Online: Cyber Cellar

The Internet is your oyster for midpriced wines, hard-to-find vintages and just plain convenience

Online: Cyber Cellar
(Nathan Hackett)
From the Feb 29, 2020, issue

The rapid expansion of the Internet has dramatically changed the landscape of commerce, including that of wine. Nowadays, you can easily find, order and get wine shipped to your door from the comfort of your own home. However, there are certain ways to go about it, and obstacles you will face, notably due to state shipping regulations. Here’s a guide to the web of online retailing.

When to Buy Online

Shopping for wine online is best suited to buying fine wine and bottles that are a little harder to find. “If you’re looking for $8, $9, $10 bottles of wine, it doesn’t make as much sense to buy online,” says Tom Wark, executive director of the National Association of Wine Retailers. “However, if you’re looking more along the lines of $30, $40, $50, $100 a bottle, then the price of shipping becomes a smaller percentage of your overall purchase.” Wark adds that shipping wine is expensive, because it’s heavy, so it’s rare to find free or discounted shipping deals the way you might with other commerce transactions.

Another reason to buy online is if you’re looking for a specific wine—say, one from your spouse’s birth year to give as a gift. Odds are, you won’t be able to find that locally. The Internet is your oyster for this scenario. For example, Vinfolio.com, which specializes in fine wines sourced directly from producers, offers 6,000 to 9,000 selections spanning blue-chips from Bordeaux, Burgundy, Italy, Champagne and California.

Tips for Searching Online

Start with outlining your goals. Are you looking for something specific or are you just browsing? If the former, the first thing to do is a simple Google search for the wine you want. This will bring up results from retailers that carry the product. WineSearcher.com is also handy as an aggregator, as you can search for wines that are available at retailers in your state or area. To make sure the retailers you’re finding through these searches are reliable, Wark suggests looking up how long they’ve been around, and if there are mentions of them on other sites. If you have your heart set on a particular wine but can’t find it immediately, you can create a Google alert for it; you will receive an email if it becomes available somewhere.

This will also allow you to shop around for the best price on that special wine. “I think wine lovers have a great advantage now that there’s real price transparency. You can easily comparison shop,” says Jamie Wolff, owner of Chambers Street Wines in New York.

If you’re browsing more generally, start with a specific retailer that has a selection that matches your taste. Perhaps you already have your favorites from previous shopping experiences, or recommendations from friends and family. The vast majority of online retailers actually have brick-and-mortar stores, and most keep their online inventory up to date in real time. Use the facets on the website to narrow down your search. Are you looking for wines from a certain country? Region? Grape variety? Vintage? Chances are, the retailer’s website allows you to search using those parameters.

Some online sellers also offer searches that are set up to emulate the experience that a customer might have with a live staffer or a special display in a wineshop aisle. At Wine.com, for example, “Our sort order of ‘most interesting’ is a way to try to get around the Internet’s bias toward popularity,” explains founder Michael Osborn. “We almost always sort everything by what wines, what product, is popular, but then what happens is a popular wine stays popular and a consumer doesn’t get a chance to see the bottle of Xinomavro.”

Build a Virtual Relationship

Shopping for wine online can’t be the same as having an interaction with a person in a retail shop and building a relationship with them. However, there are things you can do to get the most out of your online shopping experience. “We look at our online and digital programs as being extensions of our company and our brick-and-mortar operation, and we try to bring the personalities of our staff and bring that life online,” says Brian Zucker, vice president of K&L Wine Merchants, which has three locations in California.

Good retailers will provide a lot of information on their websites about wines you are considering buying. This can include technical sheets for a particular wine with information on the winemaking, region and producer; producer and region profiles; staff tasting notes as well as scores and reviews from reputable wine publications like Wine Spectator; and sometimes even broader educational content. “This category is so filled with information, it’s so much more than what a producer can put on their front label and the little bit on the back label,” says Osborn.

If you really like a retailer, subscribe to their marketing emails. They will inform you of special deals and new arrivals; retailers with more robust digital operations can tailor these emails to your preferences. Last but not least, don’t be afraid to pick up the phone. Retailers have customer-service lines, so if you really need to speak with someone, call them.

The Lowdown on Shipping Wine

Unfortunately, it’s not an equal playing field when it comes to getting wine delivered to your door, as each state has different regulations for what it allows to come in (see map below). If you live in one of the 12 states that allow out-of-state retailers to ship to its residents, or Washington, D.C., which allows the same, you’re in luck. Another three states allow reciprocal shipping, allowing only retailers from the aforementioned states to ship in.

If you live in one of the other 35 states, you are limited to the retailers in your own state only. It’s not so much of a problem in states like New York, where there are plenty of wine options, but other areas of the country are not so fortunate.

Most retailers will have a “where we ship” page on their website that you can check—do this before you even start searching, so you don’t waste your time finding that perfect bottle and getting excited about it only to find out they can’t ship to you. Retailers and common carriers take these laws seriously, and it’s ill-advised to try to circumvent them.

Michael Sands, president of retailer Calvert Woodley in Washington, D.C., says they are very careful about where they are and are not allowed to ship. His advice to wine buyers? “Write your local congressman. Consumers have more power than we do in terms of lobbying.”

Reader Poll - Buying Wine Online

State Wine Shipping Laws at a Glance

Laws governing direct-to-consumer wine shipping vary from state to state. Wine Spectator keeps readers abreast as legislation changes; the map at left represents the current state of the union. Presently, wineries can ship directly to consumers in most of the United States. And while 35 states allow only in-state retailers to ship, and three more allow shipping only from states that reciprocate that practice, many online wine retailers maintain warehouses in states where out-of-state shipping is prohibited, which allows them to legally sell wine to those states’ residents.

Retail Sipping Map

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