Andre Luis Martins staved off boredom during lockdown by creating a home wine club for members of the Cavalry & Guards Club where he works. The initiative was a huge success – so much so, he's now looking to extend it.
If Covid-19 has proved one thing, it’s that necessity really is the mother of invention. Bereft of the usual routine, businesses and individuals have thrown themselves into activities they had never previously considered.
Not all have been successful, but some emphatically have – often taking their perpetrators by surprise in the process.
Andre Luis Martins has been head sommelier at the Cavalry & Guards Club for over four years. A private members club for former and serving members of Cavalry and Guards’ regiments, it’s the kind of traditional venue that still requires members and their guests to wear a jacket and tie.
With portraits of stern-looking Field Marshals wearing extreme moustaches lining the walls, it’s not a place, you feel, that naturally embraces change. But coronavirus has changed all that.
The club was only fully closed for a short while, before being reopened at the request of the MOD as a base to support military personnel moving round the country, as Andre told us when we caught up with him back in April, as part of our On Lockdown series. But even when open, it was very quiet and Martins was restless.
‘I was bored being at home,’ he says. ‘I’ve got studying for my [WSET] Diploma, but with all the stories of redundancy and suppliers struggling, I thought “you know what, I can kill two birds with one stone here”. I can keep my staff engaged and at the same time support people who support me when things are normal.’
His solution was a members’ wine club.
He looked through the stocks in his cellar and, with a bit of judicious additional ordering, put together a mixed case for £155, including delivery.
As well as ‘safe’ wines such as Bordeaux and New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, Martins was keen to gently expand the members’ horizons a little with wines that were of a familiar flavour profile, but from unfamiliar regions or countries.
A £7 Argentine Pinot Gris, for instance, overdelivered for the money and helped get the case price down, while still tasting similar to a north-Italian interpretation.
A Danebury Reserve English white (also £7) was perfect for summer. Remembering it from judging at the Sommelier Wine Awards in March, the club was one of the first to stock it once the wine’s Gold medal was announced.
The club sends out a monthly communication to its 3000 members every month. And in early May the members were told about the new offer.
The response was astonishing. In just two weeks in May, the club took £20,000 of orders. In June, they topped £30,000. Of course, some of this success is because the members were stuck at home, and wanted to support their club. But they also trusted their head sommelier’s judgment and palate.
‘I take them a bit out of their comfort zone, but make sure that they have some of the wines that they know and love as well,’ says Martins of what was clearly a delicate balancing act.
Every wine in the case came with a tasting note, a food-match recommendation and a suggestion for serving temperature.
Most Cavalry and Guards members began by ordering the mixed case. But the offer has developed and adapted in the two months it’s been running to something much more bespoke. Excited by some of the new wines they have been trying, members are returning to order cases of them.
‘We also offered them anything in our cellars where we thought we had a lot of stock,’ says Martins. ‘People would ask for a particular vintage of Port, or say “a few months ago I had a really nice bottle of something, could you send me some?”. We are as flexible as they want us to be.’
While bar-staff have remained furloughed, the success of the wine club has allowed Martins to at least bring in his full team of three sommeliers, for what has become an almost full-time job.
‘It’s quite intensive putting the cases together, chasing the couriers,’ he admits. ‘It’s a side I never saw before, and it’s quite stressful co-ordinating all of that.’
So successful has the new Members Wine Club become that Martins is looking at extending the offering further. He’s wary of making it seem too corporate – ‘it’s still a members’ club’ he says. But he can see real mileage in introducing a late autumn tasting of wines from the club’s cellar, from which members can select the wines that they want delivered for Christmas.
In fact, the only complication could be finding the time to fulfill orders once the Club starts up again later this month. But this, it must be said, is a nice problem to have, and one that he thinks could probably be addressed by pulling in a couple of waiting staff after service.
‘The staff have loved having something to do and I’ve met members I’ve never heard of before up in Scotland and down in Cornwall,’ says Martins. ‘I’ve been sending wine to all four corners of the UK!’