Ian Cauble looks more like a surfer than a master sommelier, but his passion is definitely wine. He starred in the 2012 cult-hit film SOMM, which tracked the trials and tribulations of four sommeliers in their quest to pass the tough master sommelier exam. (Cauble was the blond one who stayed up all night studying his flashcards.)
A year and a half ago he co-founded wine club SommSelect, and when I reached him recently by phone, he was heading to Burgundy to pry older vintages out of top cellars for his members. His club, which has swollen to 2,000 regular buyers, offers monthly selections of exciting top-tier wines for $199—and is just one of the rapidly growing number of hip wine clubs “curated” by sommeliers.
To me, these subscription organizations are game-changers, the only wine clubs worth joining, whether you love discovering interesting wines but have little time to hunt them down or you just want to expand your palate beyond your current comfort zone. (See below for my picks of the best ones.)
Why? The cutting-edge, high-quality wines they offer are often hidden-gem labels that are hard to obtain without insider access.
Most wine clubs still offer plonk—bulk reds and whites jazzily repackaged with a catchy name for the club or blends created with particular flavor profiles and price points in mind. While these may appeal to novices, they’re not for serious drinkers.
(Winery wine clubs are something different. If you’re a fan of particular estates and want the chance to purchase their special cuvées and older vintages, it makes sense to join.)
Somm clubs are the adventurous alternative. Yes, they adhere to the basic club model, where you pay a set price for a certain number of wines delivered direct to your door each month or quarter.
But some also offer daily deals and bespoke options so you can get sets of bottles tailored to your taste preferences and entertaining needs. Plus, the wines come with tasting notes, food pairings, and stories, all of which reflect the personal taste and style of the somm doing the selecting.
Don’t, however, expect deep discounts. These clubs are not inexpensive, and you have to add in tax and shipping.
Here’s a selection of my favorites.
The Clubs to Choose
Cauble and his partner Brandon Carneiro started in 2014 with a daily e-mailed wine offer—such as the two-bottle pack of 1992 Olga Raffault Chinon at $100 that sold out in 22 minutes. Buyers kept asking the duo to send them a set of those picks every month, and the wine club was born. European wines account for 70 percent to 80 percent of their choices.
The two options of six wines, the Somm 6 and the Blind 6, cost $199 per month. If you decide you don’t want to continue, you can opt out at any time. I worked my way through the Blind 6, which come numbered and wrapped in black tissue paper, so you can taste blind and learn to train your palate the way a sommelier does. I was impressed with the choices, which included a bottle of 2010 Dame de Montrose ($60 at retail), the second label of Bordeaux second-growth Château Montrose.
Michelin-starred chef Michael Mina started this club two years ago, and wines are chosen by well-known sommelier Rajat Parr, the Mina restaurant group’s wine director.
There are two options of six bottles each, shipped quarterly: You can join either Hidden Gems ($120) or the snobbily named Wines of Consequence ($300), which has previously included bottles from such hot producers as Sonoma’s Scribe winery and Austria’s Moric. Many labels are on Michael Mina wine lists, and all shipments come with special food recipes created by the restaurant.
This club seems less personal and quirky than the others; it’s a partnership with Global Wine Co., which has its own club.
Brian McClintic (another star in the film SOMM), and Eric Railsback opened Les Marchands Wine Bar in Santa Barbara, Calif., in 2013. The origin of their wine club was the same story: Customers kept asking where they could get wines like those on the bar’s list.
One of the best of several subscription options is SBC, which will get you two wines a month from Santa Barbara County ($80). They’ll come from both up-and-coming and classic producers, and a recent inclusion was a brilliant 2005 Clendenen Nebbiolo Reserva Punta Exclamitiva. The other is the Grand Cru club, which includes two bottles of Burgundy each month for $249. Recently it featured the silky 2013 J.F. Mugnier Chambolle-Musigny ($125 at retail).
Railsback and McClintic have moved on, but other Les Marchands somms have taken over.
Based in San Diego, this club is run by sommelier Tina Morey, who calls it “a wine subscription service designed to get people excited about less familiar wines.”
Subscribers pay $175 per month or per quarter for a six-bottle collection imaginatively organized around a particular theme.
In March, it will be Après Ski, with wines like light, delicate 2014 Pierre Boniface Les Rocailles Apremont, a white from one of the best producers in Savoie, in the French alps, that’s made from the Jacquere grape. There are also an Italian Valtellina from a region near famous ski destinations and even a top New Hampshire sparkling cider.
After eight years as a sommelier in Los Angeles, Ashley Ragovin launched Pour This last October. The common thread, she says, is that “the wines taste like they’re worth double the price.” Based on the list of her recent offers, I’d say they do. There’s a definite girly sensibility to the website, but don’t let that put you off.
Her club has three “experiences.” The Daily Pour is a single bottle offer e-mailed every day, with varying price points, such as the deliciously savory 2011 Jean-Marc Pillot Chassagne-Montrachet Mes Vieilles Vignes ($42).
The Monthly Pour is $98 a month for three wines on a theme, a spotlighted region, or a producer. In December it was bubbles, with a stellar hard-to-find grower champagne from Pierre Gerbais, a Cava, and a Prosecco.
But I find the Custom Pour, at $140, in which you can shape the choices to your preferences, the most interesting club. Try the one-month option before committing.
A couple of times a week, former sommelier Levi Dalton hosts an hour-long, highly entertaining podcast called “I’ll Drink to That,” in which he interviews a wine world personality. (Full disclosure: I’ve been on the show.)
Last October, he added a wine club, featuring a wine from the winemaker or winery on Tuesday’s show at a 10 percent discount. In episode 337, for example, it was John Lockwood of Enfield Wine Co. in the Napa Valley and his 2013 Haynes Vineyard Syrah ($43.95). (This wine made it onto my list of 50 top wines under $50.)
When you join (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org), Dalton asks your price ceiling and how many bottles you want set aside each month. You can ask him to group bottles for shipping to save money.
The next hot club? Brian McClintic is launching his own club, Viticole, in September. It will start with daily offers, with each day of the week representing a different theme. Sunday will always be bubbles; Monday will be $20 and under. Keep an eye out by following @viticolewine on Twitter.