The Daily Drinker

The Daily Drinker is an online wine merchant with a difference. They specialise in unusual wines from anywhere in the world, and encourage you to become a member, which means you buy from them on a subscription basis. You do not have to subscribe, but if you do you can buy any other wine they offer at a lower price. Before I go any further, let me stress that apart from being a customer I have no relationship whatsoever with the company.  I just feel that they deserve to be more widely known.

I first heard about them at the end of 2011, in a tasting of Central and Eastern Europe, given by Angela Muir.  She presented some of their wines, and put in a good word for them.  I am normally the sort of person that likes to know what I am buying when it comes to wines, but if you want unusual wines any purchase is going to be a bit of a gamble anyway.  So evenually I bought a subscription, and I am pleased I did.  I signed up for a delivery of one red and one white bottle every month for one year, at the cost of £260.  In practical terms, the service has been impeccable.  I am alerted by email a few days before each delivery, and they have always arrived well-packed and on time.  One wine was a bit corky, and got replaced without quibble. 

My first few deliveries arrived with a sheet of A4 paper describing each wine, including a couple of quite detailed tasting notes.  But more recently I have to download the details as PDFs, and the last ones came with only one brief tasting note per wine.  I can understand the need to keep costs under control, but it was so much more fun to get the sheets in the box.  However, even now it feels like quite an event when I receive a couple of bottles.  It’s a bit like receiving a magazine through the post, but better.

You can see the range of wines for yourself on their website, including the detailed information as PDFs.  I presume they buy enough of each wine for their members subscriptions, plus a few extra cases which they put up for general sale, but when the extra cases are gone they do not reorder.  It might be just me, but I do not understand all the subscription deals currently on their website – I will have to email or phone them when I need to renew. One thing I do understand though, is that you can now save a bit of money by having wines delivered less frequently and in cases of six bottles. But that would be less fun.

How good are the wines?  On the whole I would say I like the whites.  They are generally from unusual places, made from unusual grapes, and offer unusual but good taste experiences.  Just what I would expect from a merchant with the strapline “wines for the inquisitive palate”.  But I am less impressed with the reds.  Personally I do not find anything particularly interesting about a  Barbera d’Alba or Montepulciano d’Abruzzo for example.  The reds also are not as good, and offer less value.  At this point, I hasten to remind you that I do not believe there is any objectivity in wine appreciation, so YMMV.  But the consequence of my opinion is that when I renew my subscription I shall be taking whites only, despite the fact that I drink more reds than whites on a day-to-day basis. 

You can see a couple of my tasting notes for The Daily Drinker wines in my previous blog post.  Here, exceptionally, I did like the red. And, although a Touriga Nacional from Portugal is hardly radical, it was a pleasant surprise in terms of taste.

The wrong pair of vintages

Well, my case of Nicosia Fondo Filara Etna Rosso arrived safe and sound, in two of the most courier-proof cardboard boxes I have ever seen.  No polystyrene, but the design insulated the bottles from the outside cardboard by air gaps on all sides.  Very clever.  And it was almost worth the €40 shipping for the pleasure of tracking the progress of the parcels up through Italy to Bologna, at which point they disappeared through a worm hole to pop up a few days later in Barking, and then sit in Manchester for 3 days over the Bank Holiday weekend.

But, like my repeat order for the Cos Pithos, the 2009 was delivered; not the 2008 that is still advertised on the website of  Fresco di Vigna.  At the risk of sounding like a letter to the editor… Is it just me, or is it a perfectly reasonable expectation that if a particular vintage is offered and bought, the same vintage should be delivered?  Or at the very least an email of explanation should be sent before shipping to see if I am interested in the vintage that is actually available.  Ideally of course, the website should be kept up-to-date in the first place.

Anyway, rant over.  I have just cracked open the first bottle of the Fondo Filara Etna Rosso 2009.  Like the Pithos, it is less alcoholic than the 2008 according to the label – 13% as opposed to 13.5%.  So 2009 must generally have produced less ripe grapes on Sicily.   I think it is pretty much as good as the 2008, though maybe a bit more acidic and tannic at this stage.  Oh, and there was a bit of rubber on the nose immediately after opening, but that blew off.  It looked a bit more evolved, which might just have been due to the light I happened to have at the time.  Otherwise, my tasting note was pretty similar to the one for 2008, with the same gamut of aromas and flavours coming and going throughout the evening.  On its performance tonight, the 2009 just squeezed *****.  Irrespective of the number of stars, it is certainly excellent value for money.

(Update 10/10/11: A few weeks, and a few more bottles of 2009 Pithos and Etna Rosso later, my opinion of the Cos remains unchanges.  I am very much enjoying it.  But I am not getting so much out of the Etna Rosso 2009.  The more recent bottles have been more of a good ***, and I think I shall try to put what remains aside for a year of two, to see if it improves and become more like the 2008, which I still think is great.  I am really not sure why my first bottle of 2009 seemed so much better, but I suspect if was hopeful expection.)

