Today, I want to completely trash the whole concept of wine clubs and I think I can do it, at least well enough to make you think twice (or five times) about handing somebody your credit card and saying, “Please feel free to suck $50 a quarter out of my bank account and send me stuff that I know nothing about, is probably not to my tastes at all, and that I probably wouldn’t buy, anyway, just because you say I should.”
PLEASE NOTE that I am NOT writing this about the wine clubs run by your favorite local or in-state wineries, which is so different an idea that it doesn’t even really fit the same business category. Presumably, most people do not simply go online, find the first winery listing that they come to, and join that wine club. 99% of the time, we join because we visited and tasted and maybe (I hope) tasted a couple more times before pulling the trigger…and I want you to hang onto that trigger metaphor for a moment because that is exactly what you’re doing when you join up with some online wine-of-the-month club: putting a gun to your wallet and going “BLAM!!” and watching the charred embers of your dollars drift off into the ethers.
EVERY. SINGLE. ONE. of the thirty-ish wine clubs I’ve researched over the past fifteen years has operated according to roughly the same strategy: sell six, twelve, eighteen, whatever bottles of wines at unrealistic prices, pumped up with gaudy and usually unverifiable scores from wine competitions you never heard of and wine writers you never will, claiming a “curated” selection, as though you were being offered the chance to pilfer a wine museum, somewhere, with them holding the door and driving the getaway car.
What does “curated” actually mean? Most of us only know the term from said museums. It sounds authoritative, solid, reliable, institutionalized.
According to Merriam Webster:
Definition of curated: “carefully chosen and thoughtfully organized or presented“
Photo by Zachariah Hagy on Unsplash
You will notice that nowhere in that definition does the world’s most respected dictionary mention anything about the acumen of whomever “carefully chose and thoughtfully organized or presented” your wine box. Curated suggests expertise, savvy, enlightened sensibilities. Certainly when we hear the word “curator”, as in a museum official, we imagine a guy in a single-breasted herringbone jacket, suede elbow patches, wire-rim glasses and a jaunty bow-tie, expounding in learned tones about the complexities and aesthetics of this wine versus that. In real life, most of the people “curating” wine club stocks are just random dudes and dudesses who are “into wine” and found a job in which their hobby becomes a paying gig. If this sounds harsh and judgmental, that’s deliberate. I spent the better part of thirty years studying wine and most of the people I know in the wine trade have been at it at least that long, often longer and none of those people are being asked to curate anything. Many, in fact, have turned down repeated overtures to do just that, from wine cub owners hoping to trade off their experience and name.
I actually have “curated” a direct shipping wine/beer/booze website – the old LetsPour.com – which ceased operations in 2014, in as much as the fact that anything that we stocked for sale there was tasted and approved by moi. We never presented it as curated content because that’s not what it was, any more than what appears on your local wine shop’s shelves is curated. Yes, somebody owns that shop and, yes, they choose what to sell and what not to but that’s just called “stocking your store”. Is that, in the broad sense, “curating”? Sure. But it is in the use of that word and the suggestion that what they’re sending you in that mixed box is assembled by someone who either possesses a comprehensive knowledge of wine, knows your palate, or really even gives much of a shit about what your tastes might be that lies the Problem.
In your local store or through LetsPour, we have to sell you on the idea that you will like what you buy and you get to select the wines. In shops, choosing like that often, even usually, involves giving you a taste of it, since repeated market research proves that wines that are tasted are sold almost fifty percent more often that those which are sold purely on the basis of scores or reviews.
In short, what you’re buying from that “Six Bottles of Crap for $29.99!” website is somebody else’s tastes. They don’t know you and simply could not, even if they did have good intentions, EVER get to know you well enough to really learn what you like, so that they’d have even the possibility of going six-for-six in pleasing you with a box of six wines.
And here is the really sad and cynical part: QUITE OFTEN – in fact, in almost every case (of wine or of website), the wines are those which have gone on deep discount from local distributors or importers or even on rescue from retail accounts which over-purchased, didn’t sell what they bought, and have to dump them to recoup what they can.
You do the math: the website offers you six wines for thirty dollars…hell, let’s make that FIFTY dollars, just to frame the argument. The average mark-up used to have an actual name: Supermarket 30, a flat thirty percent mark-up over cost, which has now ballooned out to forty or even forty-two, forty-five percent. So, operating on the lower mark-up, the supermarket 30, you have six bottles for this jammin’ price, so that’s $50 divided by six or $8.33 a bottle. Since we are not talking about retail operations that operate as charities or at a loss, there is some mark-up involved. It is DAMNED difficult to run any retail business, even an online one, without at least that base 30% mark-up. That bottle you get for $8.33 then, at 30% mark-up, costs the wine club folks $5.83 each. How good a wine do YOU think you’ll get for under $6? Let’s step that down: $40 box, $6.66 a bottle (Mark of The Beast!!) and a cost before mark-up of $4.66. AGAIN…how good?
So…that $30 box, which is roughly the industry standard for enticing you into a wine club membership and those monthly or quarterly drafts against your plastic, comes out like this: $5 a bottle to you, $3.50 each from whomever the wine club is sourcing. Do you believe in fairy tales? If you think you’re getting a carefully “curated” selection, expertly tailored to your tastes and carrying any sort of award or other quality validation for THREE DOLLARS AND FIFTY CENTS…well, you probably wait up for the Easter Bunny, too.
