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The Panel Creates the Wine Club of the Future


Consumers Reap the Benefit of Expert Judging to Discover Terrific Wines

SONOMA, California (February 6, 2017)—Windee Smith and Chad Richards may not have reinvented the wheel, but they have created a wine club unlike any other. Their wine club, named The Panel (www.panelwines.com), is dedicated to finding small production, distinctive wines and delivering them to their members. Smith and Richards use their wealth of experience, their insatiable appetite for wine research, and their well-established links with small importers and distributors to locate and obtain unique, delicious wines from all around the world. Each month, after researching and tasting dozens of wines, they select their favorite 12 to 15 wines. Then they bring in a panel of wine experts to pare the selection down to three killer wines to be offered to club members.

Smith and Richards seek out experienced, respected industry veterans to serve on the panels. The all-woman February tasting panel featured winemaker Mia Klein, Sondra Bernstein (Chef/proprietor of The Girl and the Fig Restaurant), Virginie Boone (Contributing Editor for the Wine Enthusiast), and Tracy Hall (Wine Specialist for Selene Winery).

“The diversity of wine they presented to us was amazing,” said winemaker Mia Klein. “There were wines from all over the world made from all sorts of grape varieties. Our panel had winemakers, writers and chefs, and the cross section of people ended up picking three wines of character and interest.”

Since the wines being tasted are from different countries, grape varieties and price points, the judges have to rate each wine on its own merits, focusing on balance and character. Conducted as blind tastings, and using the UC Davis 20 point wine scoring system, the expert panel selects the three best wines. Those are the wines sent to club members. A different professional panel is selected each month, ensuring wines of consistently high quality, but with unique characteristics.

Windee Smith has more than 20-years-experience in the wine trade. She was owner and wine buyer for Yabbies Coastal Kitchen in San Francisco. She founded William Cross Wine Merchants in San Francisco as well. After moving to Sonoma, Smith opened The Valley Wine Shack retail wine shop, which she ran for eight years. Of her new The Panel business Smith explained, “Our goal is to place the absolute best wines into our club member’s hands. We created The Panel process to eliminate the guessing game everyone goes through when searching for new and exciting wines. The Panel compares and contrasts wines from all levels and regions, making sure that only the most well-balanced, truly great wines are experienced by our members.”

“As research, we joined numerous wine clubs,” said Richards. “Most were limited to a single label, or tried to sell wines that they acquired at special prices. Our ongoing mission is to educate and spread the knowledge of unbelievable wines being made by masters of their craft, and ensure that only wines of the highest quality, regardless of price-point, are made available to our membership. The wines we offer are from small production wineries, and often are only available in this type of club situation.”

Elizabeth Darden, Wine Broker for Revel Wine has worked with Smith for years. “Windee has an extraordinary and broad based knowledge of small production, high quality wines from all over the world.” She chuckled, “Based on what she purchases from me, she is sourcing the cream of the crop. The Panel is the only place in Sonoma with a wine collection of that high quality.”

In addition to finding unique wines from around the world, The Panel caters to club members wanting to increase their wine knowledge. To that end, each member is presented with a loose leaf notebook. Detailed information and tasting notes on each wine are sent along with the wine selections each month, allowing members to build a personal encyclopedia on the wines. Additionally, The Panel has a physical location where members are invited to stop by for personalized tastings, just to relax in the comfortable surroundings, or to peruse the hand-selected retail wine shop.

The Panel Wine Club has three tiers of membership. Members in the first tier receive the three wines selected by the monthly panel. Cost is $99. A second tier made up of the three panel selected wines plus three more higher-end wines selected by Smith and Richards is $199 per month. A third level has the three selected wines and then three very rare, hard to get, exceptional finds. That tier costs $299.

The Panel is located at 535 West Napa St. in the town of Sonoma less than a mile from the town square. The retail shop is open to the public as well as club members from 10 AM to 6 PM Monday to Friday and by appointment on weekends. For more information about club membership contact Chad or Windee by telephone (707) 938-7152, or by email [email protected], [email protected].

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