Wine - what’s not to love? But enter the niche art of wine tasting and we’re toeing touchy territory. The ritual of wine tasting calls to mind a sommelier pouring the liquid into a glass and then holding it up to the light. A gentle swirl and a delicate sip are swiftly followed by an announcement, perhaps of the rich aroma and exquisite taste of the wine.
Detractors think of these as pretentious highbrow hobbies and a little of a hoax. And frankly, for the uninitiated, intimidating.
But to enjoy wine tastings and wine, you don’t have to be a connoisseur, nor do you have to bust the bank. At least that’s what Andreas Birnik, co-founder of the Modern Wine Club, believes.
Andreas hails from Sweden, where he kicked off his career in technology and telecoms works for, in his words, “some pretty eccentric people” (including Swedish billionaire Jan Stenbeck). Now, he’s based in Singapore, where he has lived for nearly two decades.
“I’ve been into wine all my life,” he says, describing how he loves to visit wineries and vineyards when he’s holidaying. “But I never actually did anything in the wine space”.
He even studied for a certificate in winemaking at the University of California, Davis “just for the fun of it” because he wanted to learn about viticulture (the farming practices in the vineyard) and oenology, which he calls the “fancy term for winemaking”.
“So I did that not because I was planning to create a wine business but just because I wanted to understand, at a bit more technical level of craftsmanship, how you make wine.”
Spurred by his passion for wine, Andreas had been importing branded wine to Singapore at full prices from across the globe, from the United States to New Zealand. At dinners, friends who enjoyed the wines would ask him to add a few bottles for them.
Then, the COVID-19 pandemic hit and the high-end wine industry, closely tied to the suffering hospitality sector, took a dive. The collapse, as Andreas explains, was caused by a multitude of factors: Premium wines are largely sold when tourists visit wineries in different wine-producing regions in the world, or when customers order wines at restaurants.
With travel restrictions and lockdowns, tourist presence thinned out and restaurants closed down, with winery sales to restaurants dropping by staggering rates. And some of those that did stay open in some parts of the world, much like in the United States, only allowed outdoor seating.
“When you do outdoor seating, you may have a beer or a cocktail or a glass of rosé rather than big red wine,” says Andreas.
With this development, online sales began to take precedence and became an important channel for wineries.
“All of a sudden, a number of fabulous deals came online and I started picking these deals up for myself,” says Andreas, who talked to friends who wanted in on the deals.
You could say Modern Wine Club was born during the COVID crisis, access to lots of fabulous deals, and then it just snowballed with my friends telling their friends. And we grew to almost a thousand people, people hungry for access to these backdoor deals.
The deals that Andreas describes are secured via various sourcing models, with one being the club’s private label wine, Eta, modelled after the elegantly-curved letter in the Greek alphabet. It is embossed in silver against a pitch-black background and, as Andreas remarks wryly, hardly anyone knows how to pronounce it.
Another model: when a winery has surplus for a particular vintage that they are looking to quickly offload “out the back door”. The club also procures private label releases from premium wineries under non-disclosure agreements.
At the Modern Wine Club, Andreas advocates a different way of experiencing and trying wine – one through which people in Singapore can enjoy the premium drinking experience at everyday drinking prices, stripped of the status, prestige and signalling.
A Napa Valley Cabernet for half the price, delivered right to your doorstep: That’s just one of the many deals the Modern Wine Club offers - and they all sound too good to be true.
The secret? Shaving the high cost of convenience.
“You spend a big proportion of what a bottle of wine costs on all the different elements to bring you that convenience of walking into a shop, and just buying a bottle of wine,” Andreas says.
As to what these elements entail, consider import taxes and duty and logistics costs such as warehousing, transport and retail, all of which add up to the cost of convenience.
Here, the Modern Wine Club sets itself apart by fundamentally changing the model to a direct-to-consumer one.
“Our members come to our wine tasting events, they meet other people, and they get to try a lot of wine. So they de-risk their own wine buying. They try the wine and they place advanced orders for wine that we’re shipping.”
There’s the catch the cynic in you might have been waiting for. “You got to wait a little bit, have a little bit of patience,” says Andreas. While the club houses a small amount of wine in their local inventory, it often takes a while before customers receive their wine.
But consider this - the longer the wines stay in the bottles, the more they mature.
“We are all heroes in our own movie,” says Andreas. “It’s a super individual thing.”
Having subscribed to a great many wine critics and Masters of Wines over the years and studying how they rate and describe wines, Andreas believes that the poetic words they put on wines reflect their personal experience. And for him, those experiences do not resonate.
“For years and years, I was confused. I felt something was wrong with me. I couldn’t relate to what they were saying.”
Later, Andreas found his own “demi-god in wine”, American wine critic Jeb Dunnuck, whose service gives him value and makes him feel at home after years of feeling lost in elaborate descriptions of wines. Dunnuck is known for his candid opinions on wine for he cannot stand ‘flowery prose’.
“Someone says that this is like lemon curd and you say, ‘I can't feel lemon curd in it’. You begin to wonder if you don't really get it, you may not feel at home… So we try to get rid of all of this kind of pretension, the intimidating factor that is sometimes holding a lot of people back from going to wine tasting because they may be afraid they're going to be asked the question - ‘How do you describe the wine?’ - and they want to hide in the corner right?”
That’s why for those who join Modern Wine Club’s wine tasting sessions, rating is a simple thumbs-down to thumbs-up affair on a nine-point scale and you will probably never hear utterances about the “floral notes” of the wine, or its “crisp minerality”.
These ratings eventually feed into the technology that is interwoven in Modern Wine Club’s approach, with an AI system that recommends customers their next wine based on what members liked before.
Andreas: I think you should just try a lot of different things. The best way to figure out what you like in life is to try different things and not to listen too much to other people. Form your own opinion because the only thing that matters at the end of the day is whether you actually like the wine yourself. So that's the first thing I'd like to say. The second thing is that your taste preferences are likely to evolve. This is what's known as habituation.
So what we very often see with wine is that people who aren't used to drinking wine in the beginning, they often prefer white wine over red. And they also prefer a little bit sweeter wines over drier styles. So novice wine drinkers will often like light white wines with a little bit of a sweet note. They might like pink, rosé wine. And they might like bubbly champagne or Prosecco or Cava. Getting into the big, bold, tannic red wines often takes a little bit of time.
A lot of people will get there just like you will, over time, begin to appreciate spicy food, sour foods, different things. So it's about you trying things, figuring it out, whether you like it or not, and actually keeping trying it. Because the same as with the food, you're likely to begin to appreciate different things, this effect of habituation happening over time. So don't try it once and say 'This is a big, bold tannic red wine, I don't like it’.
Come back, try different things. And you're very likely to see your preferences evolve over time.
“That's a tricky question. That's like being asked which one of your children is your favourite child, right?”
Andreas picked the ‘elegant’ 2018 Radio Silence, a private label backdoor release. He gave it a firm thumbs-up: “Don’t trust my judgment for it. Don’t just trust the median score of the wine club. When you have 1500 bottles ordered, it means that a lot of people absolutely love this wine.”
Andreas is hosting Modern Wine Club’s wine tasting sessions at Crane. Get in on knockdown prices for premium wines in a relaxing space - no floral notes and lemon curd involved.
Eager to try? Register here.