Wine is an important component of the home bartender’s repertoire. When hosting a cocktail or dinner party, there will invariably be some guests who prefer wine over hard liquor. Further, though highballs can be appropriate for dinner, generally wine is a better option to complement the food. Finally, well, wine can be pretty awesome all on its own.
This is an extensive and detailed guest post about wine clubs by my good friend Leslie Osborne, who describes her qualifications thus:
Leslie Osborne is a wine enthusiast, who (fortunately for her and her friends) has more of a buying problem than a drinking problem. She is not by any means a wine expert, but has attended numerous wine classes, wine dinners and tastings at wineries. She did also earn a Level I certification from the International Wine Guild in 2013, from which she got a fancy diploma and cool lapel pin. She likes to think of herself as an “average above-average wine drinker.”
And without further ado, her thoughts.
1. Online wine clubs: TastingRoom.com was my very first wine club. I used them for a while, then cancelled my subscription, because I’d whored myself out to several wineries’ clubs I’d visited in Napa. In the time since I canceled, though, TastingRoom.com got purchased by Lot18.com and changed up their format a bit. (I re-subscribed after they changed, just to see what was up with their new & improved club.) What happens now is they send you 6 small bottles of wine, you taste them, rate them, and then they develop a “wine profile” for you (which seems to be the new hotness for online wine clubs — they’ve all got their own way of determining your tastes). From your “wine profile” they send you an intro case, and I assume continue tuning your likes / dislikes from there. I was honestly so unimpressed with a few of the wines in that first case, that I cancelled my subscription immediately thereafter. But then again, I’ve become a bit of a wine snob, so it might not have been the best thing for me to restart.
The upside: I’d say online wine clubs are a decent place to start for a newbie, because they’ll expose you to different types of wines and different regions. It’s also super easy and can be pretty inexpensive, depending on shipping frequency and number of bottles per shipment.
The downside: Their “wine profiles” are probably too simplistic to keep you entertained in the long-term. You also sometimes get stuck with them sending you stuff ONLY from producers with whom they’ve formed partnerships, which can be a little boring.
2. Joining wineries’ wine clubs: I think this is pretty awesome. You go to Napa, Sonoma, etc., you drink wines at lots of different wineries, decide whose you like, and join their club. They typically have different levels of clubs (less to more expensive, fewer to greater numbers of bottles per shipment), and send shipments once per quarter-ish. Shipment prices vary — the ones I’ve joined have been 2 – 6 bottles per quarter, and range from $110 – $170 per shipment.
The upside: You get to drink wines you’re pretty sure you’ll enjoy, try things that may be exclusive to club members (or just generally not available here in Colorado), and feel cool and special when your wines are delivered. (You also typically get your tasting fees waived when you join the club and enjoy future tasting room discounts, as well as discounts on future wine purchases.)
The downside: You’re not going to get exposure to other regions, types of wines, etc. …which is totally cool, but if you’re looking to expand your tastes, can be limiting.
The clubs I’ve been (or still am) a member of are listed below.
- Gloria Ferrer: Some of the best domestic bubbly for the buck, I think. Tasty Pinot Noirs too.
- Etude: They make some of my favorite Pinot Noirs, but also are strong in several other wines (Cabs, Rosé, Chardonnay, etc.).
- Trefethen: It think the Trefethen family makes a lot of strong wines, across the board. From their Facebook page, they seem like nice people too and post a lot of beautiful pictures.
- O’Brien Estate: They’re a small winery that makes neat red blends and other tasty wines (including one of my fave *Rosés), and their family seems super nice. I’m hanging on to my subscription with them, because I think they might have a waiting list right now.
3. Getting yourself a personal wine buyer / working with a wine merchant (local or online): The way you typically end up getting into this whole deal is… I was looking to purchase a particular wine, searched for it online, found a place that carried it, bought some, and then got added to the merchant’s mailing list. They now email me regularly about new things coming into their inventory, etc. It’s a fun way to keep up on what’s new and hot, as well as take advantage of deals as they come along. Some of these folks also offer wine clubs of various and sundry sorts sorts, which is cool, because they’re sourced from the merchant’s giant inventory.
The upside: You get visibility into and access to wines of all types and regions, and they often have superior pricing (vs. buying at a local store…though you do have to take shipping costs into consideration). They’ve typically got a far wider inventory than you’ll see in any local store, and sometimes also offer handy reference info on the wines themselves, a blog, etc. I think this option is best for a more seasoned wine drinker, or a n00b drinker with seasoned friends who can provide some guidance.
The downside: You’ll get a lot of email, and it can be very overwhelming.
I’ve listed below some of the folks I’ve used in this category. I’ve also just joined up with a new wine merchant, because their program really suits my current wine career needs. …which also means that I’ve dumped almost all of the wine memberships I had with Napa wineries, because I was ready to branch out.
- K&L Wine Merchants: This is my new club. I like what they offer and their prices are good. They have some set clubs, but also offer a “personalized” club, which I think would work for even a newcomer to wine, wherein they chat with you and get an idea of your goals, then ship you stuff accordingly.
- JJ Buckley Fine Wines: I don’t think these guys have a club, but they sometimes have good prices. I’ve bought stuff from them before and once you do that, you kind of get assigned to a personal wine buyer, who then sends you lots of email (generally related to wines in which they think you might be interested). It’s also fun to get a Christmas card from your personal wine buyer, by the way.
- Wine Express: I’ve not used these guys, but I like what they offer. They seem to have a good breadth of selection, and good prices. They also often run deals on wines with names you’ll know, so that’s sort of cool. They do have wine clubs — I’ve not looked into them, but would imagine they’re decent. Finally, they’re associated with Wine Enthusiast magazine, which is kind of nifty.
- B-21: I ran across these guys looking for some less common Italian wines. They carry stuff from regions other than Italy, but in my mind, I associate them with Italy. I’d say, if you’re looking for Italian wines specifically, check them out, but otherwise, not necessary.
4. What if you want to learn about wine, but don’t want to join a club?Take classes. Try a new wine whenever you go out to dinner. Go to wine dinners. Get wine flights wherever they sell them. (Trying different wines back-to-back is HUGELY informative.) Wander around your local liquor store and buy a bottle of something you’ve never tried before. The only way to learn what you like — and, perhaps more importantly, what you don’t — is to keep on drinking new and different things.
5. How does Leslie find new and different wine info, wine merchants, wine clubs, etc.? I get daily emails from all kinds of wine publications. I read them. I visit the sites they suggest. Here are a few I particularly enjoy: Snooth, Bottlenotes, Wine Folly, WineBusiness.com. (That last one is more of, as you might imagine, an industry publication. It still offers good leads to new and interesting wine purveyors and sources of wine info, though.)