Are wine clubs worthwhile?

Almost every winery I visit seems to tout its own wine club these days. Are they really worthwhile and a true money saver?

Wine Press NorthwestMarch 7, 2013 

The simple answer is, yes, wine clubs can be worthwhile, and they will save you money so long as you’re getting shipments of wine you really like and that you’ll be proud to share with friends. I’m an unabashed fan of wine clubs, if they meet my needs.

Over the years, my wife and I have belonged to 9 or 10 wine clubs, for a rather broad array of reasons. After the nation’s dip into the recession in 2007, we dropped several of them, as thousands of other wine lovers did, making rather difficult choices that eventually trimmed our club membership down to a single winery, Barnard Griffin in Richland, Wash.

Why did we stay with this one above all others? It was simple. It’s our favorite and it’s easy to pick up shipments without having to pay the high costs of shipping, which can wipe out any savings a club membership offers. Year after year, we drink more Barnard Griffin wines than any other. That meant keeping the membership would save 20 to 25 percent on wine purchases we likely would make anyway. Thus, it made a certain kind of sense to a pair of wine lovers.

Still, I don’t think anyone really should join a wine club for the economic benefits alone. Our reasons were always couched, at least in part, in a series of questions we usually have considered before joining. Among them are: Does this winery make a fairly wide variety of wines? Are all of them well made? Does the winery select every wine in every shipment, or does it allow the club member to make substitutions? Is there real savings to joining? Are its wines so readily available and so frequently on sale that joining its club makes no sense? And is being a member hassle-free, or are there drawbacks?

Some of the answers are obvious, but some are not. My wife and I usually prefer a wide variety of wines because we both love the chance to explore the world of wine. Another bottle of excellent Chardonnay or nearly brilliant Syrah, for example, likely won’t make me sign up. But offer those, plus quality Merlot, Cabernet and a chance to try something like an Albariño, Vermentino or Auxerrois, and I might be hooked.

Still, we did add back a second wine club, Airfield Estates in Prosser, Wash., which doesn’t offer anything so exotic, just high-quality wines ranging from crisp, dry whites to big, heavy reds. Why? Because its wines aren’t readily available at the supermarket and the club allows us to pick out the wines we like best, at a hefty discount. That makes it easy to meet our fulfillment agreement to buy three cases yearly.

And we have belonged to both Chateau Ste. Michelle’s and Columbia Crest wine clubs because of innovative marketing that appealed to us. Chateau Ste. Michelle offered small lots of well made but uncommon wines, such as Cinsault and Mourvèdre. Columbia Crest offered its topnotch reserve wines, which also aren’t readily available except at the winery.

Now I’m not suggesting that I’m always are so logical when it comes to wine that I’ve never joined a wine club simply because I fell in love with a more limited set of offerings. I rather recently joined the wine club at Five Star Cellars in Walla Walla, Wash., because I was so taken with its Merlots and red blends at fair prices.

Five Star focuses almost exclusively on reds, offering but one white wine, which contradicts a bit with my previous advice about looking for variety. But wine isn’t only about logic and economics. It’s about quality of life and the pleasure of sipping a really enjoyable complement to a delightful meal.

So, find a wine club that will save you money on wines you’ll enjoy drinking with your favorite foods. Then sit down for dinner and toast your good sense for saving money on one of the joys of life.

Wine word(s): Blowzy and Farmyardy

I’ve often had just a little too much fun playing a little fast and loose with the bits of French that still linger in what was always a sharply limited vocabulary and understanding of all things French, especially that nation’s puzzling automotive tastes.

So, this time I’m sticking to some delightfully descriptive words that illustrate the power of English, which seems especially appropriate because the remains of Richard III, who died in battle in 1485 and was the protagonist of Shakespeare’s play of the same name, recently have been identified. The Bard’s words describing Richard III — “rudely stamp’d” and “deformed, unfinish’d” might easily apply to these two words of the wine glossary.

Blowzy, according to The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, is the wine world’s way of describing “an overblown and exaggerated fruit aroma, such as fruit jam, but would indicate a lack of finesse in a more expensive product.” Removed from the wine world, one might be tempted to apply it to the latest blonde country singer out of Nashville. My dictionary suggests two meanings, disheveled or red-faced, and says the word has an unknown derivation, citing a reference to a “blouse wench.” Enough said.

Farmyardy is a word all Chardonnay lovers, especially if they’re prone to age their favorite wine toward a golden hue, should keep at the tip of their tongues. It should be applied, Sotheby’s says, to “a wine, quite often Chardonnay or Pinot, that has matured beyond its initial freshness of fruit, past the desired stage of roundness and the pleasing phase when it acquires certain vegetal undertones. The wine is still healthy and drinkable, and for some it is at the very peak of perfection.”

So, no need to take a back seat to the oenophiles who are prone to mangle the smattering of French they’ve absorbed. Keep blowzy and farmyardy handy for your next sipping session.

Ken Robertson, retired editor of the Tri-City Herald in Kennewick, Wash., has been sipping Northwest wines and writing about them since 1976.

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