Despite impressive growth in the popularity of craft beer and spirits and the emergence of entirely new wine-adjacent categories like hard seltzer, demand for wine has been more or less stable for a while now. A Gallup poll fielded in 2019 found that 30% of American drinkers prefer wine over spirits and beer. That proportion has remained more or less constant, give or take a few percentage points, since the turn of the century.
What hasn’t been so stable is how wine lovers source their drink of choice. Wine-themed subscription boxes and delivery clubs, most delivered monthly or quarterly, now number in the hundreds. Many if not most offer complimentary a la carte buying options too — basically, online wine shops that deliver across state lines, local laws permitting.
Signing up for a wine subscription box or delivery service is easy for adults of legal drinking age. Creating an account and entering your delivery and payment details through services like Winc takes a few minutes. And answering a handful of onboarding questions about your taste preferences — if that’s even required — doesn’t take much longer.
Whether you should give in to the temptation to sign up is another matter. As a sometimes-subscriber, I can attest to persuasive arguments on both sides of the question. If you’re on the fence about signing up, familiarize yourself with those arguments and weigh the most common alternatives to wine subscription services and clubs.
Common Alternatives to Wine Subscription Services & Clubs
First, let’s review the most common alternatives to wine subscription services and clubs. You’re probably familiar with them already, but a refresher never hurts, particularly when the competition is so tempting.
Your Local Grocery Store or Drugstore
Most states permit wine sales in grocery stores, and many states and localities allow them in drugstores as well. That includes superstores that sell food, beverages, and over-the-counter medications — such as Target, Meijer, and H-E-B.
Given the sheer number of grocery store chains and independently operated stores in the United States, generalizing about grocery stores’ wine inventories isn’t very helpful. However, the fact that major chains enjoy significant economies of scale and enviable pricing power is not really in dispute. The grocery store is therefore an excellent place to search for value buys.
Quality is another matter. Mass-market and discount grocery stores are more likely to stock mass-market and discount wines to the detriment of the truly imaginative stuff. Upscale grocery stores typically cater to clients with more refined tastes, but their selections are often constrained by available space.
A Warehouse Store
Members-only warehouse stores like Costco, Sam’s Club, and BJ’s are heaven on Earth for committed bulk buyers. Not all warehouse stores have alcohol sections or standalone liquor stores, but those that do typically live up to their promise to deliver great deals to shoppers willing to buy in sufficient quantity.
And those quantity requirements often aren’t burdensome, especially not in the wine department. The typical Costco liquor store sells hundreds of different wines, most in standard 750-milliliter bottles or 1.5-liter magnums. Pricing tends to be on par with or more competitive than warehouse-style liquor stores, though they reserve the best deals for lower-shelf stuff and house labels (such as Costco’s Kirkland wines, which aren’t bad).
The biggest downside of buying wine at the warehouse store is a severe lack of staff expertise. You need to bring a wine-buying guide. And you also need to spend (and save) enough at the warehouse club to justify the annual membership fee, typically around $60. But that’s easy enough if you have more than two mouths to feed and regularly cook freezer meals in bulk.
Your Local Wine Shop or Liquor Store
The specialty wine shop traditionally has been the place to shop for high-end or unusual wines of the sort you’d reserve for a special occasion. Upscale liquor stores — alcohol retailers that sell more than just grape-derived elixirs — also fill this niche, especially in areas without specialty wine shops.
The advantage of upscale retailers is novelty. Major grocery store chains and warehouse stores typically buy in quantities beyond the capacity of small-batch winemakers, and independent distributors reserve high-end stuff for shops willing to pay a premium for it. So you’re much more likely to find rare, small-batch, natural, and extraordinary wines in a specialty shop.
Pro tip: In most states, you can even have wine delivered to your home from a local wine store using the Drizly app. When you sign up for an account, you’ll receive a $5 bonus.
Independent Wineries & Vintners
If you’re fortunate enough to live in a wine-producing region, you can always pick up a few bottles at your favorite tasting room (and try a glass or two while you’re there). And thanks to rapid advancements in grape technology, prime wine-producing territory is no longer relegated to the world’s drier, sunnier precincts. Upstate New York’s Finger Lakes, West Michigan’s Grand Traverse region, Northern Virginia’s Piedmont — all have unexpectedly strong wine games.
