Let’s pretend that I once had a friend named George. George was a Silicon Valley type, who made a boatload of money at his code-writing job right out of grad school. Being the bachelor that he was, living with a former college roommate, and not giving much thought to trivial matters like personal appearance or fancy-pants vacations, George soon found himself with lots of disposable income and too few hobbies to spend it on. So he turned to wine.

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In addition to bi-monthly drives up to the Napa Valley, and excursions to LA and Phoenix for the occasional vertical tasting, George explored the wine world via another route – he joined a couple of wine clubs. His first sign-on was almost accidental – he encountered a particularly savvy sales guy at a winery during one of his Napa jaunts. The next thing he knew, he was receiving a package per month from the winery that included an interesting bottle or two, and then “some other stuff” that he either didn’t care about or couldn’t bring himself to drink. If the “other stuff” was white, it often ended up in the bowels of his Vinotheque, doomed to age and expire without a second thought. If it was red, it might be donated to a minor social occasion, or set aside on the “party rack” down in his cellar, destined to spare a Leonetti or Pride Reserve from end-of-the-evening, under-appreciated consumption.

Presumably, the point of joining a wine club, such as those proffered by many wineries, is to receive regular shipments of interesting (“hard to find” or “library”) wines that you wouldn’t think to, or couldn’t, buy. Or, for the unbelievably busy, perhaps it’s a nice way to stock up on bottles without having to put the time and effort into researching, locating, and purchasing a few truly desired selections. At least, that’s how they’re marketed. The tradeoff though, is that by joining a wine club, you’re relinquishing control, not just of what ends up in your cellar, but often, how much you pay for it. And you’re probably not getting a bargain.

Take for example, a typical arrangement offered by the highly regarded Joseph Phelps winery. According to their web site, their mid-level wine club offers members three shipments per year of six or twelve bottles each.  The first two shipments contain their regular Cab, Syrah, and some Le Mistral. Fine drinking, all, but probably not something most people would go out of their way to find if it wasn’t being shipped to them.

The fall shipment, however, includes 6 bottles of their much loved, drool-inspiring, Insignia. The winery’s release price for the 03 Insignia is $165. With the 20% member discount, wine clubbers are getting it for a handy $133. A quick search on wine-searcher.com yields a list of retailers offering the 03 Insignia, with a starting price of $108.99. Now granted, if you reside in a less-than-metropolitan area, you’ll also be ponying up for shipping. However, between the sales and case-discounts offered by many retail establishments, you’re fairly likely to find the same bottle for a better price at your local wine warehouse (like K&L Wine Merchants; $115), or through an online wine site (like the auction site, winecommune.com), than you are through a winery wine club. Add to this that part about potentially paying for bottles you may not even want, and the appeal of joining a wine club kind of evaporates.

The bottom line is this: half the fun of getting into wine is learning more about it (How is it made? What grapes are native to what regions? How does an American syrah compare to an Australian shiraz?  What do I like?). If you patronize your local mom and pop wine shop, you’re likely to strike up an interesting, informative conversation with a proprietor or salesperson that will increase your knowledge of your new favorite subject, and probably result in suggestions for more gems to try.

The other half of the fun is of course, drinking the stuff, and if your bottle is prized, pursued, or comes with the story of how Joe recommended it because you told him you’re a fan of black cherry and tobacco flavors, or Janey called you up specifically when it arrived, because she knows you love port, it will taste even better.

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