes. Some come and go (Vale Bollinger Boys) but through dedication, the great ones have the potential to last a lifetime. Can’t find one that suits your taste? Start your own. I scoured Australia for wine clubs that get it right. These are just a few.
THE OLD DUFFERS
“This is not a race! It’s an educational experience!”
This is how professional photographer and wine industry legend Milton Wordley signs off every email. The Old Duffers wine club motto sums up an attitude to life and wine tasting. “We started out about 10 years ago as a music video group,” Milton says. “We used to gather at someone’s place and watch music videos and movies while our wives and partners were at their book club.” While they got their flick fix, the blokes shared the odd glass of wine or three and eventually, the music video gathering morphed into The Old Duffers. They’re a dedicated bunch and meet every four-to-eight weeks. “We used to gather at the Prince Albert Hotel until it closed down but we now meet at someone’s house or hire a venue.” The gatherings are generally themed. “The only set one is Oysters and Riesling at the Metro Oyster Bar in December each year,” Milton says. “The most recent one was at Georges on Waymouth where we did an unbelievable lineup of Greek wines with the restaurant owner George and winemaker Jason Barrette.”
Winemakers are often invited along – in the name of education. “I’ll never forget Jason taking one sniff and a sip of the masked wine and saying something along the lines of, ‘I reckon that's a John Duval Eligo… I’d guess it's around a 2010 vintage’,” Milton says. “He was right!”
Other memorable gatherings include an extensive Wendouree tasting, a visit to Tapanappa where winemaker Brian Croser, Xavier Bizot and Geoff Weaver hosted the group. “Two of our members have a close connection with Brian. John Greenshields planted the Koppamurra vineyard that is now Croser’s Whalebone in Wrattonbully and Dave Lilijegren taught both Brian and Geoff chemistry at the uni wine course.”
A tasting at Penfolds Magill Estate by chief winemaker Peter Gago was also unforgettable. The old chaps worked their way through the Penfolds 2018 Yattarna Chardonnay, 2016 St Henri Shiraz, the 2018 RWT Barossa Shiraz, the 2010 Bin 707 Cabernet Sauvignon, 2016 Bin 111A Clare/Barossa Valley Shiraz, Grange (2008, 2015 and 2016 vintages) and Penfolds g3.
Extensive tasting notes are taken during each catch-up and an email is sent to all members after each occasion. In addition to Milton, the group consists of Rick Burge, Adam Easterbrook, Neil Furniss, Jay Goodger, John Greenshields, Jeremy Keisman, Gerry and Dave Lilijegren, John Meathrel, Chris Waterman and Mick Wordley.
They might be getting on a bit, but these guys don’t mess around. These wine gatherings will go down in history. Bravo.
Winemaker Jason Barrette has a busy schedule and an impressive wine cellar. When he’s not making wine for Hemera Estate and Paulmara Estates, he can usually be found tasting the good stuff. The former Penfolds winemaker is part of the Adelaide Fine Wine Appreciation Club (AFWAC), a number of informal winemaker clubs, and attends Sommeliers Australia and The Fruitful Pursuit’s The Maker & Me series when they don’t clash with his Tuesday wine club commitments. CUNEXT Tuesday has been around since 2018. “It was a splinter group from an Auswine Forum offline tasting group,” Jason says. “We get together at least once a month and set a theme of a variety, region, wine style or a particular producer.”
An annual highlight is the ‘Krug and KFC’ tasting. “We all bring a Tête de Cuvée Champagne such as Krug, Dom, Cristal, Rare… and grab a couple of buckets of KFC.” Genius. The ‘Grange Killers’ tasting is also pure gold. “Members bring a wine that is up there with the standard of Grange – they are all tasted blind and the Miles Raymond (from Sideways) trophy is awarded.” The ‘Sell a Kidney’ tasting is also a doozy. “For that one we bring one of our prized bottles to share,” Jason says. “We also do a ‘Bring Out Your Dead’ tasting on Halloween - wines we’d forgotten about in our cellar or old gems. Some good, some terrible.”
At 12 members in the group, it is an example of an intimate, imaginative wine club done well.
What do you get when you gather a group of fun-loving ladies (and two token men) and set them loose on a table full of wine? Mayhem. That’s why Catlin Wines winemaker Darryl Catlin (and later East End Cellars’ Michael Andrewartha) were enlisted to keep the WACOFFS (pronounced “whack-offs”) in check. “I was like the ringmaster,” Darryl says. “I organised the wine and kept the focus. They provided the interest and fun.”
WACOFFS stands for ‘Wine Appreciation Club of Femme Fatales’ and the group was formed in Adelaide in October 1997. “A few of their husbands had their own serious tasting group and a few of the girls wanted their own – with a focus on education and fun,” Darryl says. “It was originally held upstairs in the Universal on Rundle Street and later at The Edinburgh Hotel. It evolved from there.”
Most members worked in the medical field and the tastings (curated and led by Darryl) were a hoot. “The theme from the early days was no lipstick, no perfume, no knickers.” Darryl laughs. “It was a lot of fun and quite hilarious at times. They were very strong women and no subject was taboo.”
