Buying Blind

Psst! Hey, bud! C’mere! Listen up: Have I got a deal for you! All you got to do is give me your address and credit card number. Then, every few months, I’ll send you something. You won’t know what you got until you open the package. Even better: You won’t know what it cost until you get your credit-card statement! Now is that fun, or what?

I don’t think a lot of my readers would fall for that pitch. But some are buying into a similar proposition, though not from a total stranger nor put quite that baldly. The pitch in question is for “wine clubs.” Rules for membership and participation vary, but here’s the general idea: Anywhere from once a month to twice a year, members receive a shipment of anywhere from one to a dozen bottles of wine. Sometimes the customer is allowed to lay down some conditions, but usually the choice of what’s shipped is left up to the shipper, and no Book-of-the-Month-Club nonsense about “if you do not want to receive this selection, you must respond by” a certain date.

Why would any wine lover want to sign on to such a program? I confess to bafflement when the program is operated by third parties who merely package other people’s wine. Shopping for wine can be a daunting experience, but surely you’re more likely to get something to suit your taste if you buy it for yourself rather than letting someone else buy it for you?

But when the program is run by an individual winery, there’s a kind of twisty logic to it, particularly when the winery has a big name and tiny production. “Some wineries make so little wine that it can take years just to get onto their allocation list,” says wine merchant Dan McCarthy of Seattle’s McCarthy & Schiering. “I think a lot of people who sign up for wine clubs hope that it will help move them up the waiting list and give them a shot at an allocation of the top wines that they really want.”

True, wine club members usually receive a discount from retail, but since most clubs charge shipping, where’s the saving? Clubs also often promise insider opportunities: a chance to taste as-yet- unreleased wines or buy older vintages no longer on the market. Still, with your periodic sight-unseen purchases averaging $30 to $50 a bottle, insiders are paying a pretty premium for their privileged position.

Wine clubs have been proliferating recently here in Washington stateit’ll be interesting to see how they do. A soft economy, a glut of grapes, and more wineries opening every year will surely make it harder for any but the highest of high-end small-production wineries to play the allocation game to keep prices up. But maybe “club sales” will help maintain the illusion of scarcity even after demand has finally shrunk to meet supply.


If most U.S. white wines seem insipid and cloying to you, buy a bottle of Fernand Gerard ’99 La Garenne sancerre imported by Louis Dressner and get really spoiled: At around $12, it’s a steal.

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