Adventure, alternatives, and the fallacy of online wine services

We've recently been asked quite a bit for our thoughts on the online wine services and clubs that seem to be springing up everywhere. For the uninitiated, we're talking about services such as Tasting Room, Winc (formerly "Club W", who you've most definitely heard of if you listen to the Ezra Klein Show), and Firstleaf, all of whose basic premise is that the customer offers some basic personal taste information either by online questions or by actually rating real wine from a sample box (in the case of Tasting Room), and the service begins sending you wine based on those preferences. You then rate the wine you receive in each shipment, which allows the service to further refine the individual preferences of each customer, and in turn provide each customer with wine that is increasingly better suited to personal tastes over time. The ultimate promise is easy wine without risk, always pleasing to its intended recipient, and (thanks to the the power of data) getting better all the time. Great, right?

Wine is so much more than data, though...

Wine can be complicated, and complication begets intimidation for the uninitiated. To the extent that these services help novice wine drinkers feel comfortable with foray into wine, great; to the extent these services help their customers actually learn about new wines from new places they haven't previously considered, we offer applause.

But the dark side of this phenomenon is much the same with similar manifestations in the cult of personalization that technology has made possible. Just as the cost barriers to entry have led to the proliferation in online news sources to fit every niche view and persuasion, just as social media has allowed us to surround ourselves with friends who think as we do and news that reinforce our own biases, and just as dating websites have allowed us to refine and locate the ideal romantic partner with an astounding degree of precision, so to do these online wine services allow us to target what we already know we like, and get more of it while conversely getting less of what we don't like (and, sadly, what we don't know).

So while I am supportive of anything that gets people into wine, I also think that these online wine services risk pacifying you with the good enough while denying you the opportunity to fully experience what really makes wine great. Wine is a pleasing beverage, but what makes it great is its ability to expose the curious drinker to different things that he or she didn't know existed, to take us to other lands and climates, to teach us history, and to enrich our knowledge of the world. In short, like so many other things in our modern technological society (news, entertainment, friends, partners), these wine clubs allow us to focus narrowly on what we already know we like, while simultaneously cutting us off from the outside world of the new and different.

Curiously, this trend stands in stark contrast to a countervailing trend in the habits and preferences of younger wine drinkers. I'm reminded of a late-2015 article in the Wall Street Journal, How Millennials Are Changing Wine, which essentially argued that many millennial wine drinkers are eschewing points and ratings-based wine recommendations in favor of seeking out wines that tell a story or otherwise carry some interesting cachet. The article cited a craze for Slovenian Chardonnay, suggesting that the wine tastes of the largest generation are driven at least in part by a search for something between the cool and the uniquely undiscovered. That instinct rings true -- I believe -- for wine drinkers of any generation who know that the best bottles are not necessarily the most popular, and it's certainly one that all of us Wine:Thirty Flighters ascribe to: from Massachusetts bubbles to Virginia reds, Tennessee vineyards, urban wineries, tiny wine regions, and mono-varietal Touriga Nacional still wine, finding great bottles in unexpected places really delights us.

The question here is which modern instinct wins in the end. Does the selection and consumption of wine relegate story and artistry to history, in favor of data-driven personalization that delivers us bottles ever more perfectly suited to our known tastes at the expense of ever fewer opportunities to learn something new? Or will we actively seek out the next adventure in wine, the next story, the next piece of masterful craftsmanship hewn from an unknown grape in a little known part of the wine making world? Wine:Thirty Flight is an unapologetic advocate for the adventure.