In 2023, do more of your wine shopping at local stores. – San Francisco Chronicle

January 5, 2023 by No Comments

Happy New Year, everyone. I hope you’re staying dry during this “bomb cyclone”!

Many of you may have made virtuous pledges as you embark on this year — to exercise more, to save more money, to be better about composting. No doubt, drinking less alcohol is a popular (and worthy!) resolution, especially this month. Estimates vary, but according to consumer-behavior analyst Veylinx, about 46% of Americans are attempting to reduce their alcohol consumption right now.

For those of you who plan to continue drinking wine, I propose a different New Year’s resolution for 2023: Spend more of your budget at small businesses, especially at independent wine shops, wineries and restaurants.

This isn’t simply an act of charity — though January and February are historically the slowest months for restaurants, so it’s a nice idea to go out to eat a little bit more during this time. Patronizing independent wine businesses is also prudent, because 2022 taught us all about the problems of larger-scale, personalized online wine businesses and subscription services.

Last year, Naked Wines, long considered a behemoth in the direct-to-consumer tech space, settled a lawsuit alleging that it had broken a law related to how it communicated its subscription policies. Essentially, the lawsuit alleged that Naked Wines made it excessively difficult for customers to cancel their memberships. That’s very bad business.

Another high-profile online wine club, SommSelect, filed for bankruptcy after a lengthy legal battle with one of its co-founders, as I reported in December. Both SommSelect and Naked Wines are still in business, selling wine, but to me, their recent troubles suggest that selling wine to large groups of people online may not be such an obviously successful model.

Pix, which had promised it would be a game changer for guiding people toward finding specific bottles of wine to purchase online, laid off almost its entire staff last summer. During the fallout, it surfaced that Pix’s search mechanism — its flagship product — had never worked very well. The startup’s future remains unclear.

Finally, there was the spectacular demise of Winc. Only a few years ago, Winc seemed poised to dominate the American wine-retail landscape — for better or, in my view, for worse — with its model of slapping cute packaging on private-label bottlings, and marketing them to customers who had filled out Cosmo-style quizzes to assess their wine palates. (How do you take your coffee? Do you prefer milk chocolate or dark chocolate?)

From the outside, it looked to be going well, until Winc filed for bankruptcy at the end of November, reporting over $36 million in debt. The proceedings are still dragging on; anyone who wants to follow them in detail should check out Wine Industry Insight’s reporting.

All four of these companies primarily wanted, or still want, to sell wine to lots of people through the internet. (In the case of Pix, it hoped to be a middleman for those sales.) But I suspect there was also a secondary business goal for most of them: to build up their customer bases in such high volumes that they could collect data about consumer wine habits, then either sell that or use it to inform their own products.

That approach now appears more flawed than ever, given the businesses’ dismal trajectories. To me, it shows that we still haven’t seen a proven model for selling wine on the internet directly to the masses. Maybe we’ll see one someday that offers a genuinely great value to the consumer. It just doesn’t exist right now.

But, until that digital wine-selling revolution arrives, there is a tried-and-true way to find amazing wines, chosen by trusted experts, selected for your individual palate. I’ve gotten on this soap box plenty of times before, and there’s never been a more apt time to return to it: Patronize your local wine shops.

If you’re interested in a wine subscription, like the ones that Winc offered, there are many excellent options if you live in the Bay Area. Shops and bars like Bay Grape, High Treason and Decant SF offer various wine club tiers, with different prices, themes and volumes (monthly or quarterly, typically). Especially since the pandemic began, many restaurants are doing wine clubs too, usually with access to bottles you might not see elsewhere; Heirloom Café and Kitchen Istanbul are two worth checking out. Ungrafted has a very flexible set of wine club options and frequently offers exciting, rare, collectible wines.

I’d trust any of the folks behind these clubs to recommend a great bottle to me so much more than I’d ever trust an algorithm. So do yourself a favor in 2023. Let the Bay Area’s excellent local pros choose some wines for you.


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