From rich reds to sparkling whites to pair with your Thanksgiving turkey or toast the New Year – ’tis the season to imbibe. When you consider just how much wine you might need between gifts and guests this season, it seems like joining a wine club could be a good idea. Or is it?
The wine-club business has picked up considerably since the first mass market “Wine Club of the Month” (it bills itself as the “original wine club”) was founded in 1972 in the U.S. There are large-scale clubs, such as the Williams-Sonoma Wine Club and The New York Times Wine Club (both memberships start at $90), and there are clubs that market to Millennials, such as Club W (three bottles for $39 per month) and the trendy Plonk Wine Club, with a focus on “artisanal” and “boutique” wines (starting price $49.99, free shipping). As a result, there is a range of pricing and schedules: two bottles per month, six bottles every quarter, or an annual shipment are just a few choices.
Do Your Research
There are many variables (and varietals) to consider before joining a club (or giving a membership as a gift). Your budget and wine knowledge will both likely play a role. Tricia Meyer, co-owner of WineClubGroup.com, has reviewed “countless clubs over the years” and says it's crucial to comparison shop. For example, she says, when comparing The California Wine Club and The Wall Street Journal Club, you see that “one focuses more on quantity for the price, the other focuses on quality of the wines selected.”
Also think through what you want in a club. Education is a motive for many people: Almost all wine clubs offer tasting notes along with their varietals, and some, such as the New York Times Wine Club, send suggested recipes to pair with the wines in the shipment. If you're already something of an oenophile, you make take a more active approach. “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 who heads a wine-education media company and the site WineForNormalPeople.com.
When you are ready to order, first, make sure it is legal for the wine to be shipped to you (or your recipient). “The wine shipping laws are extremely complicated from state to state and often depend upon things like whether the winery has paid licensing fees to the state, how much wine the person is ordering, and how the wine is being delivered,” explains Meyer. “One of the most used functions of our website is actually our "ship-to page" that allows people to start by picking the state they want to ship to and then choosing from there the clubs that will ship to that state. Pennsylvania is strict, but Utah is even stricter,” she warns.
It’s important to review the listed costs of any club carefully – remember, with most memberships, you will not only pay for the wine, you’ll also pay to have it shipped. Typically you’ll receive 15% to 20% (sometimes more) off the manufacturer's suggested retail price of each bottle of wine. If you order six bottles, this could amount to a free bottle, if each is worth around $20 and the total cost is $100, for example.
Think Local, Think Small
Most wineries and vineyards – large and small – also have their own memberships. If you are lucky enough to live near one (whose output you like, of course), joining may have extra perks, such as extra-special sale prices for members or first dibs on new releases. “A lot of clubs have other benefits besides the regular discounted wine shipments, including things like free wine tastings and discount event tickets. Our club specifically has an added social element where members can meet, hang out, and enjoy free food and wine,” says Heather Davis from Mount Palomar Winery, Temecula, California. “These may not be a good reason to join an out-of-state club, but they can be a great reason to join a local wine club.”
As an alternative to bigger clubs, Schneider suggests joining a few small vineyards’ clubs, then ordering a few shipments throughout the year. Plan to distribute some of the bottles to friends around the holidays. “This is the gift I give to others because I feel like I'm sharing a little gem that I've discovered – it’s very personal,” she says. “I also love the idea of supporting small wineries that don't have mass distribution.”
Wine clubs aren't always the bargains they profess to be. “The clubs make money by marking up the product, sometimes significantly – or by getting you into a membership that you forget to cancel. Make sure the prices are at least comparable to what's out there on the open market,” Schneider says. By-the-case discounts are routine at many brick-and-mortar wine and liquor stores, as are specials on different brands or varietals. “Also be a bit wary of 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,” Schneider adds.
Check the return policy. Some clubs offer a 100% money-back guarantee on anything; others are less generous.
As for the instructional component, many feel if you want to learn about wine (and learn what you like), it’s best to talk face-to-face with a sommelier at your favorite restaurant, wine bar or store. “It’s a complex subject and the people who are knowledgeable about it can help you get wines from around the world that you might not have even heard of before,” says Schneider. For more, see Investing In Fine Wine.
The Bottom Line
Joining a wine club can be fun any time of year, but if you pick the right club, it could help trim your holiday spending. “Between big family meals and holiday parties, you can never have too many bottles of wine around the house," says Ryan O’Connell, from NakedWines.com, an online retailer whose customers fund independent winemakers from around the world in exchange for getting the product at wholesale prices. “Your average gift recipient is going to go through more wine around the holidays than any other time of year, so it's a great time to send them some vino. Wine clubs are usually wine gifts that keep on giving. The lucky recipient doesn't just get one gift; they get gifts for months,” he adds.
Don’t forget the stress reduction that comes from one fewer shopping trips during holiday season, too. “Joining a club is about ease,” reminds Schneider. “Selecting wine can be a stressful and time-consuming undertaking. It’s easier to just have someone else pick stuff out for you.”
Even so, be sure you understand the terms of your membership – how "locked in" you are, in terms of types and quantities of purchases. Otherwise, a year after joining, you may be awash in wine you don't want.
For related reading, see Buyers Clubs: Will You Really Save?