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Money & Culture

Buy Global, Drink Local: Mail Order Wine Clubs on the Rise

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September 4, 2015
Mail-order wine clubs vs. local wine shops

Direct-to-consumer wine sales have become popular in the past few years, with mail order wine clubs making it easier for casual sippers and aficionados alike to bypass the local wine shop.

But is that best for a long-term relationship with wine?

Whether offered by wineries or via third parties—including airlines or publications that select bottles from many wineries—mail order wine clubs let experts do the picking for you. But what are buyers actually getting with these direct-to-consumer wine sales?

Paul Wagner, author of Wine Marketing and Sales, teaches at Napa Valley College and hosts a wine podcast at rickandpaulwine.com. Wagner says that—much like any other hobby club opportunity—there are pluses and minuses. We chatted with him about a few questions.

Ticker Tape: Is quality an issue with mail order wine?

Wagner: Rest assured, consumers are getting quality wine. Most wine clubs have a selection process or a person making the decision. However, a few factors determine what wine actually gets shipped. Wine clubs have to put together a package, including shipping, that’s going to get three bottles of wine to Little Rock, Arkansas, for $85. So there are wines [they] can’t consider. There are some wines that are really good, but frankly you can buy them at the local store for $7. So even if [wine clubs] include them in the package, people might look at them and say, “Why am I getting this?”

Ticker Tape: What’s the incentive for the producers?

Wagner: There are two reasons why wineries participate in third-party wine clubs. One is for publicity. The second has to do with inventory. If a winery has a slow-moving wine, it may sell it at discount to a wine club. The winery may think, “It’s normally $45. We can sell it to the Wall Street Journal wine club for $22. We get rid of it and people think they’re getting a good deal.”

Ticker Tape: Are consumers taking some risk that the club knows what they like to drink?

Wagner: The complaint I’ve heard is, “It’s on my credit card every month or every couple of months. They send me wine, but it’s just ok. Not all are exactly my taste.” Interestingly, the attrition rate for most wine clubs is two years.

Ticker Tape: But do the clubs have a value-add that the stores just can’t deliver?

Wagner: The best wine clubs, particularly those from wineries themselves, do more than sell wine. If you plan to be [near the winery] two or three times a year … then joining a winery wine club, and planning trips around their events, [is] a really good deal because you can have a wonderful time.

Ticker Tape: It sounds like you see plenty of value in sticking with a highly regarded local shop. Would you say some oenophiles who want expert handling may have better luck there?

Wagner: The best possible way for a consumer to buy wine over a lifetime is to find a local wine merchant who gets to know the consumer’s palate and looks for things the consumer will like and recommend them. That’s the best of all possible solutions.

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