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Sunday, September 1, 2019

Are subscription wine clubs worth it?

Are subscription wine clubs worth it?— Our editors review and recommend products to help you buy the stuff you need. If you make a purchase by clicking one of our links, we may earn a small share of the revenue. However, our picks and opinions are independent from USA TODAY’s newsroom and any business incentives.

The convenience of ordering groceries direct to your doorstep, either from your local store or a meal kit delivery service, is one of the great pleasures of city living this decade. Goodbye, crowded parking lots and long lines. Hello, dinnertime.

If you want to surpass convenience for true indulgence, however, many companies now offer delivery of a curated wine box to help you pair bottles with your hand-picked groceries and customized meal kits. A crianza for your tapas, a riesling for your rice—customization in the name of total meal perfection. But are the services actually good enough to make them worthwhile?

Firstleaf Wine Box
Credit: Firstleaf

I tested Firstleaf wine club from January to June of 2019.

This spring, I wrote about my experience gifting and using Firstleaf, a custom wine club owned by our favorite meal kit company Home Chef. I was impressed by Firstleaf’s pricing and introductory quiz, and less impressed by their shipping procedures and educational materials. How would the club compare to those that are directly integrated into meal kit services?

To find out, I spent a month testing the delivery wine clubs from HelloFresh and Blue Apron, two of the most popular meal kit subscriptions. Here’s what I learned about how the services compare, and how to decide whether a subscription wine box is right for you.

How do subscription wine boxes work?

Firstleaf Wine Box
Credit: Firstleaf

Every wine club we tested shipped six bottles per month.

Like so many subscription boxes, wine clubs are largely about personalization and convenience. This is especially true of Firstleaf, where new users take a 12-question survey that evaluates their taste in food and wine, with questions like “How sweet do you like your wine?” and “Which of these foods and drinks do you enjoy?”

Once you’ve finished the quiz and entered your email address, Firstleaf provides a recommendation of six wines they think you’d enjoy, all from winemakers they’ve partnered with directly in the U.S., Spain, France, and more. You can swap in other wines you’d prefer, but it’s unclear how many other bottles you have to choose from per box—Firstleaf isn’t specific about their total inventory.

From there, you can place your order, schedule your first shipment, and enjoy your wines! Not in love with every bottle you recieve? Firstleaf allows you to vote yay or nay on each wine, which helps them tailor future shipments to your liking. You can also choose whether to receive red, white, or a mix of both, with the option for an occasional rosé or sparkling bottle.

Both HelloFresh and Blue Apron’s services operate in much the same way, but with less initial customization. Sign up for a monthly wine subscription through a new or existing meal kit account on either website, and you’re automatically directed to the contents of your first box of six bottles.

Firstleaf wine cards
Credit: Firstleaf

Each box comes with wine cards or pamphlets to explain varietals and keep notes.

Both services initially choose bottles for you without much input on your end, but you’re then able to mix and match bottles from their monthly menu. HelloFresh’s menu has 12 bottles, and Blue Apron’s has a whopping 23. The wines are directly integrated with meal kits via notes about suggested pairings. In the meal kit selection portal on HelloFresh, each meal comes with a symbol that indicates what kind of wine you should pair with it—rich, fruity, light, and so on.

Once chosen, each box of wine you receive will come with information cards and booklets that detail each wine’s flavor profile, origins, and ideal food pairings. We found that Blue Apron provides the most useful information each month, with a full booklet on that month’s wines, while HelloFresh provides the least.

Each box requires a signature from someone 21 or older upon delivery, and because of individual state regulations, these services do not ship to Kentucky, Rhode Island, Hawaii, Alaska, Mississippi, and Utah.

HelloFresh Wine Pairings
Credit: HelloFresh

While these services are tied to meal kits, you don't need to subscribe to both.

Because of the required signature, most services suggest shipping to a work address. After missing a few deliveries from Firstleaf at my home address and having to pick up the boxes from the nearby UPS Store, I learned my lesson and had my HelloFresh and Blue Apron boxes delivered to work, which was much more convenient.

It’s important to note that you don’t need to have an existing subscription to the meal kit services at Home Chef, HelloFresh, or Blue Apron to use any of their wine clubs. If you are a meal kit subscriber at HelloFresh or Blue Apron, the cross-service integration makes it easier to manage your orders, pair meals with wine, and receive coupons and discounts for future shipments, but people who are only interested in wine will still be able to create accounts. Firstleaf is entirely separate from Home Chef.

How much do these services cost?

HelloFresh Wine Bottle
Credit: HelloFresh

Every service will cost you $65 to $90 per month.

Because of their direct partnerships with wineries, most wine delivery services offer bottles for less than what you’d pay in the store—and they’re usually wines you wouldn’t find on most shelves. That being said, a monthly subscription of six standard-sized bottles will still cost you anywhere from $65 to $90 per shipment.

