Decoding Online Wine-Clubs: What’s the Deal with Firstleaf and Do I Want to Join?

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Decoding Online Wine-Clubs: What’s the Deal with Firstleaf and Do I Want to Join?

There are a multitude of wine curating, aggregating and personalizing services out there, each with a slightly different mission and a slightly different model and a slightly different algorithm. There are pros and cons to each. So here’s some prose on the pros (and cons) from a semi-pro who will not con you.

Firstleaf is a service that hones selections based on your reviews, and sends you regular shipments of things you might not otherwise even know you were looking for. It self-identifies as a “wine club,” and the idea is that as you receive and rate wines and the curators use that data to anticipate what you might like to try next.

What’s good? First of all, the wines are, actually. I tried six and there was not a lemon in the bunch. Also the pricing: Firstleaf sources on a “grape-to-glass” model that they say cuts out middlemen (they, obviously, are the middlemen) and passes savings to the consumer. I was not familiar with any of the wines I tried before they were sent, so I have to take it on faith that I got them for half price (no reason to believe I didn’t; the markup on wine in retail situations can be amazeballs). The price-to-quality ratio was actually quite attractive across the board. I tried both whites and reds, domestic and European (they source wines from pretty much everywhere wine is produced). They have a fairly broad variety and a lot of wines you won’t find at BevMo. At least not labeled as such. And you can totally control how often you get shipments, which is great if, like most of us, your budget and liver capacity are not infinite.

So all that’s excellent. According to their website they also give customer feedback to the winemakers to prompt “innovation” that ostensibly makes these winemakers work even harder to give you what you want. Personally I find that particular claim both pointless and specious, as I have met what must be described as “a crap-ton” of winemakers and exactly zero of them have ever clamored for notes from the peanut gallery on how to make their product taste better or cost less. But it’s a nice idea, that a feedback loop develops between consumer and producer.

Or is it?

This is where you get to the “hmmm” portion of the experience. You might feel differently than I do about this, but to me, part of the potential glory of wine-experiments and mystery boxes is that you don’t know what’s coming. Sure, you might be disappointed sometimes but the notion of an oeno-echo-chamber gives me the willies. If I liked that Chenin Blanc I don’t actually want to be shown 87 more Chenin Blancs: I want to see a huge array of other aromatic whites. Similarly, if I like a particular producer, I want to know what else they are making. So if I say I like Merlot, get three, identify one that especially intrigues me, I give it a high rating and the next thing I know is 10 more Merlots populate as suggestions, when what I was actually wondering is ,“Yo does this winemaker also make Cab Franc?”

I’m going to be honest, their user interface drives me bat-shit crazy. It’s full of binaries and either-or questions and if you are an “and” type person, as I am, or, God forbid, a “sure, but…” person, get ready for aggregation-aggravation to strike and strike hard. Red or white? Domestic or imported? Yes, you can say “both” and you will have both. If your box populates with wines that don’t look like your jam, you can spin the wheel of fortune and replace them with suggestions that come out of the sky, but you cannot get a menu and pick something off of it.

And you can only “shuffle the deck” three times per shipment. So let’s say you’re like me, and you are sensitive in the palate department and also fairly clear on what you like (just not clear on the vast realm of things you have not yet experienced). Let’s say you prefer domestic reds and European whites. Too bad, dude: You cannot explain that to the algorithm. Let’s say you can’t stand Malbec unless it happens to be from Washington, in which case you love it. Let’s say you like California Sauvignon Blanc but hate New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and have no idea if you like Argentine Cabernet more than Chilean but definitely know you like Bordeaux better than Napa or that you want wines that are grown in places not broadly known for growing that stuff: Chardonnay from Austria. Nebbiolo from California. Merlot from Italy. Feel me? You are totally out of luck if that’s your deal, the website will not understand you. Now, you can theoretically chat up an “expert” for assistance, but since the whole point is to build a wine experience based on refining according to your feedback, there are limits. Those experts are not waiters and they will not hand you a menu. Also, for various reasons I was totally unable to get my box to populate with a pink or sparkling (or pink sparkling) wine, which was frustrating as they are often my favorites.

Lest anyone think I am panning this service: I am not. It’s just like everything else: Not for everyone. Is it for you? Well, yes, if you’d answer yes to questions such as: Do I want good deals on wine someone else picked out for me? Am I a person who craves consistency and commitment? Am I fundamentally non-picky and attracted to minimizing risk? Do I enjoy rating stuff? If yes, Firstleaf might be your new best friend. If the answer to more than one of those questions is “It depends on the situation,” you might want to look into a different Wine Experience.

Conclusion: If you are relatively not-clued-in about wine but want to learn your own palate tendencies, you will get great prices on solidly-built wines here. If you are well-versed and picky, you might find the interface difficult to deal with. Try for yourself here.

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