Wine is big business in the U.S., where per-capita consumption has steadily been rising for more than a decade. It's no wonder that wine of the month clubs -- be they affiliated with publications like The New York Times, or offered by retailers or wineries -- are proliferating. But are wine clubs worth the money, and if so, how can you choose the best wine club?
Objective, professional wine club reviews are practically non-existent, although we did find one very useful review in Wine Spectator magazine. In that article, editors review selections from monthly wine clubs promoted by three major newspapers -- The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and USA Today -- and one affiliated with restaurant reviewer Zagat. They come away underwhelmed by the offerings in general, although The New York Times' Reserve Wine Club selections "consistently hit the target." (Note: ConsumerSearch and its parent company, About.com, are owned by The New York Times Company, but they do not share an editorial affiliation.)
We also tracked down a handful of bloggers, columnists and consumers who discuss the merits of monthly wine clubs in general. Not surprisingly, opinion is all over the map: Some reviewers say a well-chosen wine clubs is a good way to become acquainted with a variety of wines from all over the world, while others say you'd be better off (and have more fun) finding a good wine store and getting to know the staff, who can give you more personalized service.
What to look for when joining a wine club
Despite the critical dissonance, we did discover a few useful tips for choosing a wine club. By asking these questions BEFORE you buy, you're more likely to find a wine club that best suits your needs:
Where do you live? Liquor laws vary from state to state, and each one imposes different rules on shippers and buyers, governing such issues as whether a resident can order wine at all, how much wine can be purchased, and whether sales tax is imposed. Want to know more? The Wine Institute, a California trade association, has an excellent interactive guide outlining each state's laws regarding wine sales.How much does a wine club cost? We found a wide range of prices among the wine clubs we consulted. For example, retailer Wine.com offers a choice of four different clubs, ranging in price from $30 to $90 plus postage for a monthly shipment of two bottles of wine. Another retailer, the Gold Medal Wine Club, also has four different clubs, with prices ranging from $34 to $189 for a two-bottle shipment, plus postage. Want more than two bottles per shipment? The New York Times Reserve Wine Club, for example, costs $180 plus shipping for six bottles of wine.
What do I get from a wine club? Most -- but not all -- wine clubs we found allow subscribers to specify whether they want a mix of reds and whites, or reds only. Some, like the Times' wine club, send you a variety (four reds, two whites). Others, like the Wine.com club, let you specify your preference. There also also wine clubs that focus on kinds of wine, like pinot noir, or from different regions, like South America or the U.S. Price also dictates quality to some extent; you're not likely to get a small-batch reserve in an entry-level wine club.
How often will wine club shipments arrive? This varies from club to club. Monthly wine shipments are the norm, but some wine clubs give members the option of choosing bimonthly or quarterly options as well.
Is shipping included in a wine of the month club? Generally, no, although some clubs like Cellars Wine Club do include shipping in the cost of the order. The cost of shipping two bottles of wine from Food & Wine magazine's Adventurer Wine Club ($90 for six bottles) is a flat fee of $19.95. As another example, The California Wine Club's Premier Club (one of four options available) offers members several shipping choices, ranging from overnight to ground shipping. The latter option, the cheapest, costs $13.
How easy is it to join or quit a wine club? As easy as filling out an online order form. However, the burden is on the customer to cancel the membership -- otherwise, you'll keep receiving regular shipments.
What other benefits are there to joining a wine club? The biggest positive, reviewers say, is that wine clubs can introduce you to wines that you may not otherwise try. "They break me out of my 'wine box,' says About.com's Stacy Slinkard. "If I know I like [cabernet sauvignon] from a certain handful of California vintners, then I'm likely to keep buying that and I may be missing out on Oregon pinots or a great Rhone blend." Wine clubs also can offer some savings on future purchases, Slinkard says. "Many give you a decent price break on the bottle for follow-up sales on a particular featured wine if you're a member."