The perfect pairing: Links between the wine industry and credit unions

Over the years, when I have asked people what kind of wine they like, most respond with answers such as “Cabernet” or “Chardonnay”. When asking credit unions what makes them different versus other financial institutions, they often respond with, “better rates”, “lower fees”, and “commitment to our members”. You might be wondering what wine has to do with credit unions. The answer: quite a bit. This article provides linkages between the two and some wine pairing tips. For those of you who do not drink for personal or religious reasons, I hope this article still sparks conversations at your credit union about creating additional member pairings for growth.

Having earned global wine industry certifications, including Level 3 Advanced from the WSET (Wine & Spirits Education Trust), my answer to the “what is your favorite wine” question shifted from a specific varietal to, “it depends on what we pair it with.” Wine can be enjoyed on its own, but when coupled with the right food and good people, pairing elevates the experience.

Similarly, when a credit union pairs the right offerings to its members, it creates a member experience that far exceeds the benefit of the product or service alone. These “perfect pairings” can increase member loyalty, referrals, and drive growth. Before we move into the Fall season filled with strategic planning sessions, industry conferences, grant applications, and budget setting for 2025, now is the time to start thinking about member pairings as a pathway for long-term growth.

The wine and credit union connection: the what, the how, and the why

THE WHAT: Creating perfect pairings that meet member needs

Some restaurants take extra care to create suggested wine pairings with their dishes on menus to elevate the dining experience. These pairings provide quick connections for customers giving them confidence to try something new. For the restaurant, this can yield higher profits and greater flexibility with their wines-by-the-glass program. Threading this concept to credit unions, some of your peers have designed a personal loan to meet the needs of Hispanic/Latino members. By also offering a “Quinceañera loan”, they directly linked their offering to the member’s cultural and family needs. Of the credit unions offering this loan, amounts vary between $500 to $50,000 with repayment terms of 12 to 60 months. Often no collateral is required, and the credit union will accept either a social security number (SSN) or an individual tax identification number (ITIN) issued by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).

Providing products and services to help your members honor their cultural celebrations and life stages is a growth opportunity for credit unions and an important approach to connect with your community. According to a 2023 Dallas News articlethe average quinceañera costs $21,781 with 212 guests. A Forbes 2019 Article stated that quinceañeras represent a $49B global industry, reaching a staggering $400B when adding in baptisms, tres años birthday celebrations, and weddings. This can also include providing loans to local vendors that support these important family events.

By solely listing “personal loans” on the website or collateral, are we asking members to make a significant leap to connect the dots of what this loan can do for them? Is there an opportunity at your credit union to more closely serve the diverse tapestry of your members by creating additional use cases of existing or new products?

THE HOW: Making your members referral machines

A few years ago, my mom and I poured for a winery at a large event. Dozens of wineries were lined up and we wondered how we could help this winery stand out. They provided us technical spec sheets for each wine detailing grape varietals, alcohol content, tasting notes, and winemaking approach. But soon it became clear that most people at the event were there to have fun and taste different wines. It was a very warm mid-afternoon when several women walked up to our booth. Some Rosé had been sitting in my glass for a while, amplifying its fruit flavors even though it was a dry wine. As I poured them the Rosé, I said, “this has notes of strawberries with a hint of cream”. About 10 minutes later, a large group walked over and said enthusiastically, “we heard you have a Rosé that tastes like strawberries and cream.” Those few relatable words spread quickly through the crowd and before we knew it, the Rosé was gone, and we gained new wine club members.

What this example means for credit unions:

  1. The art of simplicity: While we could have gone into the technical details of each wine, the guests were more interested in the experience. We adjusted our approach to make these short interactions welcoming and positive. As credit union leaders, your teams work with an array of products and services that can get technical with rates, terms, qualifying criteria, and disclosures. When your teams talk to members about these offerings, are they leading with technical specs or are they using relatable words that connect the dots to member needs making them want to learn more?
  2. The power of referrals: No one wants to feel intimidated, or uneducated. Wineries and wine shops can exclude those new to wine by overcomplicating information. Similarly, financial services can do the same, especially with those new to credit. The simple phrase of “it tastes like strawberries and cream” took a life of its own, creating viral word-of-mouth that led to a wave of new people who would not have found us otherwise. Credit unions thrive when they include members at all levels of financial knowledge. When your members use relatable words of how your credit union can help their family and friends, you have just built a powerful referral network.
  3. The act of building trust: Imagine what it is like for a person who walks into a wine event or wine shop who is new to wine or who thinks that price always equates value. They must first earn the customer’s trust and find the right solution for their needs and budget. Now imagine what it takes for someone who does not trust financial institutions to walk into your branch or contact your Call Center—the nerves, the insecurity, the doubt. During a recent credit union league event, we visited a credit union’s new branch in a historically underserved area. The branch manager shared how a potential member almost walked out due to fear of being rejected for having an ITIN and not an SSN. The branch team worked swiftly to put her at ease, helping her start her financial journey. They earned a new member that day, by building trust.

THE WHY: Fulfilling the community promise

With food and wine pairings, a good concept to remember is “What Grows Together, Goes Together”. This is why acidic Italian wines pair with acidic tomato sauces on pasta and pizza. Chimichurri is a classic Argentinian sauce that pairs well with a Malbec. Another perfect pairing is Sancerre (a crisp Sauvignon Blanc from the cool Loire Valley in France) enjoyed with chèvre (goat) cheese from the region. It also pairs wonderfully with basil pesto pasta topped with blistered tomatoes.

Conversely, when a favorite wine is forced with food that does not match, it can ruin both. A Cabernet paired with spicy Asian or Indian food only increases the perception of alcohol or spice. Instead, lower alcohol wines (e.g. German Riesling Kabinett, Rosé, or a light red like Gamay), help us fully enjoy the flavors in each dish.

Credit unions thrive when pairing products/services that meet local needs. Whether you serve a rural farming community, low-income census tracts, minority communities, veterans, younger generations, or underserved small business owners, meeting members in a way that they can relate to is critical. A 2024 research study showed 23.1% in the US are bilingual with many more seeking to learn a second language. This past year when I was working with credit unions on their CDFI grants/certifications, strategic planning sessions, and Field of Membership expansion plans, we had many discussions on how to better serve member segments. Wine is a global business and many of our communities reflect a diverse culture. This trend will not go away. Credit unions that embrace the concept of “What Grows Together, Goes Together” can increase relevance by creating differentiated local positioning and solutions that meet member needs.

Considerations for credit unions

Our palettes vary—what one person enjoys in food or wine, another may not. Similarly, what works for one credit union may not work for your community. It is about pairing or adapting to local needs. Balancing the right WHAT, delivering the best HOW, underpinned by a compelling WHY, is a framework for success. The unique part of our industry is the willingness to share best practices with peers. Credit unions bring people and communities together, just as food and wine does.

For the next edition of the “Perfect Pairing” series, please contact me if you want to share a best practice pairing and the impact it has made. This series will continue to include food & wine considerations as well. Our organization (Your CU Partner) values sharing best practices as communities need the credit union movement to meet their evolving needs. I look forward to hearing from you. Please share this article with colleagues and friends who may find this of value or interest.