/ Food & Drink, Money

Are wine clubs to your taste or a load of plonk?

Wine being poured

With the help of thousands of Which? members we’ve glugged our way through gallons of plonk to compare wine clubs. They can be quite the investment, so if you’ve joined one, did you think it was worth it?

A selection of wines picked by experts delivered straight to your door, and if you don’t like them you can just send them back. What’s not to like?

Unfortunately, wine clubs are a bit outside my price range, given that the cheapest mixed cases cost around £60. But I do find the idea quite appealing.

Wine is now a key part of the UK consumer experience, and we each guzzle about 28 litres a year according to the Wine and Spirit Trade Association. But while many of us know a few wine connoisseurs and can tell a Merlot from a Malbec, few would claim to be able to pick the finest quality bottle from a taste test.

That’s where wine clubs can really shine. The convenience factor is great, but when wines are hand-picked by experts you can experience great wines without delving into books or trawling the French countryside yourself.

The best and the rest?

Ultimately, it’s the quality of the wines that separates the best from the rest, and in our customer satisfaction survey of 12,286 Which? members, one club stood out. The Wine Society was the only wine club to achieve 5 stars for quality, and also topped the bill for its range of wines, delivery and managing orders.

Not all the clubs were so good though. When we asked to hear about your experiences, some of you told us of wines being substituted for others of poorer quality, as well as confusion around membership and cancellations.

There’s only one problem with The Wine Society though – like a gym membership you need to pay a one-off £40 lifetime membership fee to join, so you can’t just try them out.

Most other clubs actively encourage you to give them a try, through introductory offers which often come in at half the full price, say £30 a case. However, be careful what you’re signing up for, as your next purchase could cost twice as much.

What’s your experience?

Besides problems of unwanted substitutions and people finding themselves in rolling contracts after signing up to introductory offers, some wine clubs have other surprises. Delivery costs often come to £6.99 per box, but only some clubs charge them.

There’s also the little matter of what’s in your case. A case of 12 wines doesn’t necessarily mean 12 different wines. We found six different wines (two of each) to be the most common combination, but some only give four.

Have you been a member of a wine club, and if so what did you think of it? Was it good value, or did you fall foul of rolling memberships, delivery costs, or poor quality wines?

j jones says:
29 September 2012

Clearly Naked Wines provokes a lot of emotional debate here! I’ve never bought from them because I don’t like the “lack of transparency” in their marketing. I find all these “wine clubs” want to sell you mediocre wines and tie you up to regular payments. So I simply buy my wines from an independent online wine merchant who imports quality wines direct from the wineries and retails them at affordable prices. I still get the saving as there’s no middlemen, and I only order when I want, and I don’t get bombarded with “too good to be true offers” all the time. You don’t need to go to these big companies to get a good deal, there are quite a few independent retailers importing and selling good wines, and they all have websites these days. Why do people get sucked in by these high profile discounts and membership clubs?

The Wine Society also offers some good wines and at decent prices although they have too much emphasis on France for me and not enough choice of new world wines. But at least they don’t bombard you with these phoney offers and make it difficult to cancel your membership – I cancelled mine and it was straight forward.

To explain my objection to Naked Wines, they really push their claim that they are different because they “invest in winemakers” who then make wines just for them (and they make a big point of claiming that their Angel’s money is safe “held in a separate company’s trust account”).

They tell their Angels’ that they use their money to finance winemakers…BUT they only hold a tiny fraction of this money in the separate company, the majority of it is used by these Angels to buy wine…from Naked Wines of course. So this money (or the vast majority at least) isn’t invested at all but generates £20 million of sales for NW! Classic marketing ploy!! And well done to NW for coming up with it! But it’s not really any different to any of the Laithwaites/Virgin/Direct Wines Ltd outfits – no surprise when you consider NW was created by 17 ex Virgin Wines employees!

But are these Angels investing their money aware that Naked Wines makes a massive loss? In fact they have never made a profit and since their inception have accumulated losses of about £5.5 million! It’s no wonder they bend over backwards to recruit “Angels” because if you took away the regular £20 a month income from their alleged 100,000 Angels their predicament would be potentially precarious! Even though they are basically owned by the wealthy Pieroth family from Germany.

The question is how long can this be sustained? This all looks like another Fare Pak to me!

Rowan Gormley says:
30 September 2012

John Jones is the false name of a troll, who spends a huge amount of time repeating this and other posts everywhere that Naked Wines is discussed.

I repeat my reply to his other posts…

Most of his assertions are wrong and completely unfounded.

– Naked Wines Customers money IS safe. It is kept separate from Naked Wines in a Naked Wines Prepayments Trustees Limited, so that whatever happens to Naked Wines doesn’t affect our customers. IN addition, customer’s money is guaranteed by a $600m family owned German wine company.
– We do get better quality wines for our customers money by investing in our winemakers, not by being cheaper than the supermarkets, but by getting better wine in the bottle

For example, the difference between top quality Marlborough Sauvignon and bog standard MS is $300 a ton – which sounds a lot until you realise that works out at 30p a bottle. If you were to buy that wine in a UK retailer, it would not cost 30p more – it would cost £3 more. And that is where we have an edge.

