Over the past few years, the once stuffy and pretentious American wine industry has flipped, welcoming in a new and younger generation of relaxed wine professionals who aren’t afraid to sip juice the color of oranges. The shift in wine culture toward a more casual, consumer-friendly approach has materialized in myraid of styles, from hip new wine bars, to retailers focused on esotoeric, small production wines, to restaurants pushing unorthodox varietals from up and coming regions.
Value, novelty, and approachability are the industry's new watchwords. Where once there was Robert Parker, there is now a proliferation of bloggers. Sites dedicated to "demystifying" wine have sprung up across the internet, and yet, when it comes to buying wine online, we’re still very much in the dark ages.
Value, novelty, and approachability are the industry's new watchwords.
But a generation of new online wine club startups targeting millennials is out to change that. Armed with piles of data, nifty algorithms, and slick branding, these companies have emerged intent on disrupting the wine industry and changing the way we drink. These businesses have each taken a page from the books of successful companies like Amazon, Birchbox, Warby Parker, Uber, Netflix, and Pandora, and developed some version of a formula that combines the principles of convenience, personalized recommendations, and instant online gratification to win over consumers. And yet, while all of the companies can point to significant rates of growth since inception, none are a household name—yet.
All of these wine startups are also relatively young. Club W, which launched in 2011, is the oldest of the bunch. The operation started as an online wine club that sourced and selected bottles based on members’ tastes from a variety of sources, and eventually Club W acquired a significant enough following and backing to open its own winery in 2014.
Wine Awesomeness, which also operates like an online wine club that sends its users the same monthly picks organized around a theme, launched in 2012. Bright Cellars operates similar to Club W’s original model—sourcing bottles from third-parties since 2014. Pour This, a curated monthly wine club from Los Angeles sommelier Ashley Ragovin, just debuted this past October.
Other notable internet-based wine companies include Lot 18’s Tasting Room (born in 2013) and Naked Wines—a UK import that debuted across the pond way back in 2008. With so many options popping up these days, for the purpose of this piece, I chose to focus on what I felt were the best of the bunch that shared a similar model.
For example, Club W and Bright Cellars both employ a consumer quiz that is designed to help select wines that match one’s personal preferences and generate individualized bottle selections. Each of the companies also encourages customer feedback and claim to reward customer ratings with better and more refined recommendations like Pandora.
The legal intricacies and expenses involved with acquiring the proper licenses required to ship and sell wine can be complicated and exorbitant and may help to explain why wine-focused startups have been slower to proliferate and thrive.
Essentially, wine is sold and distributed through a three-tier system built of producers, importers/distributors, and retailers. This structure makes it far more costly and complicated to ship a bottle of wine than, say, lipstick or socks. It’s also worth noting that wine has little in common with lipstick and socks. There’s a sentiment, most prevalent among wine geeks and professionals, that reducing the nuance of wine to an algorithmic equation sucks out some of the romance that makes it appealing in the first place. Bright Cellars don’t have a full-time sommelier or wine industry professional on staff and instead relies on selections-by-committee among a group of people who often have more entrepreneurial than oenological experience.
... all of these companies share the goal of connecting consumers directly to better wines and put an emphasis on quality and value.
Meanwhile, Wine Awesomeness works with Peter Eastlake, a Food + Wine "Sommelier of the Year," who selects six monthly wines. Club W touts a network of influential wine industry "tastemakers" on its blog, The Juice, and winemaker/sommelier Brian Smith adds some bonafides to the company with his position as "Chief Wine Officer." As a West Coast sommelier with a passion for small production and boutique wines, Ragovin personally selects Pour This wines—even if all customers receive the same monthly bottles.
Regardless of how they go about it, all of these companies share the goal of connecting consumers directly to better wines and put an emphasis on quality and value. To get a sense of how they differ from one another, see below for the skinny on each of these newfangled wine clubs.
The Disrupter: WINE AWESOMENESS
Wine Awesomeness describes itself as a "modern, souped-up version of a wine club." CEO Logan Lee says he has "no huge legacy wine background" and, artfully dodging the question of compliance, refers to his company as a "merchandiser" of a monthly six-pack of wine that is organized around a monthly theme.
"I think it’s very much how you define a winery," says Lee. "There are different definitions in different states. There is no black and white rule yet." Lee compares the wine industry’s inevitable disruption to what Uber did for public transportation and Airbnb did for the hotel industry. Lee staunchly believes that technology and the free market will win the day, and higher consumer standards will eventually force the industry’s hand.