Some websites have even devised new schemes that look and talk and walk like innovation. One offers wines made by obscure or unsung winemakers and that is a grand and noble idea but that website is also trying to make a decent (or even indecent) profit BUT they still have to keep prices as close to impossible as they can, to entice you to buy. Some of those wines may well be good. Some may even be outright steals but, again, you’re reading the ratings on their site of consumer reactions to what’s being offered and, AGAIN…that’s somebody else’s tastes and may have scant or NO correlation with your own. Based on, so far, seventeen tastings of these commissioned wines, I’ve found about 50% of them to be just plain crap. The other fifty has ranged from drinkable to very good…BUT the “very good” is gonna cost ya and on NO SINGLE WINE that I found was there not a wine available at retail – even here in my wine-deficient ‘hood of Tacoma, Washington – that was not significantly better and costs less money.
It hurts my heart when I find out that a member of my own family has been “gifted” with one of these memberships, which has now happened four times. In all four cases, they’ve come to me to say how disappointed they were by those “carefully chosen and thoughtfully organized or presented” wines. And in two of those cases, they were expected to continue paying that semi-monthly or quarterly fee for the boxes. If you’re giving those memberships as gifts, KNOCK IT OFF, especially if you’re not picking up the whole cost of it. No matter how well you know the person you’re giving it to, you do NOT know their tastes, chapter and verse. Tastes are individual, no matter how stubbornly the wine clubs want to claim that those asinine questionnaires they make you complete to sign up actually work. I take those quizzes for fun, sometimes, and the lists of wines they insist that I’ll just love have fuck-all to do with my preferences in wine.
Tough Love Time: I’m sorry as I can be to bear this sad news but – as I have now written about 200 times – there is no shortcut to knowing and understanding wine…or beer or Whiskey or Vodka or Ginger Ale or really anything. If you actually want to KNOW wine, you just have to taste lots of wines, dispense with ANY of this nonsense reasoning that says that tasting a grape you never heard of before will either be “too weird” or in some way ruin your taste buds. There are over 9,000 known wine grapes on this planet and while I have tasted MANY times more of them that you have, even I have not tasted more than maybe 1.5% of those (roughly 130 varietals). And out of that number, which is the absolute outer limits of all the grapes either grown or imported into this country as wines, I have tasted TWO grapes that actually made me go, “Uh…no“. Certain styles are rough going. I don’t enjoy Retsina (the quintessentially Greek wine made by adding pine resin to the fermentation process), for example, but that’s NOT a statement on the relative virtues of un-tarted-up Saviatano, Roditis, and Assyrtico grapes used to make Retsina, each one of which makes a very drinkable wine when fermented straight-up. But most international styles of wine are very user-friendly. What is probably my favorite wine on Earth is the huge Valpolicella, Amarone, which is made by pressing out partially dried, moldy, awful-looking Corvina, Rondinella, and Molinara grapes and fermenting that ridiculously sweet juice until dry. It’s just the sort of drunked-up weirdness that past generations of Italian winemakers got up to with regularity but it worked, still works, and makes truly unforgettable wines.
This Truth about wine is Out There, to quote “The X Files”, and it is quite possible to acquire enough of it without becoming a crashingly-boring Wine Dweeb, in a shorter time than you might think. But the bare minimum requirement is a healthy curiosity about what you’re drinking, the desire to make better choices, and tasting a whole bunch of wines, even the ones you swear you wouldn’t like. And, toward that end, visiting your own local wineries or breweries or distilleries is the best idea of all – and no matter where you live, these days, you DO have them, probably within an easy 90 minute drive. It’s an opportunity to make new friends, listen to the passion of the people who make them, watch their faces light up, because they WILL tell you all about them, if you don’t just yell, “Stop!” For me, there is almost nothing in this life that’s as touching and real and illuminating – in every sense of that term – as having someone stand eye-to-eye with me and communicate that love and passion and maybe even mild obsession that drives them to spend their lives making something with their own two hands, from candles to soap to cabinets to sculptures to food to wind chimes to that wine in the glass on the counter between you. If there is real magic in life, it’s in how we take the things that we grow and find and buy to make Something Else, something greater and better and different from the sum of its parts.
Last but FAR from least, as I have now written a thousand times, DO NOT get married to any one grape, any one winery, any one beer or whiskey or any one anything. I know more than a few people who DO visit their local wineries, find one they like, and just stop looking. They join a wine club and strap in and tell everybody that these are the best wines in the county/state/country/world. How do ya know? It is QUITE possible, probably even likely, that one of two of the next four or five wineries you visit will have something you like better. People often get on a waiting list for some celebrated wines and wait a year, two, three, to get anything to drink. And, right down the road – in places like Sonoma or Walla Walla or or Puglia or Mendoza, probably in the next block or down the next driveway – will be something you like just as much and can take home NOW! Drink and enjoy it TONIGHT! But you will not know unless you GO to the next block, up the next driveway, down that road.
THINK – HARD – before you sign up with any online wine club. Think about what you’re getting…and what you’re missing.