Naked Wines

I have seen varying opinions of Naked Wines, and have for some time wanted to find out more for myself.  What better opportunity than the Manchester stop-off of their Wine Tasting Tour?  I was considering coughing up the £10 for a ticket when I happened to notice that was offering free tickets to those willing to write impressions on the forum there. Well OK, I admit I found the offer when googling for a free ticket.

First of all, what about the company itself.  At one level it seems little different from many big online merchants.  They tempt in new customers with vouchers, and offer headline prices that must in practice be discounted on many of their sales.  And in my opinion, the way they operate the discounts is particularly misleading.  If you pay in £20 a month into your account with them, it looks like you get 33% cash back on purchases.  Ah, but if you look carefully it is not cash back at all, it is CashBack, where CashBack has nothing to do with cash.  It is credited to future purchases, and you do not get CashBack on any voucher or CashBack element of your purchases, so over time the 33% becomes approximately 25% on what you pay.  So CashBack is to cash back as tuna n sweetcorn is to tuna and sweetcorn – you cannot have your cash separately and have to take what you are given and deal with it.  Did I ever say I was a Dinner Ladies fan?

But on the positive side, the company claims (and I have no reason to doubt) that they use the £20 subs to help small producers get established by giving them money up front for wines.  And they are also keen to promote interaction amongst their customers, and between customers and producers, through tastings and social media. Similar interaction is one of the things I find most rewarding about wine, but I and my wine loving friends achieve it without the help of Naked Wines.  So I see the interactive aspect of Naked Wines as basically a good thing, but I hope that their customers manage to avoid getting totally sucked in, and see beyond the rather small circles created for them.

The tasting was a bit of a scrum – far too many people for comfort – and there were too few spittoons.  The combination of these factors made it difficult to me to try as many wines as I would like, as it was difficult to get round to all the tables and remain sober.  I can see how there might be economic restraints on the size of the venue, but surely spittoons must be relatively cheap to provide. Other aspects of the organisation were great.  We were allowed to pour our own wines, though it turned out the tables were well manned anyway and the samples poured were generous. There was plenty of water available, crackers and cheese, and it was good to have the chance to meet so many of the winemakers.

Which brings us to the important question of the wines themselves.  I managed to taste around 40 or so of the 100 and odd wines.  Generally speaking I tried to taste the wines I was most likely to enjoy, but I was constrained by time, space and my ability to stand after large quantities of alcohol. Below is my opinion of them in terms of my rating system.  I’d like to stress that I regard this as totally subjective, and that all opinions were derived from a tasting sample in a large and busy room.  Clearly this is not an ideal environment to appreciate wines, but that is the way it was and every one was there to show or judge the wines on that basis.

They are listed here pretty much as they were on the tasting sheet. The headers are the winemaker names, and I have added some geographical information in some less obvious cases. The official designations were often missing from the information we were given. If you want that sort of detail, I am afraid you will have to find it for yourself from the labels on the Naked Wines website. I refuse to have anything to do with silly price points, so I have added 1p to all of the actual prices.

Antoine Simoneau
Loire Sauvignon Blanc 2010 £9.50 ***

Benjamin Darnault
Picpoul de Pinet 2010 £10.00 **

Samuel Berger
Hegarty Chamans Rouge Minervois 2006 £12.00 ****
Hegarty Chamans Blanc Minervois 2006 £15.00 ***

Melanie Tarlant
Tradition Champagne NV ***

Alessandro Botter
Il Barone Pinot Grigio 2010 £7.00 ***
Picco del Sole Falanghina 2010 £9.00 ***
Lunate Fiano 2010 £10.00 ***
Rimabaldi Montepulciano 2009 £7.50 ***
Tor del Colle Riserva Montepulciano 2007 £9.00 ***
Conti di Lucca Chianti Riserva 2006 £10.00 ****
Borgo dei Sassi Pinot Rosato NV £9.50 *

Carlos Rodriguez
Damascena Rosé 2010 £7.50 (corked?) *
Altamisa Albarino 2010 £12.00 **
Rioja Joven 2010 £7.50 **
Rioja Crianza 2008 £10.00 ***
Rioja Reserva 2006 £12.00 ***

Antonio Ventura, Portugal
Montaria 2010 £8.00 **
Casas Brancas 2009 £11.00  (corked?) *
Casas Brancas Reserva 2008 (corked?) *

Mario Negreiros, Portugal
Douro 2007 £14.00 (corked?) *
Douro 2008 ***
Douro Reserva 2007 ***

Oscar Quevedo, Portugal
Douro 2008 £9.50 ***

Peter Klein, Pfalz
Riesling Trocken 2008 £10.00 ***
Grauburgunder Kabinett 2010 £11.00 ***
Moscateller 2010 £12.00 ****
Riesling S Trocken 2009 £13.00 ****

