Finding your perfect match online
Assessing wine clubs, retailers and winery websites
© by Taylor Eason
We wouldn't have most of this new-found freedom without the historical Supreme Court ruling in 2005 which loosened wine wholesalers' grip on Internet alcohol purchases (read Going Postal: The Supreme Court Rules on Shipping Wine). Shortly thereafter, many states, like Georgia and Florida, passed new regulations which made it possible for a wine consumer to login, click, buy and receive alcohol on their doorstep a few days later. But it took a few more years for places like New Jersey and Pennsylvania to cave under voter pressure -- these states are currently in the process of changing their direct to consumer wine laws. (For more info on your state's regulations, check out www.freethegrapes.org.)
So now that most of us are eligible to fill our online shopping carts with wine, there are umpteen websites that promote decadent access to often obscure and coveted labels as well as serious discounts. But be careful. This can be nearly as dangerous as looking for hookups on spring break. Two caveats exist: 1. Trust. You have to rely on your own tasting memory, wine scores, awards and reputation (often found in the website's propaganda section); 2. Shipping costs. Keep in mind that shipping costs are based in weight, delivery time and size of the package. If you're cool with these challenges, then you're in for some tasty experiences.
California Wine Club, one of the most ubiquitous in the industry, ships everywhere except Utah where having three wives is not a problem but apparently shipping wine is. While roughly 30 percent of the "Premier Club" selections are likely available at a store near you, the "Signature Series" does feature the hard-to-get, small-production wines that can be worth bragging about. Wine.com has monthly clubs as well. I wasn't impressed with the examples they touted in the "Discovery Club" but the "Wines of the World" selections had some appeal if you want to explore Europe, Australia and South America. There are many, many other Clubs you can find simply by Googling "monthly wine club", including one by the Wall Street Journal, which, although the wine selections look pretty solid, makes this ethical wine writer raise an eyebrow.
When you think you've found the wine club you want to see on your doorstep or in your kitchen the next morning, do yourself one more favor and check out the history. See what past selections the wine club has made before you showed up. If you're not into Cabernet, make sure it's not a Cab-centric club, lest you end up in a wine club relationship that doesn't meet your needs.
Practically every winery in California has a "wine club" that sends out yearly, quarterly or monthly shipments of its wines. If you or the wine-geek you love admires and trusts a particular winemaker's style, then this option can be appealing. But watch the shipping costs, delivery areas (not all wineries are licensed to ship to all 38 states which currently allow direct shipping) and be judicious in knowing if the winery switches up winemakers. Without tasting the wines, you might be disappointed but then again, you could fall in love with the new person's style and find yourself wanting more (reorders can lead to discounts).
Another way to find deals direct from wineries is to follow their Twitter feed or Facebook posts -- many run sales strictly for their social media followers. In general, wineries now are savvy enough to have their own e-commerce sites to sell their wine. The advantages are many -- the profit margin is higher for them since they don't have to pay the wholesaler who supplies to the retailer in your neighborhood. And if you're jonesin' for something special, wineries online can offer the super small production gems that you'd never be able to find in your neighborhood market.
Now we come to the "flash deal" wine websites that feature one wine for sale each day at blow out prices. Much like Groupon, Wine Spies, Wine Woot and the newcomer Winestyr.com feature wines vetted by professionals and sold to a subscriber list. Generally, they offer a 30-35 percent discount. This business model relies on trusting the vetter, so these concepts carry much of the same risk as wine of the month clubs. However, they're cheaper and not looking for a commitment so if you're feeling adventurous you might consider lowering the trust barrier a little. And if it rocks your world, think how jealous your friends will be for missing the great deal.
When it comes to internet retailers, they have only one advantage over local wine retailers: tons of choice. They may or may not have access to that 100-case production of a sweetheart late harvest Zinfandel from Dry Creek Valley you discovered on vacation (you should buy that directly from the winery) but an internet wine retailer will likely be able to offer you a substitute if your favorite is sold out. If you know your wine, this option might be great. However, if you need a wingman to help you weed through the overwhelming options then either buying direct from a trusted winery or the helpful guy down the street might be a better option for a few dollars more. (For more on this, read my post, Consumer courtesy: shops are taking the mystery out of buying wine).
I can't write an article about wine shipping without mentioning the dreaded "adult signature" requirement. Receiving shipped wine requires an adult to sign for it when it arrives. Even Brown can't waive this federal law. You see, when mixing alcohol with the internet, crooked legislators and their greedy wholesaler buddies "worry" that 18-year-olds with a credit card will illegally order $50 cabernet. I don't know about you, but I had to scrape together $4 in change for a six-pack of Old Milwaukee when I was 18 (OK ... 16). Yes, the adult signature requirement is incredibly annoying but you can circumvent it by shipping to a business (if you have a nice boss) or setting up a delivery box at you favorite UPS Store. And don't worry, they'll still respect you the next day.
March 6, 2012