Buy wine online? Yes, but stick with what you know

Wine — By KF Louis on February 1, 2010 at 12:49 pm

Online wine shopping is better than it’s ever been, but still has a lot of room to grow.  To echo previous posts, I believe your most important wine merchant is the shop your hometown — which is where you should do 80% of your buying.

But online buying should always be in your mix, even though it has three major drawbacks:  shipping fees, shipping damage, and the inability to taste the wine before you own it.  These hurdles aside, I still think it’s wise to make strategic wine purchases online, keeping in mind the following guidelines:

Shipping costs add $4-9 per bottle. If you’re not taking advantage of a rare free-shipping offer, realize it takes $6-9 to ship a single bottle of wine.  Discounts start making a difference at 6 bottles ($30 cross country).

Don’t speculate on new wine. If you are not familiar with the wine in consideration, or it doesn’t come highly recommended from someone you trust, don’t order it.  For speculative buys, go to your local wine retailer in town and purchase a single bottle.  Or better yet, attend a tasting or find a wine bar that serves it by the glass.

Wine shipping is seasonal…or at least it should be. The summer months are a bear on wine.  Everyone in the industry knows it, and would only do it for the colder 6 months of the year if they could get away with it.  Sparing you some complexity, just remember this:  forget placing an order anytime between mid May and mid October.  If you order in the warmer months, your wine is likely to sit for too long on a truck in 90 degree weather en route to your house.  Most wine retailers will not take responsibility for wine that gets ‘cooked’ during shipping.

Trusted online retailers ONLY. Just like you have to scrutinize lowest-price electronics dealers, so must you beware of small and unknown wine sellers.  For example, right now, there is a case of 2005 Crozes Hermitage offered by a small Colorado shop for $15 per bottle that should be $35…am I a buyer?  Not without careful qaulifcation.  That said, price and wine care (in the warehouse and during shipping) are only two parts of the  equation.  A critical third is the write-ups, which hopefully are managed by their staff and provide a deep understanding of the wine you’re browsing, not tasting.  When in doubt, pick up the phone and call.

First-tier online retailers — great content, great prices, trustworthy shipping

Geerlings & Wade—Because G&W deals directly with hundreds of wineries, its prices are below the average retailer. Meanwhile, it’s content is well organized and original.  This makes buying with a budget so easy—shop by varietal, region, food pairing or price point, there are thousands of great wines to choose from.

J.J. Buckley Fine Wines—Great write-ups, real-time inventory and ‘Top Wines Under $25′ help online shoppers find great deals that are actually in stock! The pre-arrival option allows shoppers to pre-order wines before they are ready to ship, which means less room you need to make in your wine cellar waiting for that 2008 Chateau d’Aiguilhe Bordeaux Blend to mature — it ships to your door in Spring of 2011.  Yes, the Spring.  When wine should be shipped!

K&L Wine Merchants—When in need of a great recommendation, K&L Wine Merchants is the place to go. This site offers lists of the Web Top 10 Picks, best sellers and a staff’s favorite list, complete with detailed descriptions from its knowledgeable staff. Although you can find $30+ bottles, this retailer has an abundance of $20-and-less wines appropriate for any occasion. If you are up for a brick and mortar experience, head into their SF or Redwood City stores, throw a dart and you’ll stick a great wine value.

Second tier — good prices, but lack the quality of content to earn the extra stars

Wine Library—Wine Library is definitely an outlet to purchase value wines.  It features wine products for any palate and is home to the Internet sensation Wine Library TV with Gary Vaynerchuk, an entertaining and educational online show highlighting different winemakers and wines. With a “Best Selling Under $20” list, this is an option for affordable wine, but lacks in-depth descriptions to help consumers determine what wine is right for them.— If wine ratings matter to you, this is the site to click. If not, don’t bother. Its list “90+ Rated Wines Under $20” list hundreds of affordable wines with ratings from respected publications such as Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast, and Robert Parker.  That said, is light on their own content — instead, they just cut and past winemaker notes for the most part.

WinesTilSoldOut— If you’ve got a particular wine in mind, this site isn’t for you.  But if spontaneity is more your style, could be right up your ally.  Basic concept–one wine, 30-70% off, available for only 24 hours (midnight-midnight EST) or until sold out!  If the wine of the day runs out, it gets replaced, but there is rarely more than 4 wines on a given day.  Shipping is advertised as free, but be aware, you have to buy the minimum number of bottles to qualify.  Got to give them props though–you have the option to hold shipping if it’s too hot or cold to ship.

Cinderella Wine—Same concept as, one wine, 24 hours or while supplies last.  It’s sister company, Wine Library, supplies the wine, which means usually means the wine is highly rated or well-known.  The “Best Price On the Web” price is a nice reference–to know how good of a deal you’re getting.  Readers have an option to leave comments about each wine, but personally I don’t find them very helpful.

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