Firstleaf offers their introductory box for $39 with free shipping, which comes out to $6 per bottle. All subsequent orders are $79 with an additional $9.95 for shipping, which works out to about $15 per bottle. Without any promotional offers, HelloFresh’s pricing is almost identical—$89 per month, free shipping, $15 per bottle.

Blue Apron comes out ahead by offering their monthly box for just $65.99, or $11 per bottle—but there’s a catch. Rather than shipping standard-sized, 750 milliliter bottles like Firstleaf and HelloFresh, Blue Apron sends 500 milliliter bottles that are two-thirds the size of a standard. When you take the difference in volume into account, Blue Apron is very comparable in price to the other services, and might actually cost you a bit more per glass.

Blue Apron Wine Box
Credit: Reviewed / Cassidy Olsen

I was surprised to see smaller bottles in my first Blue Apron box.

While smaller bottles might seem cheap to some customers, I actually found that Blue Apron’s smaller bottles fit better into my lifestyle. I will rarely finish a standard bottle of wine at dinner when I’m eating with just one or two other people, and I really don’t drink enough wine per week to justify going through multiple standard bottles. Blue Apron’s plan meant I wasn’t wasting any wine per bottle—particularly if I opened one I didn’t love.

In the end, Blue Apron is the least expensive, but the value is comparable across all three services.

How good is the wine?

Women drinking wine
Credit: Getty / Eva-Katalin

These wines won't impress discerning tasters, but they were good enough for us.

While I’m no sommelier, I’m confident enough in my wine knowledge to report that most bottles I sampled from these kits were thoroughly average. I would estimate each is worth about $20, and then discounted through direct partnerships. Only one bottle throughout months of wine—a watery, bland Zibibbo from HelloFresh—was bad enough to pour out. Each service had reds, whites, rosés, and sparkling wines to offer, with the ability to choose between different varietals.

Surprisingly, I was most impressed by the variety in HelloFresh and Blue Apron boxes. I was introduced to wines I had never heard of before from a wide range of regions, and with interesting, precise pairing suggestions. My boxes from Firstleaf were more bland, heavy on cabernets and Riojas, and it was hard to distinguish between them enough to keep accurate notes and rank them on the company’s website.

Blue Apron Wine
Credit: Blue Apron

Blue Apron and HelloFresh seemed to provide more variety of wines.

Firstleaf attempts to distinguish itself from the competition by being “intuitive” and responding to customers preferences to tailor their boxes, but I found myself forgetting to vote on the wines after I drank them. Even then, the options were just a “yes” or “no.” I think my initial preferences for well-known reds shaped my boxes to be very similar and forgettable.

As someone who isn’t extremely knowledgeable about wine, I actually preferred the less tailored variety offered by HelloFresh and Blue Apron. These services exposed me to more wines, and Blue Apron in particular helped me understand what characteristics I liked about each. For the next month’s wine selection, I would be able to take what I learned and apply it, rather than letting the service choose six more bottles.

Ultimately, don’t expect to get the finest wines from these boxes. But if you’re a casual wine drinker who wants to explore new regions and hone their taste, they’re certainly worth their price.

Just want the facts? Here's how the services we tested compare.

Service Price/Box Bottle Size (ml) Frequency
Firstleaf $89 750 Flexible
Blue Apron $65.99 500 Monthly
HelloFresh $89 750 Monthly

Which service is the best?

Women drinking wine
Credit: Getty / kupicoo

Ultimately, we liked the Blue Apron service—but a wine subscription isn't right for everyone.

Despite smaller bottles and less initial customization, I found Blue Apron’s wine service to be the best overall. The large variety of bottles offered per month, combined with the helpful and interesting information provided with each box, makes Blue Apron’s service great for beginner wine drinkers like me who are trying to learn about wine without paying a fortune.

Although I would recommend other meal kit services over Blue Apron, you can subscribe to the wine plan independently of any meals, or combine the services for your convenience. The same goes for HelloFresh, although I was disappointed to find that my old meal kit subscription was automatically renewed when I went to sign up for the wine plan. While I still enjoyed my experience with Firstleaf, their “customization” approach to wine boxes didn’t impress me as much as I had initially hoped.

If you know wine well and just want to have bottles delivered to you, you'd be better off using a service like Drizzly that allows you to choose familiar brands on demand. But if you're looking to explore wine and pair bottles with your weekly groceries, a wine club can be a fun, useful investment.

Want to learn more about subscription boxes? Check out our roundup of the best meal kit subscription services.

Subscribe to Blue Apron’s Wine Club for $65.99

Related

Home Chef vs. Blue Apron—which meal kit is best?

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Prices are accurate at the time this article was published, but may change over time.



By: Reviewed

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