When Will Richey talks about growth spurts he could be referring to either of two things. The first: his infant son Alston, who keeps Dad company all day while he runs his two Revolutionary Soup restaurants and the Wine Guild of Charlottesville, of which he is a founder. The other could be the Wine Guild itself, which experienced a surge in new members at the start of this year, bringing the roster to about 70. I checked in with Richey at the Wine Guild’s command central in the rear of 209 Second St. SW to see how the controversial members-only club is faring now that it’s approaching its second birthday.
“If you’re more serious about wine,” says co-founder Will Richey, the Wine Guild is “a no-brainer.” Membership is up to about 70 people now.
Upbeat from a tasting the night before, one that featured “nice cellaring wines,” Richey described the Guild, at this stage, as a “wine environment.” “If you enjoy wine and just want to drink it,” he said, the Wine Guild, which requires a minimum annual investment of $200 per member (earning you a buying discount of about 23 percent off retail), is probably over the top. But “if you’re more serious about wine, it’s a no-brainer.” Besides bi-weekly tastings and marked-down purchase prices, the Guild has a lending library and a chance to network with people that fall into that serious-sounding category, “wine aggressive.” And there are food products, like truffle salt and local cheese, for sale at a discount, too. Richey says that aspect has picked up a lot more than he would have anticipated.
Food, you say? For sale at the Wine Guild? Indeed, the food sales are a necessary component of the Wine Guild’s ABC gourmet retailer’s license, requiring $2,000 in monthly food sales. And therein lies the rub—a friction between the Wine Guild and some area wine distributors and retailers that Richey says has not abated since we first reported on it in January 2008. The state license also requires that the Wine Guild sell its wares to the public. But only recently has the guild started to keep office hours (Wed-Fri, 9am-3pm). In principle, they’ve always been willing to sell to anyone (though at standard retail prices, of course), but finding a time to drop in to pick up a bottle of Sancerre has not always been easy for John Q. Public.
Some retailers, like Bill Curtis from Tastings, see the Wine Guild as making an end-run around the tough three-tier distribution constraints that the state makes them and distributors follow. And Richey acknowledges that some area distributors still won’t do business with the Guild. Though the Guild’s membership, even after the surge, amounts to fewer people than might show up at a typical weekend tasting at any one of the local wine shops, it grates.
“I don’t think in the long run it will be a successful venture,” Curtis says of the Guild. “That’s because of ABC strictures and because in the long run it’s not in the best interest of wholesalers to willy-nilly sell wines to the public that are allocated to them for restaurants and retailers.”
Robert Harllee, who owns both Market Street Wineshops, takes a gentler view. “Legally it’s between the Wine Guild and the state,” he says. “I have a live-and-let-live attitude.”
Richey says he tried to tackle the bad blood head-on when it surfaced last year. “A lot of it was a misunderstanding on their part,” he says of shops and distributors. But, at the end of the day, “some people just don’t want competition.”