There are a lot of wine clubs to choose from these days. In addition to the original suspects like wine.com, it seems like everyone is getting in on the game: magazines, newspapers, grocery stores, and hipster startups. Some even target the rarest breed of fine wine appreciators with decidedly brotastic marketing.
I've tried a number of these wine clubs, and while some are respectable purveyors of interesting and naturally produced juice, many are offloading mediocre wine with little transparency. Ridiculous introductory offers (80% off!) and "free" gifts are used to reel in new customers. The free schwag is predictably useless, varying from the Rabbit wine opener (which I've always thought looks like a creative sex toy) and knockoff aerators to crappy decanters and beyond. Most of the wines offered by these clubs are not independently rated, though their marketing gurus have an uncanny ability to blur reality by using phrases like, "Parker-rated winemaker" or "from the best rated vintage in California history". These qualifiers don't mean shit for an individual wine. Parker has rated a ton of wine terribly so a Parker rating certainly doesn't mean the wine is of any quality. And likewise, bad wine is made in every vintage, no matter how well the vintage may be rated as a whole.
Shouldn't wine clubs focus on the wine? Isn't that the point?
Enter Plonk Wine Club. I found Plonk after wading through the sea of mediocre wine clubs online and I couldn't be happier that I did. I'm more than comfortable saying that it's the most interesting wine club available in the US today. Founder Etty Lewensztain focuses on boutique wineries producing unique wines from all over the world, many of which are hard to find, even in a great wine market like my home base in Chicago. She focuses on small organic and biodynamic producers. The transparency is clear, you know who made the wine, where they made it, and how. As she mentions below, the best values are often found in little-known regions and producers, and I couldn't agree more. Even better? No stupid schwag came with the wine, just helpful tasting/pairing notes and a nice hinged corkscrew.
Plonk gives you the option of red, white, or mixed shipments with 2, 4, or 12 bottles each month. The price per bottle with shipping lands in the $20-25 range depending on how many bottles you order. Etty was kind enough to send me some bottles to review and participate in a Q&A about the club. Wine reviews follow the interview. Enjoy!
Q: Tell me about Plonk and how it came to be.
Etty Lewensztain: I felt there was a particular niche in the online retail wine space that hadn't yet been filled. The vision for Plonk was to create a highly curated online wine shop that specialized primarily in small production natural wines from around the world and the idea was to translate a brick and mortar “neighborhood wine shop” type of personal experience into the digital space. Shortly after we launched the online store, we launched the Plonk Wine Club, which carried the same ethos as the store, and eventually we let go of the “store” part of the concept, and made Plonk exclusively an online wine club, no longer selling wine a la carte by the bottle (except as reorders for wine club members).
EL: Wine can often be conceived as snobby, highfalutin and pompous, and I felt the industry could use a little ironic, light-hearted humor! Plonk is a tongue in cheek iteration on the value wine concept. We obviously don’t sell plonk!
Why the focus on small, independent wineries that produce eccentric wines?
EL: Because the juice is better, the experience of drinking these sorts of wines is more exploratory and adventurous, and that’s where the best values are.
Tell me more about how you source your wines. Do you look for particular importers, regions, or sustainability certifications?
EL: We source wines that are mostly grown using organic or biodynamic methods, even if they are not certified, from small wineries that vinify using native yeasts, and use minimal intervention in the winemaking including little to no new oak, or aging in neutral barrel, stainless steel, amphora [clay vessel], cement tank, etc. Our passion is high acid, fresh, mineral and terroir-driven wines that express their particular place of origin rather than being commercially styled for a mass market audience, and we have a particular passion for indigenous grapes that are unique to one place. We look for a broad variety in terms of wine style, region and variety, and yes, there are certain importers who share our philosophy and so we source heavily from small independent importers.
Are there any wineries or regions that you are really excited about right now?
EL: I am loving Etna Rosso wines from Sicily which are based on the hyper-elegant Nerello Mascalese grape, Cru Beaujolais (always), Mencia from Ribeira Sacra in Galicia, Spain, and I’m fascinated by the multitude of amazing indigenous varieties in Croatia, Slovenia, and Austria. The list is very long….
What’s the first wine you remember tasting? And did you have a particular wine that got you hooked?
EL: I actually don’t recall the name of the very first wine that drew me in, but there was a bottle of white Burgundy from Pouilly Fuisse that piqued my interest. I can’t remember the producer. When I started tasting wine I made a vow to never buy the same bottle twice and to drink as broadly as possible. One of the first regions that got me hooked was Beaujolais. I loved the purity and the light weight of gamay.
I give you $1,000 to spend on a single bottle of wine. What’s your choice?
EL: I don’t really believe in that. I’d rather buy a case with $1,000 than just 1 bottle.
Any parting thoughts? Life advice? Gambling tips?
EL: Wines should taste different from one another. If wines taste the same, it means they were made in a boardroom, not in a vineyard, and who wants to drink that?
Val de Mer NV 'Non Dose' Cremant de Bourgogne
Bright, dry, crisp, mineral-driven bubbly made in the methode champenoise. Fermented in stainless steel tanks and then aged on the lees (yeast) for 9 months before it was disgorged. 'Non dose' indicates that there was no sugar added to the final wine, which many believe allows the terroir to shine through. Native yeasts paired with the aging on the lees adds a complex, rich, and toasty yeastiness on the palate. Notes of mineral and apple. Even though it's $20 and on the high end of my price range for the blog, this drinks well beyond it's price for a bubbly from that area of the world.
2012 Copain 'Tous Ensemble' Syrah
Mendocino County, California
I loved this wine and I think it's hands down one of the best values and most interesting bottles of cool-climate California Syrah available today. In her tasting notes, Etty describes this as gorgeous and I couldn't agree more. On the nose, bright, uplifting brambly fruits and singing notes of violets, spice, savory, and pepper. Healthy acidity and silky mouthfeel leads to a wonderfully balanced and long finish. This wine was abundantly fragrant, bright, and rich and a treat to drink. Best of all, it was even better the following day.
2012 Piquentum Blanc
100% Malvazija Istarska (Malvasia)
This was my first wine from Croatia and I won't be forgetting it any time soon. Piquentum is made by Dimitri Brecevic, a mid-thirties half Croatian, half-French winemaker who made wine all over the world until settling in the Northern Istria region of Croatia near the border of Slovenia. The Malvasia grapes are organically grown, fermented with wild yeasts, and 30% spend time in stainless steel tanks and 70% in 300 liter barrels for 9 months with some aging on the lees (yeast). This is one of the most distinctive white wines I've had this year. In addition to a fragrant nose of floral, citrus, and green apple, there is a distinct and utterly unique savory character on the nose and the palate. I found this a bit odd at first but I grew to really enjoy it. Bright citrus burst leads to a medium finish. Dynamic and delicious.