Wineries everywhere, large and small, have clubs. You sign up, you get shipments (or pick your wine up on site, which gives folks near wine regions a good excuse to head out for a picnic) of so many bottles so many times a year. Most wine club memberships give you a perk or two: case discounts, waived tasting fees at the winery, insider goodies like winery tours on demand or invites to holiday or harvest parties. Some, like “Emperor of Wine-Weird” Randall Grahm’s Distinctive Esoteric Wine Network (DEWN), give you exclusive access to teensy-batch, experimental, Not Gonna Find This Sucker At BevMo bottles that can be fun, witty, oddball, and sometimes amazing (I’m still peeved with Randall for introducing me to Ciliegiolo, an evasive Tuscan grape that can be utterly thrilling but will let you down or disappear on you faster than a bad high school boyfriend).
Club W self-identifies as a global direct-to-consumer winery. They have a large portfolio of wines either made “grape-to-glass” by their own folks or in partnership with a range of small-lot producers. When you join, you fill out “palate profile” (and yes, you can change your answers) and they will make selections for you. You can customize this at will. Club W gives recommendations as a starting point, but you can make requests, order more or less of something, ask for all Chardonnays this month and all Merlots next month. (Handy for your monthly dinner and a movie group if you’re screening Bottleshock and Sideways!)
Membership starts at three bottles a month for about $40.00 plus a small shipping fee (which they waive if you order six or more bottles a month. Flexible!) They have much more of a “concierge” mentality than your average single estate vineyard winery, which for some of us is a lot of fun. Rate the wines you got this time and they’ll sock away that data to refine their selections next time. Cool.
Purely because I care about you, readers, getting solid, dependable information and not at all because I drink wine like it’s going out of style, I took Club W for a spin last month. Based on the preferences I indicated, I got a 2012 Sauvignon Blanc from Santa Ynez Valley, a 2012 Syrah from Edna Valley (both California) and a 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon from Mendoza, Argentina.
Data Point 1: All three wines were very good, worth what they cost and then some. The Sauv Blanc was classically grassy and citrusy and light as air, and the Syrah was lush and fruity. My least favorite was the Cabernet, though it was a fine exemplar of the genre—leathery and dry with a ghost-note of cocoa. (Maybe a little young.) I didn’t tell them I almost never like reds from Mendoza. If I had, I am sure they’d have seen to it that I didn’t receive one—but part of the beauty of this system is that you get to test your prejudices in a low-risk way.
Data Point 2: The intro sheet that accompanied the wines was very, uh, non-intimidating. By which I mean if you are a total wine novice, even you might feel slightly patronized or “marketed-to” and if you were a sommelier you’d likely turn it into confetti. It explained to me, Amy, “that the selections were made by careful analysis of my preferences, for example my indication that I preferred my coffee with cream and sugar versus strong and black” (which would have told them The Lady Wants Structure). Here’s the rub: I specifically said I prefer a cappuccino—espresso, milk, no sugar. That’s actually a totally different palate category—bitter flavor, silky texture.
I am positive that had I written back and said “Actually, dudes, I didn’t say I like sugar in my coffee, please change my selections,” they’d have been pleased as punch to do so. My point is only that their selection criteria are binary and don’t leave a lot of room for nuance.
But wine is all about nuance. It’s nuance in a glass. So this is a thing. And I am hoping they’re going to sophisticate up on their profiling system in the future (Club W, if you want detailed suggestions, I’m your man. By which I mean woman.)
Data Point 3: The wines came with nice, sturdy, well-designed cards describing each wine on one side and giving a recipe for a suggested pairing on the other. This is cool! Equally handy for people who are shy about what to put with what, and tapped-out home cooks who want a little inspiration. As with the cover letter I got, the wording on the cards had a nose of focus group and what we would call “green reflexes” if we were describing the color of a Kerner from the Alps, but what I mean by the phrase is a kind of oozing fear of seeming serious or, worse, unhip. If you’re a food and wine person who is also sensitive to word choices (Hi!) this can be distracting.
Data Point 4: The Club W website is very handy and content rich; you can get info and tutorials, modify your preferences, learn about their offerings, refer friends for tasty credits (and yes there’s an App For That) and have a lot of fun.
So should you or shouldn’t you?
These are “Real Nice Folks” offering really good wine at really good prices. Service is prompt, accessible and friendly. The people behind Club W were frustrated with the Suck Factor in online wine buying and sought to address it by aggregating the skills and talents of winemakers, grape-growers, sommeliers and restaurant folk, and leveraging their collective moxie to bring a curated wine buying experience to your literal doorstep. Today they have a more hands-on approach, with in house wine teams that form close partnerships with growers worldwide.
