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Will Joining a Wine Club Make or Break Your Budget?

photo: Julie, Dave & Family

Hitting the wine trail by mail with a monthly club is one way to enjoy boutique wines for a fraction of the price of a trip to Napa. But if you’re not careful, the wine club experience is one that can leave you with a bad taste in your mouth and a hole in your budget.

Wine clubs tend to be a good option for two oenophile extremes: connoisseurs who want specialty wines not widely available at retail, and wine newbies who want selections that will help them explore and refine their tastes. Frugal Foodie, who falls solidly into the latter category, went the club route for a few years and found it initially satisfying. But once she learned which types of wine she liked, it seemed like more and more of a waste to pay for regular shipments that included plenty of ones she didn’t.

And that’s the big catch: the expense of exploration through a wine club, though cheaper than a weekend in wine country, is still pricier than heading to a well-stocked local wine shop. “You’re getting more personalized service there because you can tell them what you like,” says Joseph Roberts of 1WineDude.com. Even if you’re consistently receiving fantastic club wines, the cost to ship those heavy bottles adds substantially to the bill.

Not every state allows interstate wine shipments. If you live in one that does, there’s still plenty of room for bargain hunters to find club deals. “You’re in the driver’s seat,” says Jason Mancebo of $20 Wine Blog. ” The economy has really put pressure on wineries. There’s tons and tons and tons of great wine out there right now at great values.”

Here’s how to make sure you’re joining a club that’s finding them:

1. Check prices

Ask the club for a sample list of recent wines in its shipments (if it’s not on the club site, most will happily provide it.) Then use Snooth.com or Winesearcher.com to compare prices. “You’ll know pretty quickly doing a little bit of homework, whether the cost to get a bottle to you is worth it,” Roberts says. Shipping and tax are extra, so factor that into the total cost of membership.

2. Review tastes

There’s a wine club out there for just about every taste, Roberts says. Consider what types of wines you like and look for a club that matches. Some clubs, such as Bottlenotes.com, customize future shipments based on your reviews of past club selections.

If it’s a larger club unattached to a winery, ask who determines the picks, Mancebo says. If the selection is based on one or two critics’ reviews, that may give you an indication whether you’ll like the wines. The more people are involved, the more tastes are likely to vary widely from month to month, he says. The New York Times, for example, leaves selection to club operator Global Wine Company, not its critic Eric Asimov.

3. Find exclusives

Clubs that offer widely available wines can almost always be beaten on price. “Look for clubs that feature wines you can’t find just anywhere,” says Laura Mohseni, the general manager of the winery division at Riverbench Vineyard & Winery in Santa Maria, Calif., which offers its own club. “If I can get it at BevMo, then I don’t want to join a club and get it.”

4. Visit local wine shops

Some offer their own wine clubs, with selections you won’t regularly find on their shelves. Picking up the wines in person eliminates shipping costs, too. Carlsbad Wine Merchants in Carlsbad, Calif., hosts a two-day “pick-up party” each month for club members who want to try before they pick their selections. (Options start at two bargain bottles for $20, plus tax. Shipping to New York, for example, adds another $26 or more to the tab.)

5. Try a co-op

Like fruit or vegetable farm shares, a wine share lets you buy a stake in a winery’s harvest for a reduced fee. Winery-based clubs have the added advantage of being a safer bet taste-wise, Mancebo says. Members stay current with the latest offerings, and often get them before they’re available at retail. Canyon Winery in Lyle, Wash., charges $175 per year for four rounds of three bottles, each including two $15 bottles and one worth $30 or more. Total savings: $65.

6. Get fewer shipments

A monthly shipment of four bottles may not seem substantial, but that’s a lot of wine for less frequent drinkers. Frugal Foodie cut back her subscription to quarterly after she ran out of wine rack space: combined with gifts from friends, the fruits of winery trips and wine shop purchases, those monthly four-bottle shipments piled up faster than she and Mr. Foodie could drink them. Check the site’s policy on changing, postponing and canceling membership.

7. Scale back

Some clubs also offer a choice in bottles per shipment. Assess whether you want two, four, six or some other number when picking a club.

8. Use a coupon code

Before signing up, Google the name of the club and “code” to see if any discounts pop up. California Wine Club has one, “intowine,” that’s good for $35.95 off a new club membership (the equivalent of one month free of its two-bottle-per-month Premier Club.)

9. Switch it up

No matter how good a wine club is, try something different after a year, Mohseni says. Most clubs start to repeat selections at that point. “You can always order [directly] the ones you love already,” she says.

Frugal Foodie is a journalist based in New York City who spends her days writing about personal finance and obsessing about what she’ll have for dinner. Chat with her on Twitter through @MintFoodie.