The group contributed decent money towards good booze but Darryl also made sure there were some really good, low-cost wines in there too. “Everything went into brown paper bags. It was about security of wine knowledge and we built up there.”
Ask the ladies about their memorable WACOFFS moments and they’ll tell you about the time members Graham and Kenneth turning up dressed as bowling ladies, the time wind-up plastic penises traipsed their way down the tasting table, and the time Darryl removed his underwear without taking off his trousers. The mind boggles.
For all the giggles, it was about education. “Five years after starting they were nailing the tastings,” Darryl says. “They learnt a lot. It was about fun, good wine and education – without the stuffiness.”
RMWC (THE ROZELLE MEN’S WINE CLUB)
This club is all about the postcode – 2039 marks the spot.
What started as a very casual catch up between eight mates is now a monthly gathering of 15 men, all of whom call the suburb of Rozelle (in Sydney) home.
“It was a bit of a joke at the time,” says club member and Sydney-based journalist and editor Dominic Rolfe. “A few of the guys were sitting around while their wives were at their book club and decided they needed something of their own – wine was the obvious answer.”
These days, 15 members from all walks of life gather once a month at a local BYO restaurant within walking distance from home. “We quickly learnt not to do it at our houses,” Dominic says. “We’d end up crawling out of there at 4 am. Meeting at a restaurant keeps us in check.”
The wine themes vary. “From wines from a NATO country to NSW wines, and verticals. At the end of the tasting, we vote for our favourite wine [the Unico Zelo Truffle Hound was triumphant during one gathering] and whoever wins gets to choose the theme and restaurant for the next one.”
During a particularly memorable blind vertical taste-off, three recent vintages of Oakridge Chardonnay was triumphant over three vintages of Penfolds St Henri, Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier and a Leeuwin Estate Art Series Cabernet Sauvignon.
None of the motley Rozelle crew work in wine – but some have impressive cellars.
“Some people bring really serious wines, while others swipe something off the BWS shelf on the way to dinner. It is a broad selection of people and wine.”
Friendships formed over the years and offshoots include RMWC cycling days, a running group, and family getaways. “As a club, we have visited Murrumbateman, Orange and Mudgee.”
The group even has merch; jumpers, hats and tasting glasses.
RMWC recently celebrated its 50th catch-up but COVID-restrictions in New South Wales put a stop to things – for now. “The lockdown here in Sydney showed us how important connection is,” Dominic says. “There’s always a chance that someone from the wine club will ride past your house on their bike or drive past in their car. It’s been lovely to see them – even just for a moment.”
TOWER LUNCHEON CLUB
When Andrew Margan (Margan Wines managing director and winemaker) and a bunch of pals started their Hunter Valley luncheon club 20 years ago, they never imagined it’d still be going strong in 2021.
“The name came from the loose association that you needed a tower of some sort on your winery to be part of it,” Andrew says. “Truth be known it was probably more about everyone providing a little bit of TLC to each other. We started meeting monthly on Mondays with everyone taking a turn to host in a restaurant and with any variety of themes employed.”
Original members (who were all club presidents) included Dan Dineen, Rhys Eather, David Hook, Brian Barry, Toby Evans, Andrew Thomas, Paul Stuart and Andrew. “We have let a few newbies in over the years (as vice presidents) including Iain Riggs, Mike Deiuliis, Jim Chatto and Jeff Byrnes. There are currently 12 people in the group, and ring-ins are welcomed with open arms. “There’s no membership as such – it’s just a group of like-minded people.” A younger generation of Hunter winemakers (including Andrew’s son Ollie Margan) are also part of the crew.
“We didn’t want any rules,” Andrew says. “The only one rule and that is you cannot bring your own wine to lunch (given that all wines are served blind) and white wine doesn’t really count unless it is from Champagne.”
The ‘bring your own wine’ rule has only been broken once. “The person (who shall not be named) has never been back.” Themes such as ‘Wine Made by Winemakers with Prosthetic Limbs’ and ‘Wines Made by Someone Who Has Slept with One of the Group’ indicate the level of seriousness about it all. Minutes were taken for the first few years (the humorous kind) and there are points awarded for options and prizes involved.
“Every year we have a special Christmas lunch where partners are invited and we venture out of the Hunter,” Andrew says. “Tasmania, South of France, New Zealand, Orange, Clare Valley just to name a few. Every August we have a magnum-themed lunch halfway up the mountain at Thredbo. Next year will be our 20th Thredbo lunch. The quality of the wines coming along are definitely improving and the afternoon of great friendship never dims.” Good luck getting back down that snowy mountain guys.
THE THIRD FRIDAY CLUB
What is the collective noun for a bunch of numerically proficient wine folk? No idea, but in this case, it’s a fair whack of fun. Lincoln Ridley (chief financial officer at McLaren Vale’s Wirra Wirra) is part of The Third Friday Lunch, a group of wine industry finance types that have been gathering to gulp wine for more than 25 years. “We meet for lunch on the third Friday of every month at a different cellar door or local restaurant,” Lincoln says. “We each bring a bottle to share. There isn’t a lot of formality regarding the wine tasting; it’s more of a chance to share what your winery is making as well as sharing some industry knowledge and strategies for dealing with winemakers and marketing people.”
