The pros and cons of wine clubs

The Guardian - Feast - - Feast - Fiona Beck­ett

Are wine clubs and sub­scrip­tion schemes a good way to buy wine? Clearly a lot of peo­ple think so, judg­ing by the grow­ing num­ber out there, the lat­est be­ing Vinoteca and (as of the be­gin­ning of next month) Od­dbins.

The ob­vi­ous ad­van­tage of a club is that wine ar­rives with­out you having to think about it, al­though I’m guess­ing that if you read a wine col­umn, you’re happy to give some con­sid­er­a­tion to your wine choices. It may – and should – also in­tro­duce you to wines you haven’t tried.

There are down­sides, how­ever. It’s easy for re­tail­ers to pop slow­mov­ing wines or those that have reached their drink-by date into a mixed case, for ex­am­ple, and you ob­vi­ously can’t taste be­fore you buy, as you can in a shop, so you may end up with bot­tles that aren’t par­tic­u­larly to your taste.

My main beef, though, is with pric­ing. Naked Wines, for ex­am­ple, con­trasts what it says are high-street prices with the dis­counted “An­gel” price you get if you subscribe for £20 a month (which is off­set against pur­chases). But it’s hard to val­i­date what the high-street price would be, be­cause most of Naked’s wines are exclusives. It says “ev­ery price is real and never in­flated for phoney dis­counts”, but some may not feel that £19.99 (at the time of writ­ing) is a fair price for the pretty av­er­age Le Las­tau Saint-Emil­ion 2014, let alone the £26.99 it claims would be the nor­mal re­tail value.

Laith­waites also tends to be on the ex­pen­sive side, so I would gen­er­ally ad­vise pick­ing your own wines, rather than buy­ing mixed cases for which, like Naked, it of­fers gen­er­ous in­tro­duc­tory dis­counts. The site’s Por­tuguese range is es­pe­cially strong.

Vinoteca, a small chain in Lon­don, of­fers mem­bers ben­e­fits on top of its reg­u­lar case, which costs from £80 to £120. This in­cludes a dis­count on the first bot­tle you or­der at its restau­rants and 10% off the rest of the range in its shops and on­line; Vinoteca also has par­tic­u­larly good tast­ing notes and food pair­ing sug­ges­tions.

Od­dbins, from 1 Au­gust, is of­fer­ing three lev­els of sub­scrip­tion, with the em­pha­sis on lesser-known wines and grape va­ri­eties: an En­thu­si­ast pack for £24.53 for three bot­tles, which makes quite an af­ford­able start, an Ad­ven­turer pack (£33.53), and a Trail­blazer (£47.03 – odd amounts, but they rep­re­sent 10% off re­tail prices). What these com­pa­nies all hope, of course, is that this will make you a reg­u­lar cus­tomer, but I’d still ad­vise you to shop around.

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