Purpose: Relationship marketing (RM) studies have produced a range of conclusions that are attributed to the different exchange contexts, strategies and constructs used for analysis. This study aims to explore RM within the context of a membership association to gain insights into membership maintenance, customer advocacy and association performance. Design/methodology/approach: The exploratory, qualitative research conducted draws on existing relationship marketing constructs. Six focus groups with current and former members of an Australian wine club provide insights regarding factors that influence their membership experience. Findings: The results show that satisfaction of membership benefits and confidence in the association's expertise are essential in strong relationships. Moreover, member commitment to the relationship appears to be multidimensional, with affective commitment in particular leading to member retention and advocacy. The results also indicate that trust, satisfaction and commitment can be combined as an overall assessment of relationship quality. Desire for recognition, the social nature of wine and product involvement all emerge as important to the membership context. Research limitations/implications: This research provides valuable insights into relationships in membership associations and is a strong foundation for future confirmatory research regarding relationships between associations and their members. Practical implications: Membership maintenance is vital to the survival and profitability of membership-based associations. By determining the benefits and factors that foster strong relationships, management can create marketing strategies and programs aimed specifically at influencing the key drivers of strong relationships. Originality/value: Although relationship marketing has gained prevalence in recent times across a number of industries, research into membership contexts is limited.