Any time you’d like to put us to the test, why don’t you nominate one of your independent wine merchants, and lets do a blind tasting together to see whose wines are better?

Speaking of you John, why do you hide behind a false name? You obviously have an axe to grind. Don’t you think you should tell us what it is that makes you so bitter?

Charles says:
30 September 2012

Rowan is, of course, correct.

Is there another company that lets the customers decide which wines to buy, as NW does?

j jones says:
1 October 2012

Hi Rowan
My apologies for focusing too much on this Angels money. I too, like your Angels, put too much belief in your high profile catchphrase “we invest in winemakers”. Hearing you now have 100,000 Angels investing £20 per month I naively thought that meant you had £24 million to look after.

Whereas the reality is the vast majority of this money isn’t held or invested in winemakers, it’s simply spent on Naked Wines products as your Angels use this money to buy their wine. Although you don’t seem to advertise that side of the business so much for some reason. You’d rather give the impression to NW’s customers that virtually all this money goes toward getting you wines at serious discounts from producers! Any thoughts on this? Why not have a dedicated page on your website explaining all the good work you’re doing with the exact amounts invested and where? And on what exactly – is it just spent on their stock, or is it actually buying shares in their businesses? If you’re investing anything like the image you’re portraying this would be great publicity wouldn’t it? It’d certainly silence the “trolls” for you.

So according to your company accounts you only hold about £1.5 million in this trust company with about half of this spent on NW’s products each month – is that about right? I also appreciate the funds are held in a separate company although with the same principle shareholders and director (yourself), there’s a strong chance HMRC would class the two as associated companies and come after those assets if necessary (NW has settled that big tax bill now I believe?). But that’s unlikely and only if NW runs into financial difficulty, so this Angel money is nowhere near the risk I thought it was (when I thought you were investing £24 million in wineries!).

On your personal blog where we first conversed I said that consumers weren’t stupid. However your clever marketing has achieved some remarkable results so maybe I’m wrong again, although stupid is far too harsh a word – susceptible to clever marketing would be a better description. NW has just sold 200+ plus cases of Taymente Malbec (a fairly standard malbec on sale in the USA for about $10) in 48 hours. You got £9.75 for it which isn’t unfair but certainly isn’t “cheap”, given that similar wines like Susana Balbo Crios Malbec sell on the same USA websites for more but retail in the UK for around £8.50 to £9. But the remarkable thing is you sold all this without even buying or shipping it, without the 200 customers even tasting it, and they have to wait 4 months for it to arrive! That is pure genius!

It’s presumably around US$40 a case ex cellars so you’ll make around 45%, paid upfront with no waste – with skills like this how can NW still not make any money?

I like the fact that you have a word (“troll”) for people who question NW’s methods, to try to find answers for the general public who are targeted by your marketing department. This implies that clearly there must be plenty of people asking questions then? Trying to project a negative image onto anybody who questions your methods! That could make some people think you had some methods you would rather keep out of the public eye.

I used to work in the wine trade, and I like to keep an eye on developments. Watching the rise of a brand new concept – Naked Wines – has been fascinating. You have captured a brand new market, the Twitter and Facebook generation of wine drinkers. Their wine knowledge is limited but they clearly want something different to the standard array of Direct Wines Ltd wine clubs. You’ve given them something which has a lot of similarities although has a very different but convincing appearance. You’re still selling the same level of wines, just marketing them with a different angle that this market sector are swallowing.

Shaking up the traditional set up is not necessarily a bad thing though, and I certainly think the market has room for an operation like NW. As a member of an older generation and as a genuine wine enthusiast, I prefer a straight talking, open approach to wine retailing, although I also realise that doesn’t always pay the bills!

Good luck and I look forward to watching developments with interest (I’m still not investing though!)
By the way, if “troll” is your name for people posting questions about NW what is your name for your army of employees who keep anonymously posting good reviews for you?

Charles says:
1 October 2012

Maybe that’s the problem, you used to work in the wine trade.

I was one of 40 or so Archangel customers who chose the Taymente Malbec from all the other Argentinian wines at the ‘Wines of Argentina’ event at Lords Cricket Ground. The next day it was on sale on the web site. To say that customers had not even tasted it is sheer nonsense.

For too long customers have had so called “wine experts” telling them what they should like and what they should buy. This is changing with NW. The world has changed and we now have innovative new companies who use a blend (sic) of traditional methods and modern technology in their marketing strategies.

The only clever part is getting the customers involved at every step and supplying them with what they want to buy. NW do this with visits from winemakers, and to winemakers in different parts of the world.

I don’t know why you quit the wine trade but the general rules of business are survival of the fittest.

