Whether you're a weeknight quaffer or a seasoned collector, there's a lot to love about buying wine online: shopping in your pyjamas, having wine delivered to your door, and having an expert do all the hard work of narrowing down the selection for you.
Wine clubs and subscriptions can take this convenience to the next level. Set-and-forget models mean you don't even need to remember to order – the wine arrives on your doorstep on a regular basis. But how can you tell whether they're right for you?
Reasons to join a wine club
Are you often overwhelmed at the liquor store? Do you just want something delicious to drink and frankly don't have the time or patience to scour the wine shop for a tasty drop?
"It's incredibly confusing, the field of wine. There's so many brands out there," says wine writer Huon Hooke. "It's confusing enough for us professionals in the business; I can't imagine what it's like for the average punter."
Wine clubs take the guesswork out of buying wine – you're literally paying someone else to do the thinking for you. And when that someone is a wine expert, you can feel reasonably confident that they'll pick a winner.
Or perhaps you're wanting to branch out from your usual tipple but you don't know where to start – what to do? Joining a wine club or subscription is one way to challenge your palate and find new favourites.
Depending on the style of wine club or subscription you go for, they can give you a chance to try something completely new and different, but without the risk of picking up a $40 bottle of Nebbiolo only to find that it's really not your thing. In this instance, a wine club or subscription is like having a oenophile friend gently guide you through the complex world of wine.
Boutique producer or big supermarket brand?
Supermarkets are steadily buying up wine retailers, wine producers and vineyards, and using private labels to squeeze out smaller producers.
Labels such as Lovers Not Toreadors, Chook Shed and The Fabulist sound like limited-release drops handcrafted by quirky winemakers, but they're actually Coles and Woolworths brands.
Are independent online wine clubs a way out of this corporate quagmire, and will the quality and cost of the wine make it worth your while?
Do independent wine clubs save you money?
They can, but one of the downside of wine clubs that support smaller producers or only stock wines exclusive to them is that it can be tricky to calculate whether you're getting value for money.
"It can be hard to know what you're getting – unless you're sent a bottle to taste in advance, it can be a bit of a gamble," says Matt Dunne, group sommelier for hospitality group Solotel, which owns venues such as Aria Sydney.
Crafty pricing tactics can catch out even the most savvy consumer. Some retailers may inflate the recommended retail price of a wine to make it seem like you're getting a cracking deal at the price they're asking.
"The way a lot of these deals are promoted is actually a bit scandalous," Hooke says.
You know the type: "RRP $35; our price $25" on a bottle that's really only worth $15. And consumers can't check the accuracy of the pricing because (surprise, surprise) the wine is only available through that particular retailer. They could tell you it's worth anything and you'd have no way of checking.
Use wine apps to check if you're paying too much
There are apps that can help you find out more about the wine: Is it overpriced? What do the reviews say? Has it won any wine awards?
Dunne recommends the Delectable, Vivino and Wine Searcher apps as good options for checking whether you're paying too much for a particular wine. (Many of these apps are free, too.)
If in doubt, Dunne suggests sticking with classic styles – varietals that a region is known for, such as cabernet sauvignon from Margaret River, pinot noir from Yarra Valley or Tasmania, and riesling from Clare Valley.
Taste is largely subjective, and while recommendations from friends and palate questionnaires can help you find a wine you'll love, it can be hit and miss. "You can't guarantee that anybody will like anything – you really can't," says Hooke.
Independent wine clubs compared
We've looked at some of the better-known independent wine clubs in Australia to give you an idea of what's out there.
Naked wines subscription confusion
Naked Wines' unusual business model has caused some consumer confusion – some punters think they've made a one-off purchase, only to discover that Naked Wines is charging $40 a month from their credit cards.
We spoke to two people who were caught out by this. One had even been warned about the recurring payment, and was confident that he'd only made a one-off purchase – only to then discover he was being charged $40 a month. The other went to cancel her Angel membership but was won over by Naked Wines' persuasive customer service staff. "I remember admiring their hustle," she says.
In the end, both stuck with Naked Wines as they were happy with the quality, value and convenience.
Beware subscription traps
The ACCC has cracked down on so-called 'subscription traps' – where a retailer treats a consumer's decision to make a one-off purchase as consent to sign them up to a recurring payment. While it's hard to say whether Naked Wines' system contravenes the Australian Consumer Law, the ACCC tells us that "a business that fails to disclose key information in connection with an ongoing subscription may be engaging in misleading or deceptive conduct".
A business that fails to disclose key information in connection with an ongoing subscription may be engaging in misleading or deceptive conductACCC
We spoke to Naked Wines CEO Greg Banbury about this issue.
He says you'll only be signed up to the Angels waitlist (they've capped the number of Angels they can sign up) if you buy an 'Angel Favourites' case. However, we found that when you first visit Naked Wines' website and take a survey to score a $20 voucher, you're automatically directed to these 'Angel Favourites' cases. So new customers may be more likely to buy these and thus be added to the waitlist.
Throughout the checkout process, there's no mention that you'll be added to a waitlist, or that there's a recurring payment associated with this – it appears to be a one-off purchase.
'Less than transparent'
We asked Banbury why a company that's so committed to transparency would be less than transparent about the fact that they're signing people up to a waitlist (and associated recurring payment), and he defended the company's messaging.
"There's absolutely no benefit to us in signing someone up without them knowing," he says. "It literally costs us money to recruit a customer who cancels."
Banbury claims that Naked Wines' email communications make it "explicit" that you're being added to the Angels waitlist, but the automated emails we received made no mention of how to exit the waitlist, nor that becoming an Angel involves a $40/month recurring payment.
Banbury says he's taking our feedback on board, but Naked Wines has received this same feedback since at least 2014 and is still continuing this practice. That said, except for a few disgruntled ex-customers, online reviews of Naked Wines are overwhelmingly positive, with happy customers vigorously defending the model and the quality of the wine.
We're not saying don't shop with Naked Wines – just be aware of the $40 a month recurring payment before you buy.