The founding members were Bob Bleechmore (d’Arenberg’s accountant for 30 years), Colin Rayment (Kay Brothers) and “insurance broker extraordinaire” Rob Edwards. Rob is still a regular attendee and chief organiser.
“Most of our attendees are based in McLaren Vale however we do have some regular visitors from further afield, especially to our annual mid-year lunch in Adelaide and to our end of year trip which usually involves the great Chook (Chook’s Little Winery Tours) taking us to another wine region like the Adelaide Hills, Barossa or Langhorne Creek.” A small contingent even made it to the Yarra Valley one year. “It is the people that make this industry so fantastic and this is a great excuse finance people to escape the office and develop a network within the industry.”
When winemaker Uffe Deichmann made the move from Denmark to McLaren Vale (where he runs his wine label Poppelvej - pronounced pop-el-vei), he left loved ones and his homeland behind. Reminders of his homeland are dotted throughout his winery. His brand is named after the street on which grew up and the original street sign, hand painted by Uffe’s great-great-grandfather, hangs on above his wine barrels. Uffe couldn’t bring his Danish wine club pals with him, so set up a new one when he arrived in Oz. The small group of blokes catch up every few months to taste and discuss a line-up of wines, specifically curated and purchased ahead of the gathering. Each member chips in cash to cover the epic haul. Gatherings happen in their homes. Winemaker Roger Pike (Marius Wines), grower/winemaker Dr Matt (The Good Doctors Tonic), photographer Milton Wordley and my partner (a wine photographer) all have golden tickets to this intimate club. I do not. No hard feelings Uffe. The group occasionally welcomes a guest. I live in hope.
As for the name. The jury is out on that one. “The truth is that the name came up after one of our first tastings and we only wrote down the initials on the night,” Uffe says. “None of us remembers what it actually stands for.”
This rogue wine club was formed in 1981 by wine wholesaler Arthur Raftopoulos and named its members broke away from another group that got a bit pretentious (as the story goes). David Ridge (David Ridge Wines), Andrew Waterman (Dacent Pty Ltd) and Colin Gaetjens (consultant valuer, wineries and vineyards) kicked things off, followed by Pam Dunsford, Stephen and Prue Henschke, Jeremy and Heidi Holmes (d'Or to Door), Sally McGill (Casama Group), Julian Forwood and Bernice Ong (Ministry of Clouds), David LeMire MW (Shaw + Smith), Joe Grilli (Primo Estate), and Philip Hardy (just to name a few). That’s quite the mash-up of vinous minds.
Monthly meetings were held at the host’s home; where they provided all food and wine. “Wines were tasted blind,” Colin says. “It was quite an exercise requiring lots of glasses and decanters but it worked and was great fun. We typically looked at champagne, local and imported whites, mainly riesling and chardonnay, same with reds; local, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Rhone, and we generally finished with a sauterne or vintage port, or both.”
Great wine was reasonably priced during the 80s and 90s which made for some special tastings.
“We had a really good spread of top Bordeaux and Burgundies; lots of old Aussies including Grange from the 50s, old classics from Hunter, Coonawarra, the Barossa, fabulous sauternes, German rieslings, vintage ports… an amazing spread over the years.” Jealous much? “The equivalent cost of doing one of our meetings today could be thousands of dollars, given the way top wine prices have gone.” If you’re not green already, wait for it.
“I recall one meeting in the private tasting room at Penfold’s Magill Estate,” Colin says. “In a small building where the restaurant complex now is. The host was Vance Palmer who worked at Penfolds. Our guest was Max Schubert and we had a 1953 Grange Cabernet - very rare. In my wine auction days, I only ever saw and sold one half bottle of the 53 Cab.”
The group tapered off several years ago but still meets occasionally. “The format now is best bottle with options,” Clin says. “Originally it was really blind - no options and everyone had to nominate the wine. It was quite the thrill if you nailed it - as many did.”
THE FIRST THURSDAY CLUB
Until recently, d’Arenberg patriarch d’Arry drove to Adelaide’s CBD for the monthly ‘First Thursday Club’ blind tasting luncheon which he started with a bunch of well-known wine figures back in the early 60s. Not bad at 93 years old.
“It all happened when we were having a lunch at Hardy’s,” d’Arry says. “David Hardy said, ‘This is fun. Why don’t we form a club and have a luncheon every first Thursday of every month?”
Members still meet on the first Thursday of the month to break bread, discuss wine and reminisce. Wines are sheathed and tasted blind but the conversation is light-hearted. Club numbers have dwindled of late but the remaining crew are a lively bunch. Originally, the club was for men only but in 2019, I was accepted into the fold as the first female member ever. It was a moment that moved me to tears. They’re a great bunch and it is an honour to taste with them.