So You're Thinking About Joining A Wine Club...
May 18, 2021

Media outlets, retailers, importers and restaurants all want your business. Here’s a hint: Look for transparency, real wineries and customer service.

Consume enough media and you cannot help but stumble over an invitation to join a wine club.

NPR wants you as a member. So do Turner Classic Movies and National Geographic. Eater promises “surprising and highly drinkable wines on your doorstep every month,” if you join its club.

I still receive a daily home delivery of The New York Times. When I pick it up in the morning, I sometimes find an insert advertising The Wall Street Journal’s WSJWine club. I’ve found this puzzling, since The Times has one of its own.

Hundreds of wine clubs operate in the United States. The most visible are those associated with illustrious brands that have little to do with wine, like these publications and media outlets.

Too often, these sorts of clubs offer mundane wine selections with little to attract curious consumers. They appeal more to people who enjoy associating themselves with these brands.

Other types of clubs are far more focused on good, interesting wine. They cater to customers who not only want to enjoy wines regularly but are curious about how the wines were made and the people behind them.

The range of good wine clubs is vast. Are you a fan of a particular Oregon winery? Most American wine producers have clubs that offer regular shipments to fervent customers, often including small-production cuvées that are available only to members.

Many serious wine shops also offer clubs. Customers settle on a budget, and the shop will pick the wines. These selections can often be tailored to fit preferences for white or red or style. Customers can also set the frequency of shipments, like once a month, every two months or quarterly.

Some shops, like Chambers Street Wines in TriBeCa and Leon & Son in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, will ship to any state that permits such arrangements. Others, like Perrine’s Wine Shop in Atlanta, deliver only locally. If you have a wine shop you adore or have heard about, it pays to examine its club options.

Even some respected wine importers have clubs. RWM Selectionsoffers regular shipments of wines imported by Neal Rosenthal’s Rosenthal Wine Merchant. Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant, another venerated importer, also offers a wine club.

King, an intimate restaurant in SoHo, started a wine club during the pandemic, shipping wines featured on its list monthly. Frenchette, a TriBeCa restaurant with a list of natural wines, just started its own Club de Vin Frenchette.

Most unusual are the many independent wine clubs that have popped up over the last decade, taking advantage of the ease of online shopping, even as the thorny tangle of laws governing the interstate commerce of alcoholic beverages means inconsistencies and annoyances in figuring out which states have access to which clubs. These clubs can range from disappointingly banal to gloriously quirky.

Some of the most interesting that I have found include Plonk Wine Club, offering an international selection focused on wines grown organically or biodynamically; Winestyr, which offers an excellent array of American producers, primarily from California; and Blackpoolmatt’s Wine Club, founded last year by Matthew Gaughan, who holds a doctorate in English literature and emphasizes wine education and music along with his fine, concise selection.

Then, there’s Natural Action Wine Club, a nonprofit start-up that combines a love of wine and art with a strong emphasis on racial justice. Members receive a rotating selection of four bottles quarterly, made by California winemakers who work naturally. Proceeds go toward efforts to diversify the wine industry through scholarships, internships and career support.

“We figured out things we could do, offering great wine experiences and raising awareness,” said Khalil Kinsey, one of a team of eight behind the club, which took form after the racial justice protests last summer. “Nothing changes unless consciousness changes. If you can provide information that will edify and foster understanding, then we’re all better for it.”

People have many reasons for joining a wine club, whether it’s the convenience of regularly receiving bottles at home or relief at delegating the selection process to a trusted expert. Some have few good retail options where they live. Others enjoy poring over the educational materials offered by some clubs, or they simply delight in opening a themed bottle associated with a cherished institution.

NPR, for example, welcomes new members with an introductory offer of 12 bottles for $80, plus a bonus of three themed bottles, like a California cabernet sauvignon labeled with the name of the weekly quiz show, “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!”

The TCM Wine Club, too, offers an $80 introduction of 12 wines plus three movie-themed bottles. Sunset Boulevard Syrah, anybody?

None of these media companies administer their wine clubs. They license their names to third parties, who select the wines and arrange delivery.

Anybody arguing the relative merits of the NPR, TCM, National Geographic and Wall Street Journal clubs might be surprised that they are all run by the same company, Laithwaites Direct Wines, an American affiliate of a British company.

The Times club is administered by Lot18, which also manages the Williams Sonoma Wine Club and its own club, Tasting Room.

