Last updated: April 10, 2015
Retail wine clubs often come under fire from the professional wine writers of the world—critics and bloggers alike—because most professionals feel they can get a better outcome by selecting a great local wine store and creating a relationship with one or more staff members, who will then get to know the wine pro’s preferences and make excellent recommendations.
We feel, that for the average consumer, creating a relationship with a knowledgeable staff member at a local wine store is uncomfortable, difficult, or not even possible if there isn’t a good store nearby. Instead, we took a closer look at how average consumers purchase wine today (97% of the wine that is purchased in the U.S. is not purchased by professionals), and how wine clubs might be a better way to buy.
After an extensive research process, we assembled a list of characteristics of wine clubs that we think really defines what it means to be a wine club—the additional value that makes wine clubs a meaningful alternative to buying wines “the old fashioned way.”
The 11 Attributes that Define Wine Clubs
One of the biggest advantages to joining a wine club is the satisfaction guarantee. When was the last time you bought a bottle of wine you didn’t like, and could return it for a replacement from the store where you purchased it? Probably the 12th of Never.
Most wine clubs want you to feel comfortable making the leap to a subscription service, so they guarantee their wines. Each wine club who offers a guarantee approaches it a little differently. We’ve investigated each satisfaction guarantee to assess how good the guarantee really is and ranked each club accordingly.
We operate under the assumption that all wine clubs are more convenient than driving miles to the store to pick out wine and lug it around. But there are definitely features some wine clubs offer that make their clubs more convenient than others. A top score in convenience means timely email notifications of shipping and billing, and online account management for vacation holds or cancellation.
This is a new entry on the wine club scene. Some wine clubs don’t even offer the most basic of personalization. Some wine clubs let you choose almost everything except which wines are shipped (offering a red-only and a white-only version, different delivery frequencies, or different shipment sizes).
But the highest-scoring wine clubs in personalization are those that try to get to know YOUR wine preferences and ship you wine accordingly. This is done through a combination of quizzes, including your ratings of past shipments, and letting you choose the wine you’ll receive (from a limited set).
This sure seems like a no-brainer when it comes to wine clubs, but believe it or not, it’s one of the most contested aspects of wine drinking. One man’s special-occasion wine is another man’s daily-drinker. Experience and budget have a lot to do with how a wine drinker perceives the quality of wine, so we developed specialized profiles for different types of drinkers—more on that later.
Regardless of your own definition of quality of a wine, there is definitely a rough paradigm out there for what defines exceptional, good, average, and below average in terms of quality.
While we’re not professionally-trained in wine here at Wine Club Reviews, we have ample drinking experience at every level of the spectrum except Cult Wines (we don’t want to pay $300 for a bottle of wine, even if it is an amazing wine). We get shipments from nearly every club we rate, and for the ones we don’t, we look closely at what they’ve shipped and will try to purchase those wines for evaluation. Using this information, we determine what quality of wine each club ships most often and rank them accordingly. It’s interesting to note this score sometimes changes as wine clubs try to improve their margins by decreasing the quality of wine or by hiring better wine buyers.
You can pay $20 for an average bottle of wine, or you can pay $20 for a fantastic bottle of wine, but you won’t know until you taste it which one you’ve got. This infuriating aspect of wine is baked into the industry at every level and type of production, so we often use a metric called QPR (quality-to-price ratio) to suss out whether or not your $20 is appropriate for that bottle you’re drinking.
We used to use QPR as a primary metric in rating wine clubs in our old system, but it has some limitations… namely it focuses on value (which is important) but doesn’t describe whether the wine is actually good.
So in the new ratings system we separated Quality and Price into their own categories and look at them individually. Our Price rankings now express whether or not you’re getting these wines for a good price—suggested retail price gets a rating of 3, while discounts off retail will get higher ratings, and markups above retail (not at all uncommon) get lower ratings.
Whether your favorite way to say it is “Membership has its privileges” or “Reward your loyal customers,” the message is the same. A wine club is a commitment—albeit an easily revocable one—and since a customer is committing to a company like this, they should be rewarded with special discounts.
We look for three different types of discounts that add value to a wine club membership: introductory offers, discounts on reorders, and additional special deals. Clubs that lavishly give discounts and special offers to their customers score well in this department.
For many, a company’s customer service is the most important detail of how they choose where to shop. With wine clubs, the role of customer service is really to help you deal with unusual circumstances: vacations, changes, returns, and cancellations.
Some clubs, regrettably, are infamously dreadful at some or all of these elements of customer service and are punished accordingly in our ratings system. Likewise, some clubs have amazing customer service and they are rewarded.
This is the most frequently changed ranking element for a company, as every complaint or compliment we get goes into the score. So do the results of our periodic checks of the rest of the internet to see what customers are saying elsewhere.
This detail is more important for premium wine clubs and those meant for collecting. We want to know who is picking the wine, what their wine selection philosophy is, and whether or not we think company is just buying what’s available and fits their business model, or is actually buying based on what customers are expecting.
This comes into play most when buying for yourself, or when giving a gift to an experienced wine drinker. Ideally you’d like to choose a wine club that brings something special to the table, whether that’s through wine education, types of wines offered, or personalization. We reward the wine clubs that are trying to deliver something more than a “standard two-bottle wine of the month club.”
This is an interesting factor which is most important only to a few wine drinkers, but is a key differentiator among the wine clubs. With some clubs you get a boring 8.5”x11” piece of paper printed off the office inkjet that includes information you could easily find at the wineries website if you looked. Others put together elaborate, high-quality booklets each month which talk about the wine, the winemaker, the region, offer recipes for pairing, and even trivia. Then there are some that are in between. This is often considered an important characteristic for gifts and for new wine drinkers who are really trying to expand their knowledge and their palates.
This characteristic is not included in the All Around wine club rating at WineClubReviews.net. We only use it for the Gift Giving profile you’ll read about in the next section. When evaluating giftworthiness, we look at the gift packaging the wine arrives in (if any), the options for announcing your gift, and whether or not pre-paid memberships are offered. It is difficult to give an ongoing membership as a gift, as inevitably you will be charged one time too many for that gift.