I received an email recently about a two-year-old column — “In which the wine columnist makes an embarrassing confession” — about my experience joining an online wine club.
It wasn’t a good experience. After sampling the wines and finding them only just drinkable at best, truly awful at worst, I discovered that the promised “boutique” and “artisan” wineries were mere paper outlets for bulk wine.
The writer of the email works for Global Wine Company, which manages the wine clubs for Williams-Sonoma, Food & Wine, The New York Times and The Washington Post. She says, “Clearly you did not have a great experience with the American Cellars Wine Club. I am writing because I would hate for you to have a bad impression of all wine clubs. We take pride in carefully selecting genuine wines from established wineries worldwide. We do not use bulk wine or after-market retreads with self-created labels. Instead, we focus on limited production wines from boutique wineries that offer both quality and value. We are confident in the enjoyable wine experience we are providing our club members.”
In order to “change your mind about wine clubs,” she offered to send me a sample box. She thought the current Willams-Sonoma Explorer Club shipment would suit nicely. This particular club offers a choice of mixed reds and white or all red or all white, as well as a choice of frequency — from once a month to once every three. The cost is $90 per shipment of six wines, plus shipping.
By writing that 2011 column, I never intended to tar all wine clubs with the brush of deceit, but I was happy for the chance to write about a club that offered “real wines from real wineries,” so I looked forward to that package. Getting it was akin to opening a stack of birthday presents: four reds, two whites, and a nice booklet containing information about the wines, tasting notes, food-pairing ideas and recipes. What fun!
And I was immediately reassured by the presence of a familiar bottle — the 2009 Castello della Paneretta Solimpia, a wine I mentioned a few columns ago, introduced to me by daughter Julian. From Tuscany, it’s a sangiovese — and completely delicious. In addition to this Italian beauty, the package contained a Rogue Valley Oregon pinot noir, an Argentinian chardonnay, a Bordeaux sauvignon blanc-semillon blend, a Spanish tempranillo-cab blend, and a red Syrah-based blend from Santa Barbara. Yes, all real wines from real wineries.
I won’t give details because none of these, as far as I know, is available locally, but they are all solid choices with interesting stories, all retailing in the $15-20 range. The pairings seem excellent, too. And the recipe for “bucatini with pork and fennel ragu” that goes with the Solimpia, looks delicious. I plan to try it. I’m also eager to make the portobello burgers to serve with my final — as yet unopened — bottle, the Cimarone 3CV Cilla’s Blend (Santa Barbara). Of the rest of the bottles, I liked most the Del Rio Vineyards Pinot Noir. It was just as good as many pinots I’ve tasted from the more prestigious Willamette Valley that cost twice as much.
If you’d like to pretend it’s Christmas or birthday or anniversary every month or two or you’d just like to be introduced to some interesting wines that you would probably never taste otherwise, joining one of Global Wine’s clubs seems perfect. Very reasonably priced, this Explorer Club is a good bargain as well, especially when you consider the information and recipes that come along with each shipment. And you can find excellent introductory offers in any of the above-mentioned publications. I have been tempted for years by the Food & Wine club — and now I’m reassured that it’s as good as advertised.
I spend a lot of time perusing wine shelves, reading about wine, gathering recommendations from wine buyers-and-sellers and studying restaurant wine lists. With my limited wine budget, I can’t buy even a fraction of the exciting wines I read and hear about. But finding exciting wines is my job, so in some ways I’m not the best candidate for a club. If you have neither the time nor inclination to do this sort of searching, a quality wine club can do it for you.
Besides, I do like to spend my experimental wine dollars locally. Last week, for example, I was looking at the new Co-op wine offerings, and Claire showed me a bottle she was particularly excited about. (Claire, by the way, has left the Co-op for a position at Young’s Market Company — wine distributors. I’m happy for her but sorry to see her go — she did wonders for the Co-op wine department by stocking the shelves with many small production and unusual bottles that you wouldn’t expect to find outside a boutique wine shop. I miss her already.)
Called Equinoxe, the wine’s a Rhone blend — a Crozes-Hermitage. Like most Crozes-Hermitage, this is 100 percent syrah, made — with hand-harvested, organically grown estate grapes — by Maxime Graillot, famed Crozes producer Alain Graillot’s son. No new oak was used, so the rich syrah flavors really pop. After tasting so many huge fruity syrahs, I had almost forgotten why I so love the varietal.
Meant to be drunk young, this wine has beautiful succulent berry notes with a good dash of black pepper and earth. At only 12.5 percent alcohol, it’s wonderfully food-friendly yet surprisingly lush and tangy. I drank it with a wild mushroom and artichoke heart pizza and it just kept getting better as the meal progressed. I must have said, “I love this wine” at least five times during dinner.
At $20, it was more expensive than the bottles I usually buy, but, well, with all the money I save by not joining a wine club, I can afford the splurge.
That said, I am thinking of joining a wine club. Just so you know. Actually I’m trying to decide between two. More about that in a future column.
— Reach Susan Leonardi at firstname.lastname@example.org. Comment on this column at www.davisenterprise.com