What you get: Wines that are exclusive to Club W, although it needs to be said that an undisclosed percentage are made invisibly by “partners” whose bottles you might already be buying with different labels on them. Should this bother you? There’s no “should.” It will totally not matter to some people, and feel slightly faceless and corporate to some people. If you think you’re in the latter category, this service is still well worth a try. They have a wide range of wines, sourced from vineyards all over the world, and their business model allows them to offer you a very good deal on them.
If you are a total wine novice, these guys offer a great service and will teach you a lot about wine. If you are pretty wine savvy, this is a really fun way to introduce a little mystery into your week, make a few discoveries, challenge your assumptions, and have the convenience of bottles magically showing up at your door. (Boo Alert: if you live in a state with restrictions on alcohol shipping, you sadly cannot avail yourself of this service. Or, hey, Pennsylvanians, this might be a righteous excuse for a monthly get together with your cousin/ex roommate/college glee club buddy on the Jersey Side, wink nudge.)
If there’s a downside, it’s (ironically, for the “concierge” model) that the experience is a bit impersonal and corporatized-feeling. Many of us who love wine, love it for the connections it creates between an artisan producer, a piece of land, and ourselves. No one has to have walked between rows of guyot-trained old vines, smelling faintly botrytized autumn air and watching clouds of starlings billowing across the sky in order to legitimately enjoy a glass of Sonoma County Zinfandel. Really. But without doubt, few people actually take that walk, inhale that smell, watch those swooping birds, talk to the winemaker for half an hour during a quiet spot on a Sunday afternoon over a flight and a fresh loaf of levain and some good olives—and don’t feel differently about that wine afterward. Like connected. Like personal.
As nice as they are, these folks cannot give you that experience. So for me, de-emphasizing how “personal” it is would be kind of a smart idea. Personal, palate profile and ratings-mining notwithstanding, is what is isn’t. It’s innovative. Fun. A great way to explore without leaving the couch. Convenient, for sure. Utterly worth checking out and potentially addictive—I mean beyond the inherently addictive nature of wine. It’s a great idea at a zillion levels and as long as these guys have good wine to offer (and they do) I expect a very large and diverse range of folks will use them either sporadically or religiously.
Does that make up for a naggy little feeling of anonymity? Probably not for everyone. But then again, not everyone can drop what they’re doing to go wine tasting in Mendoza. If I could, I’d probably have to stop saying I don’t like Argentine Cabs. So maybe I ought to keep ordering them, because probably, they’ll eventually pony up one I can’t get enough of.
Bottom line: This service is totally worth a try for almost anyone, the exception being people who are happily closed-minded in their opinions. If you’re like me, you will probably feel the same about ordering wine from Club W as ordering books from Amazon. Sometimes it’s the easiest way to get what you’re looking for and you can’t beat it for convenience. The selection is seemingly limitless and the service is excellent. And yes, it’s the same book you would have bought in that quaint bookstore with its ineffable smell of ink and paper and coffee and its cute overstuffed corner chairs and the nice bookseller who can talk to you for a few minutes and say “Oh, well if you love Nabokov you really should try this guy!”
Same book. But not the same experience by a long mile.
Happily, you can have both. I’d love to use Club W to keep myself supplied with great-for-the-price-point bottles that no one else has, get something fun and interesting on my doorstep that’s weeknight-friendly, perfect to pop open on a Sunday afternoon with a pal or two and bound to be both a little familiar and a little surprising, and never have to be so attached to it that I agonize over whether this is a “good enough” occasion to pull the cork. There’s something liberating in that. And hey, I might discover a Malbec from Argentina that blows my mind, and God knows I never would have ordered it in a restaurant because they have never been my thing.
I just wouldn’t trade it for the experience of stumbling onto something on a wine-country road trip, at a celebratory meal, or through an in person encounter with a savvy sommelier who just knows what I will like. That’s irreplaceable. And so the Lagrein from Alto Adige that haunts my dreams, the Aglianico we drank that one amazing night, the “Wow; I’ve got to come here more often” rosé from Sonora that I’ll never see outside Mexico, the Supertuscan we cracked at that outdoor table in San Gimignano and raved about, never realizing the winemaker was having a cigarette 20 feet away and devouring our every word? The cleverest Customized Experience on Earth couldn’t take those away from me. Wine is about the Customized Experience we call Life, and you are always your own curator.
That said, invest in a Club W membership and get your hands on some great bottles! If you have an either/or sort of world, you might not love it. If you’re an “and” type—and I am—you’ll have fun.