Many times on this site I have extolled the virtues of the online wine flash site Wines ‘Til Sold Out (WTSO). I have purchased hundreds (yes hundreds) of bottles from the site and I have always been impressed with both the quality of the wines and the company’s customer service. On those occasions when I was not completely satisfied with a given purchase (e.g., a corked or otherwise inferior wine), the company was swift in offering a full refund for the bad wine and any remaining unopened bottles from the purchase (and not requesting those unopened bottles to be returned to WTSO).
I have to say that, along with Last Bottle, WTSO sets the standard for customer service in the online wine retailer business. I think so highly of the company that when I ranked the top online flash sites, they came out on top (an article that remains one of my most visited posts of all time).
Perhaps because of my affinity for the company, I have been reluctant to look into the relatively recent lawsuit that has been filed against them. When I first heard of the lawsuit, I really did not register any concern since there was that term “class action” attached to it. I once considered going to law school and still have an affinity for arcane arguments based on historical precedence, but many class-action suits these days seem to be money grabs by both plaintiffs and lawyers alike.
A recent comment on the aforementioned post on flash sites, however, caused me to delve a little more deeply into the case that has been brought against WTSO. Here is the synopsis of the case on the law firm’s (Giskan, Solotaroff, & Anderson) website (I hope I don’t get sued for cutting and pasting it here)
Investigation of Wine [sic] ‘Til Sold OutGiskan Solotaroff & Anderson LLP has filed a complaint against Wines ‘Til Sold Out (wtso.com) for deceptive pricing practices, most notablyan [sic] inaccurate or fabricated “original price” of the wine being offered for sale as compared to the so-called and supposedly discounted price at which the site is offering the wine for sale. Possible examples include wines named Iron Door, Pruet, Herringbone, Shadowood, Curlew, Mockingbird Hill, Canyon Creek Winery, Bell Canyon Cellars, Clifford Bay, Kingsford Manor, John William Vineyards, as well as many other wines that do not seem available except on the website. Most of these wines are reviewed by Jonathan Newman (and no one else).In a recent court filing, WTSO disclosed that many wines offered on the website are actually purchased directly from the same Jonathan Newman, a fact not disclosed in WTSO’s offers to its customers and never before disclosed until the lawsuit was filed. WTSO also asserts that the wineries on the labels of many of the wines it sells are simply made up brand names and not the actual wine vineyards where the grapes are grown.
There is also a link to the full complaint, which I took the time to read over the weekend. While I still remain a happy customer of WTSO, there were nonetheless some disturbing allegations:
- The primary allegation seems to be that WTSO sells a host of wines that are only available on its site, and the “original price” listed for those wines is a fabrication (since they never have been sold anywhere else). The plaintiffs allege that this price is stated as exceedingly high so as to make the wine appear as a much better bargain given its price as offered by WTSO.
- As quoted directly from the complaint: “On information and belief, many of these wines offered on WTSO.com, albeit with different names, are in fact exactly the same wines as others offered on WTSO.com, but simply labeled differently.”
- Again, from the complaint: “On information and belief, many of the wines are in fact produced specifically and only for Defendants for sale on the WTSO.com website…. For purposes of example only, Defendants procure wines from Vintage Wine Estates and Underground Wine Company, as well as other bulk producers of wine, all of which provide custom branded or private labeling for Defendants.”
- On other wines, WTSO is alleged to have listed elevated “original prices” to make it appear as though the wine for sale is more discounted than it actually is. (The complaint provides a couple of examples, one being a Mer Soleil Chardonnay that was sold by WTSO for $28. The website stated that the wine retails for $45, which would mean a 38% discount. The Plaintiffs argue that the actual retail price is $32 and thus only a 12% savings.)
Personally, none of these allegations really affect me all that much since frankly, I diligently research wines before purchasing them. I first check both the reviews and pricing information on Cellar Tracker. I will often visit the winery’s website and check out what the current vintage and price of the wine in question (WTSO often offers wines from past vintages–wines that wineries are very interested in moving quickly for whatever reason). Last, I will simply Google the wine and see if there is any additional information about the wine (and if there are any clear red flags).
I also tend to shy away from the wines that are only reviewed on the site by Jonathan Newman. Why? Well, for starters, Jonathan Newman used to be the Chairman of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (PLCB), an entity that I loathe and that should be abolished. I have also spoken to a few winemakers that have sold their wines to WTSO and they have made it clear that Mr. Newman is very much involved with the business dealings of WTSO and very well might have a financial stake in the company. Third, I have had a few personal interactions with Mr. Newman (and have heard many additional stories about him) that have caused me to be somewhat hesitant.
There are however, countless people, no doubt, that make their purchases based solely on the information provided on the WTSO website (including many of my neighbors and family members, all of whom I have directed to the site). While I advise them all to adopt the same level of due diligence that I attempt to demonstrate, I know for a fact that they usually do not.
Having said all that, I will reiterate the position I stated above: I am a fan of WTSO and will continue to purchase wine from them in the future, but this lawsuit, while perhaps not all that surprising, nonetheless causes me to pause.
I imagine many of you that read this blog buy wine from WTSO and other flash sites. I would love to hear your thoughts.
An update of this story, which outlines the settlement, can be found HERE.