If you don’t have any wineries within easy driving distance of your home, you might have an out: bottles shipped directly from the winemaker to your doorstep. Availability depends on the rules in your state. Even where wine subscription boxes are kosher, winemaker-direct shipments might not be. But it’s worth looking into.
Pricing on direct-shipped wine is not competitive with wine bought in supermarkets or warehouse stores, but that’s mostly because the comparison isn’t apples-to-apples. Most independent winemakers don’t produce in quantities large enough to sell in stores outside their immediate areas. They rely on on-premise sales, sales in a relative handful of local shops, and online sales where permitted by law.
Advantages of Wine Subscription Services & Clubs
Compared with the alternatives, wine subscription services and clubs offer many legitimate benefits. For nonexperts, they’re far less overwhelming than a trip to the wine shop. They’re much more convenient for everyone. And though many sell themselves on hands-off personalization, some offer partial or total order customization that puts you in control of what you drink without choosing essentially at random from a vast selection or taking as gospel whatever recommendation the salesperson foists upon you.
1. You Don’t Have to Pick Your Own Wines if You Don’t Want To
Many wine subscription services choose members’ wines for them, removing from the equation the uncertainty and confusion that wring the fun out of trips to the wine shop or aisle. They promise the joy of discovery without the hassle, even if they can’t deliver it every time.
Higher-end outfits like Firstleaf and Bright Cellars offer truly boutique experiences by personalizing selections using member-provided answers to short onboarding questionnaires. Value-driven alternatives, such as the Martha Stewart Wine Club, tend to choose wines based on color preference only — red, white, or both. A few, notably Winc, promise the best of both worlds: total personalization at very reasonable price points.
2. You Can Save Significant Amounts of Time
Because it dispenses with travel, any online wine-buying model saves significant amounts of time over traditional in-person shopping. With recurring shipments that typically require no action from buyers other than an adult signature at the door, wine subscription services that select members’ wines for them every time are the most efficient.
3. You Don’t Need to Leave the House
Speaking of dispensing with travel: In the COVID-19 era, leaving the house is a much bigger deal than before. While reasonable people can agree to disagree on the merits of grabbing a bottle or two from the wine shop or grocery store, few would seriously argue that buying booze in person is an essential activity. If you’re not sold on the public health benefits of avoiding retail environments, perhaps you’re sympathetic to the argument that time is money. For many, the shipping fees levied by the service (often waived with recurring or sufficiently sized shipments) justify the time saved.
4. You Have No Obligation to Be Exclusive
No wine subscription service mandates member exclusivity. If your budget and appetite allow, you’re free to buy from multiple subscription services or online retailers and to supplement your home-delivered bottles with store-bought wine. Indeed, heavier drinkers and frequent dinner party hosts rely on higher-end subscription services to supply special-occasion bottles distinct from their everyday inventories.
5. You Can Often Buy Curated Selections a la Carte
Many wine subscription services offer members the option to buy bottles a la carte. But not all do, so it’s essential you confirm that before signing up if it’s vital to you. Over time, this capability enhances the value of the “discovery” aspect of membership in a wine subscription club, transforming serendipitous revelations into reliable experiences. It’s common, though not universal, for wine subscription services — especially pricier ones that emphasize quality over quantity, like Vinebox — to offer discounts or credits on a la carte selections.
6. You Can Sometimes Customize Your Order
Most wine subscription services resemble other subscription box models, delivering partially or fully curated selections regularly. But some — including big players like Wine.com — resemble online wine warehouses more than curation clubs. In return for paying a flat annual fee (currently $49), Wine.com’s StewardShip members get free shipping on unlimited quantities of wine with no minimums. That’s essentially the only benefit of StewardShip membership, though it’s sure to pay for itself with monthly or even quarterly orders.
7. They Sometimes Offer Rare or Unusual Wines Not Widely Available in the U.S.
High-end wine subscription services like Usual, Vinley Market, and Vinebox specialize in rare grapes, obscure regions, and small-batch runs. In essence, they replicate the specialty wine shop experience without the physical shop — and often go further, offering wines you literally can’t find in U.S. stores. Even if you’re fortunate enough to have a first-rate wine shop in your neighborhood, there’s no guarantee it matches the subscription service of your choice on novelty (though its selection is almost certainly more extensive).
