Wine club membership has its privileges… sort of. Winery wine clubs are built almost entirely upon the benefits model with members enjoying perks like complimentary tastings, access to special bottlings, members-only events, discounts on wine and merchandise, opportunities to meet the winemaker or proprietor, etc. These privileges make members feel special — like a part of the family in some cases — and foster loyalty to the brand. Now that a growing number of newspapers and magazines are getting into the wine club game, I’m curious as to whether or not the benefits model of belonging will translate. Will the New York Times Wine Club, which is affiliated with the paper in name (and revenue) only, inspire the same kind of devotion as a winery’s club that is from a specific place where members can go visit and see the vines and meet some of the real people behind the wine? My guess is no, but then again maybe it doesn’t matter.
What newspaper wine clubs are selling to their members is variety. Precisely because they are not wineries, newspaper clubs can promote a variety of wines and brands from all over the world. This is undoubtedly an advantage at a time when wine is more common on American dinner tables than ever before. Many drinkers are now as familiar with Malbec as they are with Merlot. Rather than sticking with just one varietal or one brand, more people want to experiment, and newspaper wine clubs are offering the opportunity for their members to do just that.
The problem, however, is the manner in which the wines are chosen, and by whom. None of the wines offered in any of the major newspapers’ clubs are chosen by members of its editorial staff, rather the decision making is outsourced to a company that specializes in wine club sales. From a journalistic ethics standpoint this makes sense. A newspaper that runs a wine column cannot ask its editorial staff to choose wines for its wine club, lest they be accused of favoritism or collusion. This is a pretty straightforward concept. But, the concept is not equally applied. The New York Times Wine Club is not called the Global Wine Company‘s Wine Club for a reason. The wine club’s marketers want your thought process to go something like this: “Oh, the New York Times has a wine club. I like their wine column. That Eric Asimov writes about some cool wines, so I bet their club will be pretty good.” In essence, newspapers are trading on the very thing they are not giving wine club members: wines chosen by their wine columnists.
Assuming members know this, and they might not unless they read the very fine print, what then are the benefits of joining a newspaper wine club, and what differentiates one from another? Here is a brief breakdown of the wine clubs offered by the New York Times, USA Today, and the Wall Street Journal:
What you get: 6 bottles per month of boutique wines from around the world, tasting notes, recipes, and related wine, food, and travel articles. Guaranteed replacement of any bottle you don’t enjoy.
Cost of per year: Sampler level = $1,080 plus shipping; Reserve level = $2,160 plus shipping
Number of bottles per year: 72
Average cost per bottle: Sampler level = $15; Reserve level = $30
Wines chosen by: Global Wine Company
What you get: 6 bottles per quarter of primarily good value wine, each shipment contains one “featured wine”, tasting notes, region and varietal information, and pairing recipes. Members receive 10% off reorders.
Cost of membership per year: $327.92, including shipping.
Number of bottles per year: 24
Average cost per bottle: $11.66
Wines chosen by: My Wines Direct – a team of “experts” choose an initial group of wines for consideration, and the final selection is made by USA Today reader tasting panels.
What you get: 12 bottles per quarter, plus an optional special holiday case, members receive the list of wines in advance and can opt out of any shipment, tasting notes, serving suggestions, and a refund for any bottle you find unsatisfactory.
Cost of membership per year: $559.96 or $699.95 if you opt for the special holiday case, plus shipping and tax
Number of bottles per year: 48 or 60 with holiday option
Average cost per bottle: $12.50
Wines Chosen by: Lionstone Sonoma
With the exception of the USA Today reader tasting panels, the wine selection process is completely outsourced erasing any link between the paper’s wine coverage (a potential reason for joining) and its club. Across the board it seems that what’s being offered here is relative value and variety. Many small local wine shops have clubs that offer these benefits, too. Join one of those and you’ll receive wines hand selected by staff members who will be there the next time you want to drop in and talk about them. It seems to me that the major benefit of newspaper wine clubs is revenue for the newspaper. Tasting notes and pairing suggestions just aren’t dynamic enough to inspire loyalty or create excitement. The first paper that differentiates itself by offering personal service, enhanced benefits like tasting seminars or winery access, and finds a way to put a name and a face behind its club might have some staying power, but for now there’s just not enough substance to justify joining one.