David Derbyshire says:
1 October 2012

I think Rowan’s point about describing you as a ‘troll’ is based mainly upon the facts that you are not prepared to reveal your true identity, and that you seem to pop up everywhere that you can to sarcastically question the business ethics of Naked Wines and its parent company, when there is nothing to suggest that the company behaves any differently to any other commercial organisation – in fact I would say they are more open than most. Certainly they may be losing money at the present time, as the vast majority of start-ups do – that’s why they tend to need the financial backing of a larger company.

I’ve been a customer (yes that’s right, a customer, not an employee) of NW since they launched in the UK, and whilst I don’t profess to understand the inner machinations of the company, it’s a concept that works for me.

For what it’s worth, I have had the pleasure of meeting many of the people who have contributed in favour of NW in this forum thread – they have logged their posts here using their real names, which is why I know I have met them. I can testify (and it’s your choice whether you believe it or not) that they are all customers of NW, not employees.

The point here is that we are all loyal and committed customers, not anonymous posters who work for the company – if you believe that we are collectively naive or stupid that’s an opinion that you’re entirely entitled to, but most of us have tried other wine clubs and been less satisfied than we are with NW.

The impression that I’ve gained during my time as a NW customer is that they provide me with enough information to satisfy me that I’m getting value for money, the cash-back discount works for me, and most importantly of course….the wines….they are very good indeed.

After all, that’s what this thread is about – do wine clubs work, yes or no? The answer clearly is: all of them do, for a majority of their regular customers. Some people vote with their feet (yes, that’s the case with NW as well), and others stay where they are, presumably because they like what they’re getting. I think it’s the same with most industries selling direct to consumers.

You make some more constructive points in your latest post about NW disrupting the market, and I agree that it was a market that needed disrupting, with the majority of the significant players all being owned by one organisation. Hopefully there will be other companies that manage to break into the market successfully.

As for the supermarkets, they aren’t presenting any kind of level playing field for small winemakers – the deals that they make with the huge wine conglomerates to sell their wines at knock down rates make it hopeless for the small guys to succeed in a very competitive market – at least NW (and some of the other direct sellers) are able to offer them a place to get their products recognised for what they are – truly excellent wines, rather than mainstream plonk.

Whilst I value your input to this forum – it would be far easier to respect your opinions if you told us who you are and what your angle is? I’m a keen wine enthusiast too, and occasional wine blogger. I work in IT, and I don’t buy all my wine from one retailer, although I must admit I currently buy most of mine from Naked Wines, and in the past I’ve used Virgin and Laithwaites.

If you really are called John Jones, and you are simply an interested and concerned consumer, then I apologise for besmirching your views, but I suspect based on your past postings (here and elsewhere) that there’s something more sinister going on, either sour grapes (perhaps a disgruntled customer – they do exist) or underhand tactics from the competition (it has happened before to NW, on Twitter). I believe, perhaps wrongly, that most consumers aren’t terribly bothered by what goes on inside the companies that they buy from, so long as they like the product, believe they are getting value for money, and like the ‘vibe’ of the company.

I can see that while I’ve been writing this overly long response, Charles has already answered much more succinctly and with more relevance than I ever could, but I’m going to post this anyway!

Barry says:
1 October 2012

JJ you are still way off-beam with your comments, but if you don’t mind I’ll clarify just one point…

I attended the tasting as one of the favoured customers (repeat – customers) that had gathered in the Media Centre at Lords Cricket Ground to wade our way through 45 Argentinian wines on behalf of Naked Wines; with the aim of finding a winner to be given £50,000 worth of business in the Zero to Hero competition, which culminates in the winners of the various heats like this one going head to head for $1m of business. The customers (repeat – customers) voted for the wines they rated – then re-tasted the top three and again voted for the eventual winner the Taymente Malbec. And it beat wines nearly twice it’s price – according to the Wines of Argentina catalogue this has a retail price bracket of £10-£12.99. And what do other’s think?

The 2008 got 87 Parker Points, and Stephen Tanzer of International Wine Cellar fame (and “thoroughly reliable” per Jancis Robinson) gave the 2009 88 points giving it Recommended status, and in the Very Good to Excellent range.

I conclude that the customer’s palate have collectively chosen a very good wine for Naked Wines to sell at £9.75 delivered to your door.

And… I am off to London again tomorrow tasting on behalf of Naked Wines as a favoured customer (so I am not getting paid for this) at the Wines of Sicily. Staying over with my daughter which helps to cut some costs – but increases others! – to attend the final heat of their Zero to Hero competition tasting, this time Australian wines. Can’t wait! Will our collective customer’s (I hope by now that the penny has dropped!), palates choose an equally good wine – well, we will have to wait to find out.

A final thought though. If you happen to be free and I am assuming that you could get to London relatively easily, then the venue is Lords once more, but their main hall (as used by Wines of Argentina) then for £20 you could meet and discuss with some of the 87 winemaker’s on the Naked Wines portfolio for yourself… And please Which? I am not trying to advertise here, so much as win a doubting Thomas over, so cut me some slack if I provide a link for the worthy JJ to follow, which is:-


Who knows YOU could find out for yourself first-hand the who, what and why as to Naked Wines undoubted and – based on their Trophy cabinet – well deserved success.