Disadvantages of Wine Subscription Services & Clubs
Don’t overlook the very real drawbacks of the wine subscription model (and online wine buying in general). Subscribers usually pay a per-bottle premium over in-store pricing, though comparisons aren’t always direct. Despite the premium, you’re not guaranteed quality, though many subscription services offer money-back guarantees or credits for subpar wines.
1. It Usually Costs More per Bottle Than Buying in-Store
With few exceptions, buying wine in a mass-market setting like a major supermarket chain, warehouse store, or warehouse-style liquor store is a better deal than paying for a monthly or quarterly wine subscription box. Subscription services that emphasize quality and novelty typically charge no less than $12 to $13 per 750-milliliter bottle. Higher-end outfits specializing in rare or natural wines charge double that.
That said, comparisons between in-store buying and subscription boxes that emphasize novelty and rarity are inexact at best. Moreover, it’s not always easy to assess the true value of rare, small-batch wines since taste is subjective and production costs are proprietary. What is fairly clear is the relatively high lower price limit (say, $12) on even the most affordable of “quality” subscription services. Compare that to pricing at supermarkets, warehouses, and volume-focused clubs like Martha Stewart’s, all of which sell decent bottles for well under $10 apiece.
2. You’re Not Guaranteed Quality Wine
Not all wine subscription services are created equal, at least not when it comes to quality. Some seem to exist primarily to pass off overstock on unsuspecting novices. Ninety Plus Cellars, one of the original online wine subscription clubs and still a top player in the industry, pioneered this model and remains proud of its innovation.
That’s all well and good if your primary motivation is to avoid a trip to the wine aisle or shop and you’re not concerned about finding life-changing labels and vintages. But be prepared to get what you pay for more often than not.
3. They Can’t Deliver Everywhere
Fortunately for most actual and would-be in-home wine connoisseurs, most states don’t restrict the direct shipment of wine to residential addresses. But some states do compel residents to purchase wine from licensed retailers or producers. The National Council of State Legislatures maintains an up-to-date list of state regulations on this matter; check the rules in your area before expending too much effort on wine subscription service research.
4. Subscriptions Usually Recur & Cancellation Policies Vary
As is usually the case in the wide world of digital subscription services, wine subscriptions recur. They renew indefinitely on a monthly or quarterly basis until the customer cancels. That’s excellent news for revenue-hungry, often venture capital-backed wine subscription outfits. But it’s certainly a less welcome state for inattentive subscribers without the will to pause or cancel their subscriptions
While services geared toward a la carte purchases definitely suit occasional drinkers and those not willing or able to commit to spending $50 or more per month for a curated selection of fermented grape beverages, free shipping minimums and volume discounts subtly encourage patrons to buy more than they can afford (or drink).
5. Volume Can Be a Problem
Yes, it’s fun to savor a glass of red wine over dinner or kick back on a warm summer’s day with a half-carafe of rose wine. But like all alcoholic beverages, wine is best consumed in moderation.
You wouldn’t know it from the volumes pushed by some wine subscription services. The Martha Stewart Wine Club offers two choices: six 750-milliliter bottles every six weeks or 12 bottles every eight weeks. If you imbibe only once in a while, and especially if you’re single or an infrequent host, that’s likely to be more than you can drink on your own. Some wine subscription clubs, such as Usual, explicitly cater to singles. But Usual’s per-glass pricing is on par with wine bars’, which isn’t ideal for budget-conscious folks tippling at home.
I’ve been a member of at least three wine subscription clubs since I attained legal drinking age. All in all, my experience has been pleasant. I can’t remember a single bottle I simply couldn’t abide, though I’m no one’s idea of a connoisseur. And as I live in one of the few states (and the coldest, save Alaska) where it’s not legal to buy wine in grocery stores, it was nice not to have to suit up against winter’s chill and make a separate trip to the wine shop or liquor store.
On the other hand, I’m sympathetic to those who prefer to buy wine in person or from websites run by independent producers or retailers. Doing so is a great way to support small businesses, which need help now more than ever amid an ongoing viral pandemic. Good thing no wine subscription services demand exclusivity — they’re OK with customers sourcing bottles elsewhere, even if they’d prefer undying loyalty.
Do you or have you used a wine subscription service? Is it a good value, or do you prefer another means of sourcing wine?