Wine clubs are alluring but disconcerting. Trusting someone to send you blind beverage selections can be a freeing albeit vulnerable experience, much like having your server at an authentic Chinese restaurant choose your meal. You might end up eating cold, slimy jellyfish, but at least you’ve learned something. Wine clubs are convenient and becoming more affordable, but one month you might receive a familiar California zinfandel and the next an alien Austrian grüner veltliner. The wine world offers so much choice that perhaps it’s time to open up your mouth and trust.
Clubs hosted by wineries send out regular shipments with their recent releases, and the Internet pushes myriad wine-of-the-month, or WOM, clubs. If you’re partial to one winery, it trumps WOM with access to small-production winemaker’s whims. A gander at the Ridge Vineyards Advanced Tasting Program reveals a 2005 zinfandel from the Old School Vineyard. Forty-two barrels produced, $30. Bargain … where’s my credit card? Special invites to private tastings and VIP events also line the membership privileges. But at direct-ship-only wineries like Navarro Vineyards or the cultish Russian River Pinot producer Williams Selyem, membership really matters. Selyem’s club, which has a waiting list, is the only way to grab a bottle at all. You receive a newsletter describing the current supply and your allowed allocation. They sell out in weeks — if you dilly-dally, you’re SOL.
But with VIP comes a price — prepare yourself for the purchasing process. Shipping kills the buzz, ranging anywhere from $14 for one bottle, up to $60 for a case. In addition, the constant fiddling with direct shipping laws in each state makes it difficult for individual wineries to keep up, so they may not ship to you at all. Check first before you get excited about joining.
WOM clubs, with better variety and a larger shipping area, mail out small-production, preselected wines. I’ve never belonged to any, so my inquisition began with Google. An entry of "wine club" revealed 30 or so links to organizations of various attributes, varying from the DogLoversWineClub.com that donates partial proceeds to local dog shelters to one devoted to Virginia wines. I clicked a few at random. First stop, California Wine Club, one of the oldest. Touting their "hand selected" wines not found in stores, the site lures me in. Cheesy, smile-laden photos of founders Bruce and Pam emit that homey feel, but I’m hunting unique wine, not apple pie. A troublesome missing element: no history of their regular shipments, only a list of past wineries, consisting mostly of Californians that I know already … yawn. Without this information, I’m not willing to shell out $35 per month plus shipping.
International Wine Club of the Month bodes better with its impressive (and complete) shipment history. Austrian Zweigelt, an obscure red grape, and many unknown Italians. Hmmm … it’s more corporate than Bruce and Pam, and this site retains Don Lahey, "an acknowledged wine author, educator and consultant" to administer the selections. Never heard of him. When a Google search of Lahey’s name comes up nada, I shrug. Trust, I say to myself, and that "cancellation at any time" asterisk helps foster the relationship. The club starts at $28 per month for two bottles, plus shipping.
Wine.com presents the best deal, averaging $14.88 per bottle including shipping. They are equally as coy about the shipment contents as California Wine Club, but the price feels more palatable. Even if the wine sucks, it couldn’t be worse than the jellyfish.