"A lot of entrepreneurs who have been enticed by the wine industry have been drawn to the romance of it," said Lee. "We're interested in the rebellion ... We genuinely care about finding the coolest stuff and going out of our way to tell our members why it’s so interesting but at the same time we don’t have to take ourselves so seriously."
Price: Three bottles of all red, all white, or a variety for $45 a month. A six-pack for $75.
Packaging: The wines arrive in a custom Wine Awesomeness branded box with a handle that makes it easy to lug around. Each shipment comes with a WA-branded mini glossy magazine that takes members through the monthly theme with breezy tongue-in-cheek features and recipes that pair with the wines.
Wine Quality: The three wines that I received as samples were all part of their July "Born in the USA" theme and none of them were especially exciting. All three of the wines were pleasant and drinkable yawns: a semi-sweet Chenin Blanc from Washington’s Columbia Valley, a Zinfandel from Contra Costa County in California, and a Sauvignon Blanc from Napa. With all the exciting developing domestic wine regions, I would have been more impressed by bottles from Arizona, New Mexico, New York, or even less obvious regions of California. I’d stick around to see what a selection of imported wines might look like since, after some browsing, they seem to have included some obscure bottles in the past.
Overall: The editorial content was fun and high quality, but the tone, relentlessly and affectedly casual had a hint of "Hey Brah!"-ness to it that I didn’t love. The storytelling component is neat and the themes are clever, but the wines didn’t strike me as real finds or anything I couldn’t replace fairly easily or cheaply.
THE INNOVATOR: CLUB W
Xander Oxman founded Club W with two friends, Mark Lynn and Geoff McFalane, after Lynn received a wine club membership as a gift. Lynn found that the delivered bottles came in junky packaging and the wine club had no web presence. There was virtue to the decades-old model, they thought, but they wondered how they could refresh it for a generation of digital natives.
When it first launched, and for the first 18 months it existed, Club W sourced its bottles from third-party wineries and retailers. In April of 2014, Club W opened the doors of their Central Coast winery where they currently produce 200,000 cases of 100 to 150 different wines a year.
"The move to being a winery allowed us to deliver higher quality product and put the best wines in people's glasses," said Oxman. "It was also the easiest way to be clearly compliant with most U.S. states."
Club W produces dozens of wine in partnership with small producers and from tiny AVA’s and single vineyards across the U.S., but they also have a significant amount of imported wine in their portfolio. To help its customers, the company asks buyers to take a palate quiz developed in tandem with wine industry professionals.
"We spoke to a lot of sommeliers to understand how to speak to people who don't ‘speak wine’ and make inferences," said Oxman."Our predicted recommendations are better as we collect more data [and] consistent feedback tells us what's working and what's not." This model allows Club W to quickly adapt to trends and rapidly change the direction of their wine production based on customer feedback.
Price: At $13/bottle, Club W sends a monthly box of three wines for $39 + $6 shipping. Shipping fees are waived for those who order six or more bottles.
Packaging: Wines arrive in sleek branded boxes with a handle for easy toting. My box also included a cotton tote bag and a letter that explained what my palate profile results said about the wines I might like. Each wine also came with a food pairing and background information on the wine that was interesting and helpful, but not overly educational. High quality materials and cool label designs were a plus.
Wine Quality: I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the Club W wines. A rosé from the Côtes de Provence was an easy summer sipper that disappeared fast. A Graciano from Lodi, California was intriguingly weird and drank nicely. My second red wine, a Cabernet Sauvignon from California’s Lake County was a pretty textbook version of a steakhouse red that I would normally eschew for something more exciting, but was totally approachable.
Overall: For someone who already enjoys wine and is genuinely interested in exploring more of it, Club W is a solid choice at a pretty decent price. Eventually, I think a lot of members will outgrow the service—which is a good thing! Club W as a tool can give wine drinkers the confidence they need to find their own way in the weird world of wine. The company’s packaging and branding is also a nice bonus.
THE Newbie: Bright Cellars
Bright Cellars, from partners Richard Yau and Joseph Larendi, hit Boston in 2014. The company has since moved to Madison, Wisconsin to be part of a startup accelerator. Neither Yau nor Larendi had a wine background prior to launch, though Yau took a couple of classes at Boston University that flamed his wine interest.
