I disclose, in great detail, my review process. It covers topics like how I get the wine, my tasting procedure, how I structure my reviews and how I think about the wine I receive, especially whether or not you’re getting a fair price.
Another subject I speak about transparently is my formal wine education — as in, I don’t have one. I’m not a certified wine expert or sommelier. These terms mean something specific.
A certified sommelier is someone who is trained to help customers select a wine from a restaurant menu and then serve it properly according to tradition. There are more people who want to be sommeliers than there are positions in restaurants available, so many sommeliers are now opening wine shops and wine clubs.
For a less service-oriented approach, there are levels of diplomas an individual can earn from the Wine & Spirits Education Trust (WSET) which teaches aspiring wine professionals about wines and regions, winemaking techniques, and viticultural (farming) practices. There are also the Court of Master Sommeliers, the Institute of the Masters of Wine, the Wine Scholar Guild, Society of Wine Educators, and the International Sommelier Guild — all of whom also bestow educational credentials upon wine professionals.
The great thing about wine is that unless you’re seeking a job which requires these credentials (working as a sommelier, being a wine critic, or working as a wine buyer for a large distributor or retail company), you don’t need these organizations to learn about wine.
You can learn about wine by drinking and studying independently at your own pace. That’s what I have done.
Why? Because I don’t aspire to those careers or titles and there’s more to judging wine subscriptions than just knowing about wine. In fact, based on information presented at sites who seek out only the opinions of sommeliers (like The Wirecutter, the New York Times-owned review juggernaut), it’s not helpful to judge a wine club from this perspective.
I’m a long time reader of The Wirecutter. I like their transparency and thoroughness. I always knew that some day they’d get around to reviewing wine clubs and I simultaneously dreaded it (because they dominate the search engine results) and looked forward to it (because it would set an example of what a high quality wine club review should be).
I was quite disappointed when they finally wrote their review (and subsequent revisions, while better, are still inadequate). Their kitchen staff writers worked with a consulting sommelier to not only review the subscriptions, but to even decide what was reviewed. Ultimately, as of June 21, 2022, they only reviewed five wine clubs and recommended two.
The reason they only recommended two is that their normal strategy of “get an expert to identify a subset of products we should spend time testing” doesn’t work with wine. If you’re a baker, you know which baking sheets are going to stand the test of time (and why). Baking sheet longevity and whether or not your cookies will burn is not subjective, but wine preference is.
The Wirecutter tells you up front how they decided what to test (what the sommelier endorsed based on the wine club’s websites), but the standards were driven too much by the sommelier and not enough by regular people who want to join wine subscriptions. Their criteria was too narrow and their conclusions reflect a lack of thorough research I, and other readers, expect from their publication.
Some specific positions they take that I disagree with include:
I considered publishing a line-by-line breakdown of everything I disagree with in their review, but I decided against it. If you’re curious, hit me up and I’ll talk you through what’s wrong with their approach. Warning: I’ll bend your ear because I’m still cranky about it.
Which leads me back to my original point…
If you’re spending less than $30 a bottle for “everyday” wines — convenience matters, shipping difficulties matter, how companies handle screw ups matters, how hard it is to cancel matters. What good is receiving great wine if it was aggravating to acquire it?
After 13+ years trying 1000s of bottles from 100+ different wine clubs, I know what it means to be a wine club worth joining. I try the wine from every wine club I review, often many times. No one has thoroughly reviewed more wine clubs (and written about it) than I have. I keep a close eye on what my competition is up to — whether it’s the freelance journalist (often not a wine writer) hired to do a round-up for sites like Insider.com or Delish.com or it’s a fellow specialist who only reviews wine clubs.
Over time, as the industry has evolved, my process has gone from a high-level look at features and customizability (like you find on most listicles) to an in-depth objective analysis of the services offered and the wine delivered (like you find on the parts of The Wirecutter that talk about patio umbrellas and baking sheets).
I never assume all of my readers are the same, as each other or as me. As a result of many refinements and observations, I have split clubs into different groups so they have more meaningful star-ratings for each type of wine club seeker. Ratings for premium clubs are laser focused on wine quality while inexpensive clubs are rated for value, price appropriateness, and satisfaction guarantee. Wine clubs even get gift ratings because what you might need as a gift giver is different from what you need when you’re subscribing for yourself.
For personalized wine subscriptions, I pay close attention to how well the services do at selecting wine for you. For curated wine subscriptions I look at uniqueness, value, and quality of the selections relative to the price points. The star-ratings are automatically adjusted to reflect all of these differences so ultimately each wine club is rated for how well they achieve their objective and how likely they are to please their customers.
Because wine clubs are my main focus, my site is up to date. Have you seen any of these clubs — Martha Stewart Wine Club, VineBox Subscription, or Pour This — on a list recently? They don’t exist anymore and publishers who haven’t taken them down are wasting your time.
Because wine clubs are my main focus, I don’t gloss over what less-shiny looking wine clubs have to offer. The California Wine Club offers more than just California wine, but if you’re a writer who assumes based on the title that’s all there is, you’re not doing your job. I don’t assume that a wine club with a different business model (like selling bulk wine) can’t offer value to their customers and I don’t assume that flashy advertising means there’s a great product waiting for me.
Because I have reviewed so many wine clubs, I can smell marketing BS a mile away. I always point this out when a wine club relies too heavily on awards or shines a spotlight on clubs whose wines are critical darlings. A great story is nice, but great wine is better. The worst offenders don’t appear on my site as more than a mention.
I don’t like wasting money (or anything for that matter). I’m careful about where I spend my money and my mindset as a reviewer is to be careful about where you spend yours. I typically avoid buying overpriced wine from regions like Napa, Burgundy, and Champagne. I’m happy to spend $60-80 on a bottle of wine that’s worth it, but most of the time the prices from these places are inflated beyond their quality because of real estate costs, wine scores, and brand caché. I don’t believe a high price tag equals quality and I know for sure — from experience —there are wines of equal quality for half those prices, or less.