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We Join the WSJ Wine Club
Maybe not such a good idea

The Wall Street Journal Wine Club sounded too good to be true... at only $69.99 plus freight for the first shipment, it sure looks like a bargain! Twelve bottles of red wine, tasting notes with with a nice binder, a brochure on wine basics and a free Rabbit-style wine opener. Gosh, even at the future shipment price of $139.99, it looked like a deal. Think again... there should have been a warning label. Here is what our research discovered.

Wall Street Journal has contracted with Direct Wines Ltd. who operate the club using the WSJ name. Direct Wines is a division of Laithwaite's, a wine club provider in the UK that runs the London Times wine club and the grocery giant Tesco's wine club. In the US, Direct also has the Zagat and 4 Seasons wine clubs. According to Hoovers Profiles (a division of D & B), they ship over 40 million bottles of wine a year. Can you sense an "economy of scale" forming? I thought it would be fun to see just what kind of wines the club delivers, so I joined. A week later the wines arrived along with, what I have to admit, was a pretty good corkscrew and wine tool set, along with some very slick tasting notes and brochures. Very impressive... until we began to open the bottles and research the wines.

Usually when you Google a specific wine you get hundreds of review sites and hundreds of places to buy it. Not here... of the eight wines included (they doubled up on four) only three yielded retail prices after an extensive search. Only three could be linked to an actual winery that had the same name as the wine, and only one had a bar code. Can you say "not intended for retail distribution!" And then our tasting panel of Mark Finch, Tom Landshof and yours truly tasted them... with frightening results!

The first wine was a Pinot Noir from France (no other location given), and the only availability listings we found were for the WSJ and 4 Seasons wine clubs, no US retailers came up. There is a winery in the Languedoc and they have a website, but do not offer wine for sale, so we were unable to determine a retail price.

Domaine Lalande Pinot Noir Vin De Pays 2008
The wine's color was extremely dark for a Pinot and the nose possessed light, black cherry notes, but the palate had no varietal character and we agreed that while drinkable, none of us would have been able to identity it as Pinot in a blind tasting.

The next wine was a Stonewall Pinot from New Zealand. There is a winery and we found New Zealand pricing at their website, but no other availability in the US except WSJ, Zagat and 4 Seasons clubs. At the website, the price was listed at $24 NZ dollars, about $16 US. Strangely enough, the 2007 vintage was listed at $30 NZ dollars, $6 more than the 2008 (there was a reason). Full cases could be ordered through the club for $239.99.

Forrest Estate Stonewall Pinot Noir 2008 Marlborough, New Zealand
The color was light enough to read the Wall Street Journal through, but the fatal flaw became apparent immediately with strong aromas of sulfur overpowering a delicate wine that at least had some black cherry Pinot varietal character.

Our third try was the J Opi Malbec and while there is no J Opi Winery, it is made by Penaflor, Argentina's largest wine producer. Again, I was unable to find pricing for it anywhere other than the wine club sites until I went to Decanter Magazine's UK website and found it listed for $7 US, which makes the WSJ case reorder price of $159.99 seem a little dear. I have always wondered how wine clubs like this make money... the picture was clearing.

J Opi Malbec 2008 Mendoza, Argentina
Hints of sulfur on the nose (and yes we had rinsed our glasses) led to a palate with a serious lack of fruit, and a tart, acidic finish.

Next was the El Bombero, 15% Especial, named for it's 15% alcohol level. Again, we were unable to locate a winery or any pricing except at WSJ, Zagat, 4 Seasons and British Airways wine clubs.

El Bombero 15% Especial 2008 Carinea, Spain
Touted to have "velvety richness, layers of rich cassis and sweet spice flavor," we found an earthy nose, marginal fruit, plenty of dusty tannin, acid and alcoholic heat.

The fifth wine was the Warburn Estate Shiraz. This is a real winery with a website where they do not list any pricing. I could not find any retail pricing in the US except for the wine clubs, but in Australia it sells for about $8 or $9 AU or $6.50 to $7.50 US. Cases can be ordered from the wine club for $159.99... ouch!

Warburn Estate Shiraz 2009 Barossa Valley, Australia
Very light weight for a Barossa Shiraz. It leads with its acids and displays some ripe black cherry fruit.

One of the better wines of the bunch was a Chianti from Collezione di Paolo. Translated, Paul's Collection, doesn't seem to have a winery or website and was bottled by a company called R.M. & C in Rufina, Italy. Again, no price listing available except from the WSJ, Zagat, 4 Seasons and British Airways wine clubs.

Collezione di Paolo Chianti 2008 Tuscany, Italy
Medium weight with some nice black cherry fruit, it initially led with a huge blast of acidity but softened up after a few hours. Another reasonably drinkable entry was a French blend called Grand Reserve de Gassac. Again, no winery and no pricing except for the usual wine clubs. Grande Reserve de Gassac 2008 Languedoc, France A blend of Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah, this wine has some character, solid blackberry fruit, a little more acid than I like and a short finish.

Finally a bottle of Bordeaux from Chateau Allegret, and again nothing on the web about the winery, if it exists. And, a record number of wine clubs... WSJ, Zagat, 4 Seasons, Napa Style, Nectar and British Airways wine clubs.

Chateau Allegret 2009 Bordeaux, France
A pretty average bottle of cheap Bordeaux with a little cedar on the nose, light to medium body and some very dusty blackberry fruit.

Our conclusion... you get what you pay for. Of the wines, there were perhaps two I would bother to drink (if stranded on a desert island). In fact, I left them on the work table for the staff to take including the 4 unopened wines and they were still there 2 days later. Mark Finch summed it up pretty well after the tasting when he said, "If that was all wine had to offer, I'd switch to beer."