Matjaz Lemut, Slovenia
Tilia Estate Pinot Gris 2010 £13.00 ***
Tilia Estate Sauvignon Blanc 2010 £13.00 ***

Gerhard Lobner, Vienna
Rotes Haus Gemischter Satz 2010 £13.50 ***
Rotes Haus Gruner Veltliner 2010 £15.00 ***

Chris Anchorage, New Zealand
Pinot Noir 2009 £13.00 **

Heidi Seifried, New Zealand
Classic South Pinot Gris 2010 £10.50 **

Stefan Hartman, South Africa
Manley Estate Pinotage 2009 £12.50 ***

Carmen Stevens, South Africa
Amani Chardonnay 2008 *
Amani Pedana Shiraz 2007 *

You will see that I thought a few were very slightly corked.  If they weren’t,  they were in my opinion rather unpleasant.

If I were to single out a single producer for praise, it would be Peter Klein.  All his wines had good varietal fruit, and sharp acidity balanced by a touch of sweetness.  I am not sure how popular the style would be for most Naked Wines customers, but for me they are ideal wines for summer drinking.  The overall stand-out wine for me was Samuel Berger’s white Minervois, which was delicious in a style that was diametrically opposed to Peter Klein’s. The red Minervois was pretty good too. I was disappointed with the Portuguese wines –  I really want to find some good ones, but many of these were sweet tasting and port-like.

Most wines seemed to be reasonably priced – maybe sometimes a tad too expensive at full price but better when the CashBack is considered.  I was not, and still am not, a Naked Wines customer, but I could easily have put together an enjoyable and good value for money mixed case from what I tasted.  So why didn’t I?  Well, I am trying to avoid buying wine at the moment – nowhere to put it.  But when I have more room I might place an order with the next Naked Wines voucher that comes my way.

Update 25/12/11: I see that Naked Wines have recently announced that they will soon be replacing their CashBack scheme by a discounted price only available to Angels.

Is free wine delivery like a free lunch?

Customers never like paying delivery charges, and I believe that now big sellers like Amazon offer free delivery it is going to be more and more a customer expectation.  But delivery is never really free.  The costs are usually very real, in the sense that the merchant has to pay the carrier.  These costs have to be recovered somehow, and of course the price of the goods reflects that fact.

My general view is that if any cost can conveniently be passed onto the customer, it should be done so in a straightforward and transparent way.  When it comes to delivery from a merchant that only sells online, that clearly means charging delivery in full – what the carrier demands, and possibly a charge for packing and organising.  Then it is up to the customer to decide if he really wants that single bottle of Jacob’s Creek sent across the country, or whether it might make more sense to order a case at a time.

But when a merchant operates a bricks-and-mortar shop too, I think things are less clear.  OK, shipping is a real cost, but so is the cost of running a shop.  The online customer is not getting the benefits of the shop, and the merchant need not use the shop to service the online customer.  Perhaps the answer here is to offer an online discount on the wine, and add shipping.  But that starts to get a bit complicated to manage, and in a way it depends on what the merchant sees as his primary way of doing business.  For whatever reason, it is not a pricing model you see.

In practice many merchants charge only a small amount for delivery, and offer free delivery for wine over a certain volume, or based on the value of the order.  Another approach, which I have never really understood, is simply to refuse to ship smaller quantities, whatever the value of the order. Then there is at least one merchant, The Wine Society, that offers “free” delivery for larger orders, but cheekily gives a little-publicised discount if you collect.  But when all is said and done, it is really a question of finding a solution that is acceptable to most customers.

Sometimes however, you can get very close to a delivery service that is genuinely free.  I refer to the the free local delivery that many independent wine merchants offer.  They will often specify an area within which delivery is free, but I have recently been finding that if you are prepared to be flexible about delivery times they are prepared to be flexible about extending that area.  Basically, it seems that merchants out in the countryside regularly make van runs into their nearest big cities, and if you happen to live in the city or en route they are happy to drop of wines FOC when they do the run. They may well draw the line at the above-mentioned single bottle of Jacobs’s Creek, and do not advertise it, but Byrne’s of Clitheroe will deliver free to Manchester addresses, and Buon Vino in Settle will do the same.  I fear life might get more expensive now I know that!  Also you can see on their website that Fingal Rock in Monmouth includes London in their free delivery zone.  These are all excellent wine merchants that deserve more business, and I am sure there are many others that offer flexible local delivery if you seek them out.

The final example of excellent free local delivery I’d like to mention is a bottle of Champagne I once ordered from Portland Wine at around 10.30 one morning.  Now that is truly a local delivery, so nothing strange about that. The excellent thing is that it arrived before lunch the same day.  Unfortunately the lunch was still not free.