Yau describes the typical Bright Cellars member as someone who drinks craft beer instead of Coors Light. "Many consumers are moving up from Barefoot and Yellow Tail and are already familiar with e-commerce sites like Birchbox," he said.
Bright Cellars doesn’t currently have a sommelier or wine industry professional on staff and instead relies on its team to taste through hundreds of wines every month. They also rely on their customers feedback and tastes to decide which wines to carry. Despite Bright Cellars reliance on its data, Yau was insistent that his company recognized that "Wine is not what you drink to get from A to B—there is a story and a romance to it."
According to Yau, in the company’s first year, Bright Cellars collected 10,000 wine reviews from users. They used that information to focus on smaller producers, less well-known regions, and value when selecting wines, and use a network of third-party wineries and retailers to fulfill orders.
Price: Four bottles for $60 + $8 shipping.
Packaging: Wines arrive in a plain brown box stamped with the Bright Cellars logo. The bottles are individually wrapped in tissue paper and a sticker with a clever wine quote.
Wine Quality: Through a quiz on its website, Bright Cellars reveals personal wine matches. They’ll hold your selection of four wines for 10 minutes and, for me, when I let the page expire and tried to refresh I had to take the entire quiz again to get my results which was a little annoying. I was matched with an interesting white blend from California, a Malbec and a Torrontés from Argentina and a Zinfandel from Lodi, California. Again, none of the regions were particularly exciting, although the algorithm did seem to nail my personal preference for aromatic white wines. The Malbec and the Zin aren’t wines I would usually buy for myself, but they are wines I’d bring as a gift for a wine newbie or pour for a crowd.
Overall: It’s hard to say. The wines that were selected for me didn’t make my pulse race, but for a novice drinker—the one who, in Yau’s words, are looking to take the next step up from mass produced wines—they seem like solid choices and I could definitely see myself recommending them to someone with an undeveloped palate. A good place to start if you literally have no idea what you like and want to figure it out.
The Inside Job: POUR THIS
Sommelier Ashley Ragovin made a name for herself during stints at some of Los Angeles' top restaurants, including Mozza, Trois Mec, and Animal. Her next project, Pour This, combines a flash sales model with a monthly subscription service that’s a little spendier than her competition, but includes some great bottles you won’t find just anywhere.
"As a somm I’ve followed these producers for years and for a lot of them, I’ve spent a lot of time seeing what their practices are about," said Ragovin. "Some of it is off the beaten path, but I’m not trying to push orange wine or crazy stuff. I want people to to know that you don’t have to be spending big trophy bottle money, but you also don’t have to buy subpar grocery wine."
Besides being the only venture on the list that is run by someone coming from the wine industry, Pour This is also the only entry on this list that offers a complementary flash sale service she’s calling the "Daily Pour" that features bottles in the $20 to $40 range that go online in the morning and disappear by the end of the day. Ragovin also hopes to bring the service and hospitality aspect of her background to the project, breaking barriers by introducing people to wines from producers she’s fallen in love with that are affordable, approachable, and unexpected.
"The biggest success for me," said Ragovin, "is getting people to try something they’ve never heard of and love it."
Price: Three bottles a month for $98; $140 for a "Custom Pour" that includes premium wines and a concierge service to customize bottles for occasion or taste preference.
Packaging: Wines arrive in three-wine box printed with Pour This branding that includes a handle to help you get your wine to where it needs to be. Each bottle is wrapped in tissue paper so unwrapping them is a fun surprise.
Wine Quality: The three wines I received were all from French producers with which I was unfamiliar. Ragovin gets brownie points for including a red wine from one of my favorite unsung regions of the Languedoc, Corbières, that was absolutely stunning. A white Burgundy from Domaine Cheveau was perfect with a roast chicken I made one night, and a fresh, lively Provençal rosé made for a delightful girls’ night. The wines all gracefully walked the line between interesting and approachable, with obscure producers and (mostly) familiar regions.
Overall: At more than double the price of other options (before shipping), Pour This is on the expensive side, even if the wines were the best of the bunch. For consumers who don’t have access to a great local wine shop or wine bar, Pour This is probably the best option out there for discovering hidden gems, up-and-comers, and wines they may never otherwise have the chance to experience. The site doesn’t have a customizable option at the entry level (everyone gets the same three wines Ragovin selects), so if you’re an "only white" or "only red" drinker, this may not be the most economical option. All in all, Ragovin brings a fresh perspective to the world of online wine and I’m excited to see what happens with Pour This.