I am asked quite a bit about the spate of mail order wine clubs popping up in Massachusetts and my responses are usually not very favorable. Most of my opinion is based on what arguably some could call “old information.” While there is a shred of truth to this perspective, my recent foray into wine clubs has yielded a refreshed, but still cautionary opinion.

An acquaintance of mine who owns South Liquor Mart (http://www.southliquormart.com), located in Plainville is now the exclusive retailer for many different wine clubs including the Wall Street Journal, Zagats, Virgin Airlines, JetBlue, Laithwaites and many others. He recently asked me to help him out by speaking at a wine dinner at a new local restaurant, Red Stone Grill in North Attleboro. As compensation for my trouble, SLM provided me with a mixed case of wines from a number of their wine club inventories.

After tasting through most of the wines, I can say that I was pleasantly surprised by what I found: some decent wines at what appear to be reasonable prices. Out of the nine bottles tasted so far I found four noteworthy, two acceptable and three not worth writing about. I have three left to go, but right now that’s a 67% batting average…

The noteworthy wines:

2009 Chateau de L’Abbaye, Bordeaux Supérieur, France $15.99

  • Dark, plumy nose with fruity, floral hints. Full-bodied with moderate acidity and supple tannin – good balance. Dark fruit core with blackberry jam and tobacco notes. Moderate length – smooth and seductive. Drinking well and should hold nicely for 2 to 3 years in the bottle. Very nice from a stellar vintage.

2009 The Patriots Gran Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon, Maipo Valley, Chile $16.99

  • Ripe, fruity nose with fresh cherry, red currants and fresh herbal hints. Medium-bodied with moderate acidity and supple tannin – good balance. Bright, black cherry palate with tobacco, tar and jammy notes. Moderate length – smooth with just a touch of oak. Drinking well now, not for aging.

2009 Renaudin Reserve Syrah, Carneros, California $17.99

  • Ripe, jammy nose with blackberry, cherry and violet hints. Full-bodied with moderate acidity and firm, dry tannin – good balance. Nice dark fruit core with tar, blackberry, mint and vanilla notes. Long finish – smooth – layered. Drinking well now and should hold for another 3 to 5 years in bottle.

2010 Villa Broglia, Gavi di Gavi, Piedmont, Italy $19.99

  • Lemony, citrusy nose with floral, perfumed hints – pretty. Medium-bodied with firm acidity – good balance. Light on the palate with persistent lemon and just a hint of vanilla. Moderate length – crisp and refreshing – smooth. Drinking well now – not for aging.

Some of my updated thoughts…

  • It certainly appears that the overall quality level of wines available through mail order wine clubs has dramatically improved. When I first dipped my toe into this wine sector many years ago, the wine was simply not very good. As noted above, many of the wines I tried were quite respectable and fairly priced.

 

  • Most of the wines available through mail order clubs are exclusive to those outlets. On the one hand that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I hate to sole source anything – the frugal Yankee in me likes managed competition.

 

  • Also as noted above, a few of the wines were just not very good at all. True, this same phenomenon can occur when just randomly shopping in a wine shop, but at least in a wine shop you can seek out “professional” advice on the wines. Sure, salespeople are salespeople, but if they truly care about repeat business they will strive to give you the best advice, I hope. I guess the same can be said for wine clubs… moral of the story: bad wine is bad wine no matter where you buy it and it can happen at any time…

 

  • The per case price for the clubs seems pretty reasonable – Laithwaite’s touts a $139.99 per case price for twelve mixed wines, which translates to just under $12 per bottle. At a 67% success rate, the possible “lost opportunity” is a little less than $50. If I felt inclined and was just starting out in my wine journey, I could see joining a club like Laithwaite’s – taste through a few cases, assess the quality and elect to stay, or go on an on-going basis – My biggest concern is the impact of weather on the shipping… extreme heat and cold do not good bed fellows make for wine… Fortunately fulfillment in Massachusetts happens locally, so the travel time is minimized.

So, the next time a student asks me my thoughts on mail order wine clubs, I will pleasantly have a more positive story to tell…

Cheers!

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