A $140,000 Wine Club Can Sometimes Cause a Headache

For about $140,000 up front, members of the Napa Valley Reserve get a chance to pluck Cabernet clusters at daybreak, ferment them under the eyes of experts from cult winery Harlan Estate and receive as many as 900 bottles of wine a year.

For Illinois Republican gubernatorial nominee Bruce Rauner, membership also came with a free case of political blowback.

Rauner’s participation in Napa Valley Reserve is the center of a vintage Illinois political dust-up. His opponent, incumbent Democratic Governor Pat Quinn, accused the billionaire of living the high life even as he sought to lower minimum wages. Quinn’s campaign yesterday posted a scathing ad on YouTube.

“Bruce Rauner spends more on wine than average Illinois households spend on everything,” reads the caption of the ad, which showed a hand emptying a bottle of red into an overflowing glass.

Per capita consumption of wine of all prices has gone up in America in each of the past 20 years, said Tyler Colman, who earned a doctorate in political science at Northwestern University and writes the popular wine blog “Dr. Vino.” Still, the image of a wealthy politician sipping an exclusive label can foster a sense of detachment from mainstream America, he said.

Political Kryptonite

“It does seem to be kryptonite for politicians, who should be seen hoisting a beer at the county fair,” Colman said. “Wine in America is still associated with a certain lifestyle.”

The club declined to comment for this story, beyond saying that the deposit is refundable when members leave. The cost of entry is as much as $140,000, according to the Chicago Tribune.

The 500 couples who are members of the St. Helena, California-based club can visit the winery, take classes in and take part in winemaking, according to the club’s website. They can also choose tiers of membership that allow them to take home from six to 75 cases of wine, which isn’t sold on the open market, each year.

The club is the brainchild of William Harlan, whose own recent Harlan Estate vintages are currently selling for up to $1,000 a bottle in stores. For wine enthusiasts with expensive taste who enjoy entertaining, the cost of membership can actually pencil out to a savings, at least relative to pricey retail bottles.

Members Only

Rauner’s oenophilia entered the national conversation over the weekend, when the Chicago Tribune ran what it identified as a 2010 photograph of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel -- a prominent Democrat who was at the time President Barack Obama’s chief of staff -- walking alongside Rauner while holding a bottle of Napa Valley Reserve’s members-only wine.

Emanuel isn’t a member, said Kelley Quinn, a spokeswoman for the mayor. “It was not his bottle of wine,” Quinn added.

Rauner’s campaign confirmed his participation. “Bruce’s membership in Napa Valley Reserve is part of a number of investments in real estate, wineries and vineyards that he has made in the area,” it said in a statement yesterday.

The exclusive club highlights how the wine industry blends agriculture and tourism. Many visiting the Napa Valley are no longer content sipping a chardonnay at the dinner table. They long to be a part of the wine-making process, from picking the grapes to selecting the wooden barrels.

‘Private Label’

“There’s a great sense of accomplishment,” says the club’s website, “in producing a barrel of world-class wine and having it bottled under your own private label.”

Harlan, who also owns the posh Meadowood country resort in St. Helena, founded the club more than a decade ago several miles from his Harlan Estate vineyards. Today, members come from 37 states and 11 countries, according to the club’s website.

Daryl Bristow, a Texas lawyer who helped George W. Bush secure his 2000 election in Florida, remembers precisely what prompted him to pay $120,000 to join the club back in 1999 when he met Harlan through a mutual friend.

Bristow had visited California wine country several times, including a visit to the famous Napa Valley Wine Auction, and dreamed of owning his own vineyard there. Joining the club gave him a chance to take a hand in growing wine grapes and producing wine without overburdening his busy schedule, a main perk for members.

“I wanted to make Napa a part of our lives,” Bristow said.

Picking Grapes

The club hosts events through the year, including a spring party when the vines begin to flower, a summer bottling demonstration and a harvest celebration in the fall, according to the site.

Bristow, who left the club in 2009, said he enjoyed picking grapes off the vines and separating them on a conveyor, as well as socializing with the other guests. He recalled a club member who worked in the music industry hosting a country concert on the vineyard.

“It is extremely good wine,” Bristow said. “If you want to be part of the winemaking experience without worrying about the weather and the birds and the disease, this is it.”

Politicians’ mileage, however, may vary.

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