From a wine-lover’s view, the problem with all of these clubs is an almost complete lack of transparency about the wines. Several of the Laithwaites Direct Wines clubs, for example, offer a California zinfandel labeled Book of Shadows. You can even find that $15 bottle in a few wine shops. But you will have difficulty determining who makes it, or where the grapes were grown.

The New York Times Wine Club offers Trilus, a $15 bottle of California chardonnay. But searching online for Trilus will not yield a trove of details, or even vague hints about the wine. The only other places I could find that offered Trilus were the Williams Sonoma Wine Club and Tasting Room, both, like The Times club, administered by Lot18.

That’s because most of the bottles offered by Lot18 and Laithwaites Direct Wines are proprietary labels. These companies may buy remainders of unsold lots of wine and put custom labels like Trilus on them. They may buy wines on the bulk market and bottle it themselves.

Nothing is necessarily wrong with these wines. They might be tasty and satisfying, and for some people that’s enough. But they are untraceable, anathema for wine lovers and conscientious consumers who want to know where and how the grapes were grown, who farmed them, who made the wine and how.

The Eater club, which emphasizes natural wines, is different. Each month’s selection is themed, with traceable bottles selected by a different wine professional each month.

For me, this is a great dividing line in wine clubs. Can you trace the wine to a specific place and to an identifiable producer?

“Only real wineries,” the Winestyr (pronounced WINE-ster) website promises, and it makes good, offering terrific West Coast producers like Enfield, Tatomer, Lioco and Division among their selections.

“At the end of the day, we want real wines, a real story, a real place and a connection to our members,” said William Whelan, who manages the Winestyr portfolio.

Winestyr, which began in 2012, looks like an online store. It operates a facility in Santa Rosa, Calif., where wines are stored, packed and shipped to 39 states, but the actual business of buying is between consumers and producers, who in effect sell direct to consumers through the Winestyr platform.

The club serves about 3,000 members, said Robert Wilson, the chief executive, and is hoping to grow to 20,000 in two years.

Another dividing line marks how wine clubs decide which wines to send to consumers. Clubs like Winc and Bright Cellars offer a quiz, which they say they use to create personalized matches. Bright asks a series of questions like, “What is the one type of chocolate you could eat for the rest of your life?”

Anytime a company has tried to discern my taste by algorithm it’s failed miserably. I don’t have high hopes for selection processes like these, although both Winc and Bright Cellars promise to replace any wines you don’t like with free bottles.

“I hate algorithms,” said Mr. Gaughan of Blackpoolmatt’s Wine Club, which started last August. Mr. Gaughan, who lives in Petaluma, Calif., had planned to open a wine shop, but given the pandemic he decided to go online as a club instead.

He is a wine educator and selects all the wines himself. He, too, offers a questionnaire to new members, not to frame their selections, he said, but to get to know them as he wants to have a personal sense of his clients.

With just 30 members so far, he can do that as a one-man operation. With each package he includes descriptions of the wine, the people who produced it and the place, along with food suggestions and even possibilities for pairing the wine with music.

“I want that interaction, that conversation and knowing what I give them is what I like,” he said.

Plonk Wine Club started in 2010 as an online shop, said its founder, Etty Klein, a wine marketer and educator. A year later it added a club component, and when interest increased dramatically, she said, the club became the focus.

Plonk emphasizes unusual wines from around the world that she selects herself and sells to an adventurous clientele.

“From my experience, people just really don’t know how to select wines they’re going to enjoy,” Ms. Klein said. “They can’t articulate what they like and what they don’t like. When you’re dealing with grapes they never heard of, from places they never knew made wine, they default to the same old Sancerre or California pinot.”

As with most of the top clubs, Plonk consumers can sign up for a changing selection at the frequency of their own choosing. If they find bottles they particularly like, they can buy more from the club’s wine shop in addition to their regular shipments.

Personally, I enjoy the freedom and control of shopping retail, but just as I like to hear the advice of sommeliers in restaurants, I can imagine the best wine clubs, those with the most transparency and customer service, as online sommeliers.

For people who are curious about wine, but have yet to dip their toes, wine clubs can remove some of the anxiety of wine selection. And especially for people who have felt marginalized or unwanted by wine culture, a club like Natural Action offers a welcoming invitation.

“You really have to remove as many barriers as you can,” Mr. Kinsey said, noting that those who are curious are often stopped by the idea that wine is an elite space for white people. “We are interested in sharing in an unconventional and informal way, removing the stigma of who can be in wine.”