Advice to wine clubs

August 6th, 2009

Sulfite flaws. From:

Sulfide flaws.

Don’t you just hate it? You pop the cork on that bottle of wine you’ve been saving only to find that it’s corked or flawed in some other way.

That happened to me last night: I opened a 2005 single vineyard designated Chardonnay from Santa Maria Valley. Out of the glass came smells of onions, garlic and chives – the aromas of mercaptans. Like TCA taint, there is nothing I can do to make this $35 bottle of wine enjoyable.

This was a bottle I received as part of a wine club shipment. It’s also almost 4 years old. I’ve done tastings of aged Santa Maria Valley Chardonnay in the past so I know that this bottle is not oxidized or past its prime. It is also not lightstruck because it was stored in absolute darkness from the day I received it. This bottle of wine was clearly flawed.

If this had been a bottle of wine I purchased at a reputable retailer, I could go back to the store and get the bottle exchanged. Most wine specialty stores make it their open policy to replace flawed bottles.

But what recourse do I have as a wine club member?

What can a winery do to ensure I don’t drop out of the club?

Here are my recommendations to wine clubs:

  • Replace the bad bottle as soon as a member tells you about it. A quick response and replacement goes a long way in the customer satisfaction department.
  • Carry the cost of shipping of the replacement bottle(s). The customer already paid for your flawed product and its shipping. They should not pay for shipping on the replacement item.
  • If the wine the customer wants replaced is sold out, dig into your library, offer them the same wine from a more recent vintage or offer an “upgrade” to a higher priced wine.
  • Make your replacement policy public
    • put it on your web site
    • make it clear on your club sign up forms
    • make it a selling point of your wine club
  • Keep track of issues with wines – this is a vital part of quality control and maintaining customer satisfaction

Some of these recommendations may seem like jagged financial pills to swallow – particularly for the small, boutique or artisan producer. Ultimately, though, you have to do right by the customer and honor the money they spent on your product. The point of this is to keep club members from dropping out. This is a Burger King economy where consumers want it their way and retention is the name of the game.


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15 Responses to “Advice to wine clubs”

  1. Dylan Says:

    That’s too bad about the corked bottle. Especially after you had been aging it for as long as you had. I think your suggestions make sense and I’m surprised the winery of your bottle isn’t interested in taking your advice. Perhaps they will after this post? Of course, it’s important to include in the winery’s policy that the bad bottle is returned to them–otherwise, it’s too easy for someone to call fowl every so often (when, in fact, there was nothing wrong) and receive a second bottle for free.

  2. Arthur Says:

    Hi Dylan

    Actually, the bottle was not corked. It had reductive flaws – just as “unfixable”.

    The producer in question is a rather large one, but this was a limited production bottling and is not likely to be available anywhere.

    You are absolutely right – there have been cases of individuals running such a scam to obtain free bottles of wine.

  3. John Kelly Says:

    Actually Arthur that is our policy for every bottle we sell, not just for our Wine Club. It works for us at this time because our club is small and because our wines are not on the radar of cult collectors. If (or when) this happens, our policy will change to “we will replace any bottle after you send us back the nearly-full faulty bottle; we pay for shipping.” Back in the day I worked at a place that produced a very desirable collectible, and you would not believe the fraudulent lengths a small subset of consumers would go to in order to get free “replacements” – nor the threats of litigation when these fraudulent requests weren’t immediatly honored.

  4. Arthur Says:

    Hi John,

    Good to hear from you. You make very good and valid points.
    I think it makes sense to ask the customer to turn in the flawed bottle.

  5. El Jefe Says:

    We also follow this policy and will replace any defective bottle. We don’t require the customer to go through the trouble of shipping it back. It just doesn’t happen very often and the positive customer experience created is worth many times the incremental wine cost. Same policy goes for shipments that are damaged, we just send a new one. One thing we don’t do, however, is post this on the club sign up form; it’s already too busy as it is!

  6. Randy Says:

    The best thing a winery can do is replace the bottle or someting similar as soon as possible and then monitor. If the same client does it a second time, question it from there, otherwise, we replace immediately including the shipping on us.

    You’ve then got yourself a dedicated member.

  7. Andre Says:

    This is absurd that we are still talking about wood cork. It’s like complaining about the smell from bota bag hides or some other prehistoric pacakging method fouling the wine.

    There are two well tested solutions: Screw-caps and plastic corks. If wineries used them, 95% of the problems would go away. Wineries are supposed to prevent problems, instead of creating them and trying to fix it post-mortem. Wine consumers would be happy. Anyone have a better idea?

  8. Morton Leslie Says:

    I had an individual get huffy when I refused to reimburse them for a wine that had been sold to them by a previous owner of the property 20 years earlier. I tried to explain that our winery had a different name and the vineyard was purchased out of foreclosure, but it was to no avail. They wanted their money back.

    Luckly I was born in a “vintage of the century” and over the last four decades I have enjoyed wines from that year. Interestingly, I have not yet had a bottle from my birth year “fouled” by a cork. To the bottle, they have been a delight. In fact, I notice that a bottle Mouton with a cork finish at auction from my vintage can run into five figures.

    I have no doubt that if those wines had been bottled with plastic corks they would be totally oxidized by now. (Andre, you need to do your homework on plastic corks.) Regarding screwcaps, I don’t think anyone would really expect the tiny plastic seal to remain resilient for decades. Thank god for corks and great wine.

  9. Michael Says:

    I’ll vouch for El Jefe. Although I’ve never had a bad bottle from his winery (Twisted Oak in Murphys, CA) and I’ve had more than a few… His customer service is wonderful. They treat customers like customers. That brings me back again and again. And that’s why I have a couple of cases of his wine in my cellar.

    Thank you El Jefe!

  10. Andre Says:

    Morton, you are talking about the other 5% that isn’t consumed withing 2 years of the bottling date. I agree. So, for 95% of wines that are consumed within 2 years (and 90% is consumed within a year) use plastic corks or screwcaps. For the 5% that might get aged longer, use corks.

    To use a Monty Pythonism, “Let’s call it a draw.”

  11. David V. Says:

    I am somewhat puzzled and slightly ticked about the first two posts (chalk the latter up to current circumstances, but that’s another story). At any rate, there appears to be an assumption that the winery in question has been contacted about the problem, but this does not seem to be the case based on the information provided. Are we getting ahead of ourselves? The first poster does not mention opening a bottle of this wine previously, so there’s no benchmark. However, flaws that obvious cannot be ignored. Here’s wishing you good luck with obtaining a replacement.

  12. Nick Says:

    Getting the flawed wine back is just a matter of how much inconvenience it is and how much cost is involved in the wine itself. Deter fraud AND take care of customers by tracking people who have habitual problems with the wine.

    I think the proposal is a great one to replace right away, with comp shipping on the replacement. Alternatively, replace with a bottle of a more recent vintage shipped in the next club shipment to save everyone on the s/h.

    Though, to be fair, I have little sympathy with a bad bottle experienced years after purchase. You’re asking the winery to insure your storage and trust you diagnosis. That goes way beyond responsible retailing. I’d think the argument is that the price is already discounted for an occasional bad or tainted bottle.

  13. Arthur Says:

    Thanks Nick

    With regard to your last comment: the flaws stemming from improper storage are fairly discernible from flaws originating from production (from fermentation to bottle closure).
    That is why I think asking for the original bottle back is a fair approach.

  14. Tamar Says:

    \…Out of the glass came smells of onions, garlic and chives…\ Did you use it for spaghetti sauce? ; )

  15. Arthur Says:


    No, I dumped it. You should never cook with faulty wine.