The wine club business has boomed since 1972, when The Wine Club of the Month was founded as “the first mail-order wine club in America." Purchasing a wine club membership sounds like a great idea. Or is it? Learn how to decide and how to choose the right one.
- To choose the right wine club, pay attention to your budget and your level of expertise. Are you looking for the highest quality wine—or is quantity at the best price more important?
- When researching wine clubs, a good first step is to decide how much advice you need from a club—based on an honest assessment of how knowledgeable you are about wine.
- Wine shipping laws are surprisingly complicated—and they vary from state to state—so make sure it is legal for the wine to be shipped before you place your order.
- Wine clubs provide detailed tasting notes (about the grapes, aromas, tannins, vintages, and vineyards) for each wine, which helps both beginners and experts broaden their knowledge.
- Not all wine clubs are bargains, so make sure that the wine is actually discounted and investigate all membership terms, including refund and cancellation policies.
Wine Clubs: An Overview
In case you need another reason to love wine clubs, for decades, they have been growing steadily as a significant profit driver in the $63.69 billion U.S. wine industry. During the early days of the 2020 pandemic, wine clubs were even credited with allowing small wineries “to keep the lights on.”
In 2022, there are countless wine clubs selling an array of varietals to different target markets at different price points. For example, Williams-Sonoma Wine Club sells to a broad customer base (membership starts at $90 for six bottles per month); Winc markets to millennials, ($52 for four bottles per month), and so does Plonk Wine Club ($110 for four bottles of “artisanal” and “boutique” wine per month). Customers can also sign up for memberships with various delivery options: two bottles per month, six bottles every quarter, or even an annual shipment.
How to Research Wine Clubs
Before joining a club (or giving a membership as a gift), there are many factors to consider—most importantly, your budget and your wine knowledge.
Tricia Meyer, co-owner of WineClubGroup.com, an online resource that conducts independent research on each of the “countless" wine clubs they review, says that it's crucial to comparison shop with an eye on both your desired price point as well as your personal preferences. Pay attention to the key differences between the clubs you're considering—for example, The California Wine Club and The Wall Street Journal Club—because one might focus on quantity for the price, the other on the quality of the wine selected.
How Much Wine Education Do You Need?
A good first step for your research is to decide how much advice you need from a club—based on an honest assessment of how knowledgeable you are about wine.
Many people are seeking education at a fairly basic level, so a wine club could be a good place to start. Almost all clubs provide tasting notes (about the grapes, aromas, tannins, vintages, and vineyards) next to each wine they offer—and some even suggest recipes to pair with the wines in each shipment.
If you're already something of an oenophile, you may want a more active role in the selection process. In that case, “make a list of the wines you want and seek those out, instead of letting a club choose for you,” suggests Elizabeth Schneider, a certified sommelier and founder of the wine-education podcast, WineForNormalPeople.com.
Understand Wine Shipping Laws
Another important consideration is that wine shipping laws, which vary from state to state, are surprisingly complicated. Before you place your order, make sure it is legal for the wine to be shipped to you (or your recipient). There are often restrictions on both order size and delivery method—but the legality of the shipment can also depend on whether the winery has paid licensing fees to the state, according to Meyer. “One of the most-used functions on our website is our ship-to page, which allows people to pick the state they want to ship to and then (based on that list) choose... the clubs that will ship to that state. Pennsylvania is strict, but Utah is even stricter,” she warns.
Don't Forget the Shipping Costs
As you calculate the discount potential of wine club membership, it’s important to review all listed costs carefully—and remember that, with most memberships, you will also be charged to have the wine shipped. With most clubs, you’ll receive 15% to 20% off the producer's suggested retail price on each bottle of wine (sometimes even more). If you pay $100 for six bottles listed at $20 each, this amounts to a free bottle—but don't forget to add the shipping into the total cost.
