In part two of this series on wine clubs we’re going to explore a new type of wine club started by my Napa Valley friend Didier Loustau. The club is called Cork Wars and was launched in March of this year.
Cork Wars is unique in that it combines the talents of Napa Valley sommeliers and chefs, interactive technology, competition, good wine and food, wine education and rolls them all into this one-of-a-kind wine club.
Here’s how the wine club works: each month a different chef and a different sommelier, normally associated with a Valley restaurant, provide wine members with two new recipes along with two new wines…all in quest of the perfect food and wine pairing. Club members are asked to prepare the recipes and enjoy the wine with the meal, and then submit photos and comments on the results of their efforts.
At each step of this process, from joining Cork Wars to practicing your culinary skills, you are awarded corks (or points) in this friendly Cork Wars competition. At the end of the year, the corks (points) will be tallied and the member with the most points will receive a free stay at the Bardessono Hotel in Yountville, CA, dinner for two at Lucy Restaurant and a $500 gift certificate at the Cork Wars restaurant of the year. The new and exciting twist to Cork Wars is that each month there is a live, interactive, interview of the featured sommelier and chef from the ToutSuite studios in Napa. Each member is invited to log in and participate in the interview.
On my last trip to Napa I had the opportunity to sit with Didier, in the backyard of his home, share a bottle of wine and discuss the evolution of Loustau Wines & Marketing into Cork Wars. What follows is the edited version of that conversation:
Q: You had a successful business with Loustau Wines and Marketing, you had select club members who adored you … why not go back to that? Why start Cork Wars?
A: When I started this private membership business (Loustau Wines and Marketing) it was a good idea. It went very well until the economic crush. My customer list was very exclusive and I was able to take care of those exclusive 20 people. And do it very well. Other people wanted to come online, but I could not do it because I did not have the time to take care of more people.
Then we had the economic crush and my great members stopped buying as much wine. And I could not re-generate my mailing list at that time. That was a tough, tough moment. I don’t think today that I could re-create those very special relationships among those members. I am going to Cork Wars because I want to cater to a broader audience. I believe that Cork Wars is really an opportunity to be more interactive and to get to meet more people through sharing recipes, cooking and sharing opinions – all while discovering and getting to know some of the great sommeliers and chefs from Napa Valley. I think this is much more interactive, more fun and the rewards are great too.
A: I am trying to reach out to people I know and respect. My background is in the restaurant business…I spent 25 years in the restaurant business. I always thought that the restaurant business is more than just a chef. Most people only focus on the chef in a restaurant. But there is a full array of people working the floor who deserve to be recognized. And the sommelier is definitely one of those people. The art of pairing wine with food is absolutely extraordinary. Hopefully with Cork Wars people will start to see the intricacies of wine pairing and just have fun. We want them to just let go and enjoy.
Q: So do the chefs provide the recipes and the sommeliers provide the wine for Cork Wars members?
A: To be honest I do not know how the recipe is picked. The recipe might come first in some cases and then the wine. I think it depends on the restaurant. It is kind of like what came first: the chicken or the egg? The idea is for the restaurant to shine in what it chooses for our members. Cork Wars is really about promoting the wine by the glass program for the restaurants. When you go to a restaurant, how do you think people are picking the wine by the glass? Is there any correlation between the wine and the food? That was sort of the idea for revealing the secret, if there is one, for how you pick why this wine is here and served by the glass. Is it price point? Is it a deal? Or is it a price point and goes well with the food the restaurant serves?
Q: How do you feel about wine by the glass programs?
A: I really enjoy the programs because it allows me to go to restaurant with a strong wine by the glass program and taste the wine without buying a whole bottle. If I do not like the wine, I don’t need to waste my money to buy a bottle. The only issue for me is making sure it’s fresh and has not been sitting around for days. I don’t want to spend $25 for a glass that has been sitting around. Wines by the glass programs work best when paired with food and changed out frequently – monthly or weekly. That way when you sit down to have, say, the leg of lamb, they can recommend what glass of wine will work with it.
A: This is a test pilot and is a product of my current environment of living in Napa. Eventually the idea is to create a wine club membership where I would have 12 restaurants from Chicago, 12 restaurants from New York, 12 restaurants from San Francisco, 12 restaurants from Napa, etc…allowing people to pick a region to they want to get to know better. So every month they will receive monthly dishes and the wines. This can let you honor some of your favorite restaurants and see what they are doing that is new, while also discovering some restaurants you may not be familiar with in those regions. So members might opt to be in the Napa Valley region because they come here once a year and they get the chance to experience the area all year round. Or if that person likes to visit Dallas they can opt to receive the wine from the Dallas chapter group. The fun thing is that we can have super members who belong to more than one club. If they have an interest they could be getting a case a month: two bottles from Chicago, two bottles from Napa, etc. It could be really fun.
Q: How has the restaurant community accepted Cork Wars?
A: Everyone thinks the idea is really cool. It is still new and I think everyone is hopeful. Right now no one really knows what to do with it. The more members I develop, the more interaction I can develop, the better it is. Because with Cork Wars not only are you communicating with me, you are also communicating directly with the restaurant and the sommelier. So if you have any question about anything you can reach out directly to the sommelier. You can reach him or her through Twitter and Facebook access. It becomes all about communications. And once a month I will bring the sommelier, and sometimes the chef, to ToutSuite Social Club and we will spend 20 minutes on camera and allow members to log in and ask any questions of them.
A: It is hard. As a society we get a lot of requests to join this and sign up for that. What do you do that is so different from everyone else? So it is hard. It is going slower than I could have imagined it. I think the pricing is fair. You get two bottles and two recipes a month for $80. So you receive the wine and the recipes. You cook, you taste and you vote. You collect corks. You get corks for becoming a member, for referring a friend, for joining the webcasts, for participating and for voting. The one with the most corks at the end of the year’s contest gets a gift certificate for $500 for the best restaurant selected by members AND a two-night stay at our yearly hotel sponsor. This year the hotel in Napa costs $400 a night … so what’s not to like? And then we start all over again the next year. The wine is picked by professionals. Not something that is being picked by someone who has too much of this one wine and they need to get rid of it. These are the actual wines served in the restaurants which are supplying the recipes.
Q: What is the benefit to Cork Wars?
A: Besides getting to know more professionals in the business, the more you participate, the more corks you win. You cook something and take a photo of the recipe and post it on the Facebook page for Cork Wars, you get 500 corks! You sign up another member, you earn more corks. If you buy a gift subscription membership for someone’s Christmas present, you earn more corks. I think it’s a fun idea. It can be competitive. The opportunity is there for Cork Warriors to take these recipes and invite friends over for a social gathering and to serve the food and the wine and share it.
I was an early member (Cork Warrior) of Cork Wars and although I haven’t prepared any of the recipes, I have certainly enjoyed the wine selections. Several days after my discussion with Didier on Cork Wars he held his monthly interview with July’s participating Sommelier Angela Stem and Chef Jason Toji from St. Helena’s Press restaurant. 587 St. Helena Highway South, St. Helena, CA 94574 (707) 967-0550.
Here is that interview:
Be it locally, regionally or nationally, there is a wine club out there to match everyone’s taste in wine and desired price level. If you aren’t a wine club member yet do a little research and consider joining one today. It is a great way to enjoy and learn about wine. Besides, doesn’t it just sound cool to be a “Cork Warrior?” It is easy to join Cork Wars by going to the website and signing up. Let me know what wine club you belong to and what your experience has been.