In 2016, basically everyone I knew was checking out those dinner-in-a-box services, like Plated, Blue Apron and HelloFresh.
Even for someone who loves to cook, the appeal is pretty obvious. Not only do they come to the door, there’s also an element of curation.
We get some, but not all, the choices: seared salmon, lemon pasta or chicken khao soi? We’re encouraged to try something we haven’t cooked with before, like hop flowers or shichimi togarashi, a Japanese spice blend.
A few years ago, Bright Cellars figured that model could work for wine. Based in Milwaukee and a product of the business accelerator gener8or, Bright Cellars has received glowing media coverage for its wine algorithm, which uses a food quiz to find wine pairings and assign personalized “Bright Points” to each one.
According to a September story from a Fox affiliate in Milwaukee, Bright Cellars now has 17 employees and 7,000 subscribers. The business matches customers with wine and takes something off the top, but doesn’t permanently house any bottles in the Third Ward.
This fall, I gave Bright Cellars a try. I’ll drink most any kind of wine if it’s well-made, but I tend to like fresh fruit flavors, high acidity and good structure.
My answers to the quiz seemed to hit qualities of both reds and whites: I take my chocolate dark and my tea brewed strong, both possible indicators of whether I'd like wine with tannins. My juice choice would be barely sweetened cranberry, so maybe I'd get paired with a tart sauvignon blanc.
In response, Bright Cellars sent me two ample reds, an Italian sangiovese from Puglia and an Australian merlot, a lightly fruity Provencal rosé and a chenin blanc from California.
The cost of the box was $68 including shipping, putting these wines at $17 each, though a first-time half-off discount ($30) dropped them to $9.50.
That’s exactly what I’d say they’re worth, perhaps a little less. These were simple, not unpleasant wines, though the sangiovese was a bit harsh and overextracted on opening — food and time improved it.
I also noted a distinct lack of information about basic things. The French rosé, I was told, “pairs beautifully with ... watermelon, feta & mint salad,” but what grapes were in it?
I'll grant that it can be hard to find someone at Barriques who can explain details about the less-than-$10 bottles on the wall of 100. But if you’re paying full price for Bright Cellars’ wines, it seems like a particularly bad deal.
Bright Cellars isn’t the only one to get the hint that wine by mail could be tempting to young drinkers. On the website Eater in December 2015, Caroline Helper rated four wine delivery services including Bright Cellars.
“There’s a sentiment, most prevalent among wine geeks and professionals, that reducing the nuance of wine to an algorithmic equation sucks out some of the romance that makes it appealing in the first place,” Helper wrote.
She’d recommend Bright Cellars “if you literally have no idea what you like and want to figure it out.”
In November, I found a wine service that was much more my style. Started by Shannon Westfall, a 31-year-old wine lover who grew up outside of Chicago, Vinfluence specializes in wines from small domestic producers.
These are the wines I wish we could get more of in Madison, ones distributors can't or won't carry.
“You have to get it directly from the producer,” Westfall said of the wineries she works with, like California wineries Zinke Wine Co. in Los Olivos and Bucklin in Sonoma Valley.
“They’re too small for distributors to care about them,” she said. These wineries “can’t afford to give up that much of their margin anyway and still pay their mortgage.”
Westfall spent a decade in finance before deciding to turn her Sunday night “wine salons” with friends into a full-time job. It started when she and her husband left their first California wine trip with club subscriptions to seven boutique wineries.
“Our wine cellar is a lot of small producers that we personally visited and know the story and enjoy talking about,” Westfall said.
When friends asked where they could find the wines Westfall shared with them, she realized there was a need for a tool “to get access to small, hard-to-find wineries, and make it easy and automatic.”
“There’s this less commercial side of wine where you can talk to people who made it,” Westfall said. “There’s a story. It’s more than a beverage, it’s culture in a glass.”
Vinfluence made its first shipment in October 2016 and so far has focused on boutique wines from California, though Westfall plans to expand to Washington, upstate New York and elsewhere.
Vinfluence is much more expensive than Bright Cellars — even with $25 off the first shipment, I spent $90 on three wines from Deovlet (dee-oh-vlay) Wines in Paso Robles.
The quality difference, though, was significant. We put the chardonnay and pinot noir directly into our cellar, and popped the cork on a cab/merlot blend made from grapes in Happy Canyon, a tiny new appellation in Santa Barbara County (established in 2009). It was rich and layered, with dark fruit and baking spices.
Westfall’s goal is to make Vinfluence feel like being a club member at lots of small boutique wineries. Subscribers won’t get the same winery twice, and as membership grows, she’ll diversify what people receive.
Like Bright Cellars, Westfall hopes to expand young wine drinkers' palates. Shipments come with lots of details about how the grapes were grown and how the wines were made.
“When it comes to wine, the more you know about it, the more you can enjoy it,” Westfall said. “You learn what oak is like. You start to understand what structure means, what balance means.”
Westfall donates a dollar for each bottle sold to a few select charities that focus on things like fighting hunger and replanting forests.
Though she’s excited to grow Vinfluence in 2017, Westfall maintains a relationship with a good wine shop in New York, where she lives.
“I don’t think you can totally write off wine shops,” she said. "You need them in the U.S. to get access to good international wine. You can’t really go direct to those producers the way you can with American wines.
“There’s a lot to be said for that local store you can go to in a pinch.”