Think Local, Think Small
Another excellent option is a membership program at a winery or a vineyard—if you are lucky enough to live near one (with wine you like, of course). In addition to discounted wine shipments at regular intervals, joining a winery club may have extra perks, such as special sale prices for members or first dibs on new releases. Local winery clubs often include other benefits, like free wine tastings and discounted events as well as "an added social element; members can meet, hang out, and enjoy free food and wine,” according to Heather Davis of Mount Palomar Winery, Temecula, Calif. (This benefit would not be relevant for an out-of-state winery club, of course.)
As an alternative to larger clubs, Schneider suggests joining a few small vineyard clubs, ordering a few shipments throughout the year, and giving some of the bottles to friends during the holidays. Schneider thinks of this as an opportunity to share "a little gem" that she's discovered, which makes it a much more personal gift. She also also "love(s) the idea of supporting small wineries that don't have mass distribution.”
Wine for the Holidays
Joining a wine club can be fun any time of year, but perhaps the benefits are most obvious during the holiday season. From sparkling whites to pair with Thanksgiving turkey to rich reds and champagne to toast the New Year, 'tis the season to imbibe. When you consider just how much wine you might need for gifts and entertaining, wine clubs could help trim your holiday budget—and simplify your life.
“Between big family meals and holiday parties, your average gift recipient goes through more wine around the holidays than at any other time of year," says Ryan O’Connell of NakedWines.com, a customer-funded online retailer that invests the $40-a-month membership fees in “talented, independent winemakers” in return for “exclusive wines at insider prices (up to 60% off retail).”
Don’t forget the stress reduction that comes from having someone else choose the wine for you—not to mention fewer holiday shopping trips. Selecting wine can be stressful and time-consuming, so sometimes "joining a club is just about ease,” says Schneider.
Are Wine Clubs Worth It?
Wine clubs aren't always the bargains they profess to be. Make sure that the wine is actually discounted, investigate all membership policies, and think carefully about whether it makes sense for you.
Some clubs "make money by marking up the product, sometimes significantly—or by getting you into a membership that you forget to cancel," Schneider says. Specials on different varietals and by-the-case discounts are routine at many brick-and-mortar wine and liquor stores, so never sign up for a wine club without making sure that the prices are at least comparable to what's out there on the open market. Schneider also warns against clubs that offer brands you can only get through them. "Often that's wine that the original producer didn't want because it wasn't high enough quality for their name brand.”
You should also weigh carefully the value of the instructional component of a wine membership. Anyone who wants to educate themselves about wine can always start by speaking face-to-face with a sommelier at their favorite restaurant or even the staff at a wine store, who are often quite knowledgeable. Wine is a complex subject, but these experts are qualified to help you discover wines from around the world—without the cost of a wine club membership.
Finally—check the return policy. Some clubs offer a 100% money-back guarantee on anything; others are less generous.
How Much Do Wine Clubs Save?
With most wine clubs, members receive at least 15% to 20% off the suggested retail price of each bottle. If you pay $100 for six bottles listed at $20 each, your discount comes to one free bottle—but don't forget to add the shipping into the total cost.
Are Wine Clubs Cheaper Than Winery Memberships?
That depends very much on the winery and the wine you choose. If you live near a winery or a vineyard, it would be wise to compare and contrast the benefits. Keep in mind that wineries will often have extra perks for members, such as special sale prices, first dibs on new releases, and free wine tastings—not to mention a social element not offered by online clubs.
Do Wine Clubs Let You Choose Wine?
Depending on your level of expertise, you can choose to take an active role in the wine selection or just let the club choose for you. In either case, wine clubs provide tasting notes (about the grapes, aromas, tannins, vintages, and vineyards) next to each wine they offer—and some even suggest recipes to pair with the wines.
The Bottom Line
On top of being great fun, membership clubs can be an inexpensive, easy way to educate yourself about wine. If your research has identified what looks like the perfect wine club, just make sure you understand all the terms of your membership—especially how long you will be locked in to the monthly fees and what the limitations are on variety and quantity. Otherwise, a year after joining, you could be awash in wine you don't want.