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Bruce Rauner’s Wine ‘Club’ Is More Like a Wine Dude Ranch

The gubernatorial candidate outed himself as a member of a six-figure wine club. But by the standards of elite Napa vineyards, Napa Valley Reserve is a bargain.

Photo: Jose M. Osorio/ Chicago Tribune

Yesterday the Sun-Times’s Natasha Koreki reported that Bruce Rauner “confirmed that he indeed belongs to an elite wine club that costs $100,000 to join.” By the standards of Rauner’s wealth, that’s small beer. But the story of how the story emerged is interesting—as is what the wine club actually is, and how it might be a bargain (of sorts).

Reporters seized on the wine-club story after a piece this weekend by Tribune reporters John Chase, David Heinzmann, and Jeff Coen on the friendship between Rauner and Rahm Emanuel. As the reporters rightly note, it shouldn’t come as a surprise; Chicago politics has a long history of moderate-Republican suburban businessmen sharing the interests, ideologies, and social connections of centrist-Democrat mayors.

But it’s vividly reported. Here’s the lede:

Just a few months before announcing plans to become Chicago’s next Democratic mayor, Rahm Emanuel strolled down the gravel path to a Montana resort restaurant with Republican businessman Bruce Rauner, both men smiling as they carried bottles of wine.

In his hand, Emanuel carried a bottle of Napa Valley Reserve. The wine — which a spokeswoman says was not Emanuel’s — is so exclusive it is available only through a private vineyard whose members pay six figures to join the club.

It’s documented in a photograph taken by an eagle-eyed Montana Pioneer food critic named David S. Lewis. Lewis was at a restaurant, the Paradise Valley Grill, which brought Napa Valley cuisine to Montana, and spotted a bottle of Napa Valley wine, with a famous person attached to it. Turns out Lewis has a better eye for wine than famous people.

At first glance, with his suntan and pearly whites, the point man looked like Robert Downey, Jr. I called out in jest, saying to him he looked like Downey, and the guy gave me a quick smile and said Thanks, buddy. I knew the guy was super important. But what I really had my eye on, photographically, was his bottle of red wine, at least that’s what I kept telling myself, because a paparzzi I am not.

Rahm as Robert Downey, Jr.? It wouldn’t be bad casting, I guess.

Writing about Rahm and Rauner last year, Chicago’s own Carol Felsenthal came across Lewis’s account, and mentioned it in her exploration of their relationship, but without sourcing the wine bottle.

The Trib’s team of reporters managed to track it down, and now it’s a thing—from a Montana food critic just trying to snap a bottle of wine, to Chicago, to the Trib, gathering steam and information. I first heard about it not from local sources but from the Washington Post, where Philip Bump stated the obvious spin:

Illinois gubernatorial candidate and venture capitalist Bruce Rauner ® is wealthier than you. Ha ha, you say, how do you know? And I answer: Because he belongs to a wine club that costs as much as $150,000 to join. For wine.

This is where the meme starts to go off the rails. Napa Valley Reserve isn’t a wine club in the sense that you plunk down six figures and get a bottle of wine in the mail. It’s somewhere between a dude ranch, a time-share for hobbyist winemakers, and Costco for wine collectors.

And it might be a bargain. Here’s how Food & Wine describes it:

An alternative to owning a vineyard is belonging to the Napa Valley Reserve, winemaker Bill Harlan’s new club. A $150,000 deposit buys the right to purchase from one-half to three barrels of wine. You can do as much of the work as you want, from grape picking to barrel tasting. About 275 people have joined so far, half from outside California, and Harlan expects to cut off membership at 400.

According to a 2010 Huffington Post piece, members can buy bottles for $78. So let’s do the math.

Three barrels is a lot of wine: about 24 cases per barrel, at 12 bottles per case, gets you 864 bottles of wine, at a cost of $67,392 at member prices. The deposit plus the cost, divided by the number of bottles, comes out to around $250 a bottle—perhaps a bit more with member dues, which have been variously reported. (It also appears that the per-bottle price has gone up a touch, as has the allotment per member.)

But Harlan’s wine costs hundreds of dollars—from $425 to $900 a bottle. Plus the Reserve deposit is refunded if you quit. At these prices, you’d be crazy not to join. (Not to mention the fact that, as Bump notes, Rauner isn’t just a client of Bill Harlan; he’s also an investor in Harlan’s latest vineyard. As Bump reasonably speculates, it could well be a perk.)

Nor are you just getting the wine. It’s like baseball fantasy camp for wine nerds:

It is slow going. “I have a new appreciation for the difficulty of the work,” said Cam Garner, a venture capitalist from Rancho Santa Fe, who was hacking young vines with a sickle-shaped knife as roosters crowed. “You spend that much for a bottle of wine, you might as well appreciate all the aspects.”

[snip]

Along with “fireside chats” by Mr. Mondavi, held in a chic pre-weathered barn, members get to personalize their vintages, select the amount of time their oak barrels will be toasted and steep themselves in the club’s wine library, which is full of rare first editions.

Lifestyles of the rich and famous, or bargain-hunting from an investor? The Quinn camp has already fired back, but perhaps the Rauner camp can spin it as the latter. As Rich Miller and Greg Hinz argue, Rauner’s going to have to hunt for much bigger savings if he wins the election.

 

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