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Pre-Arrival Wine Purchases Are Only for Patient People

Some wines are worth the wait, but if you can't live without the money or the wine, you're better off drinking something else

Eric Arnold
Posted: June 5, 2007

I'm lucky enough to have a job that now and then exposes me not just to good wines, but wines that are undeniably off-the-charts good. The kind of stuff I'd consider selling my only sibling into slavery for. That's how I've felt about many of the Châteauneuf-du-Papes I've tasted in recent months, particularly from the 2004 vintage.

Now, I'm not exactly rolling around naked in piles of money, so it's not as though I've built myself an underground cave to stockpile the stuff. But I have put about 500 bucks on the barrel for some of these wines. One of my orders was for two magnums of Clos des Papes 2004, and although the wine just arrived, I have to say, I'm not even remotely excited about it anymore.

Why? Because I ordered the wines months ago. As in early November--well after the wine was released, I should note--to bring the magnums as gifts for friends on a trip I took in February. They arrived in late April. Having the wines on my desk now, so long after the trip came and went, I'm just disappointed since I won't get to see the look of joy on my friends' faces as I give them these rare and exciting wines. It sort of feels like hiring Savanna Samson to dance and pour her wines at your best friend's bachelor party, and instead she shows up at his house after he's been married for two years, moved to the suburbs and gave up drinking.

The truth is, I should have known better when I placed the order, because the wines were pre-arrivals. When a wine is listed as "pre-arrival," it means the retailer ordered the wine, it's been promised to them and they'll gladly take your money for it while they wait for it to show up. But you may not see the wine before NASA makes a return trip to the moon. At least you'll get your money back if you ask for it (though there might be a small fee since they already charged your credit card).

So why go to the trouble? Well, pre-arrival orders are often the only way you'll ever have a chance of getting your hands on some of these wines. The retailers that deal in these collectibles know they can get a good price and make a good profit if they develop relationships with the kinds of customers who can afford to put a lot of money down for several bottles and just kick their feet up and wait for the wine.

Worth the wait? Yes … I think….
Sadly, I'm not one of those customers. The reason I ordered the pre-arrival Clos des Papes was that, although I saw the bottles at several New York-area retailers, one store's website had a price far better than everyone else's. A steal, actually. So I placed the order with them. Yes, it was a pre-arrival, but how far off could it be? After all, everyone else had it.

As my trip approached, I contacted the retailer. The first e-mail got a response along the lines of, "Take a number, dude." The second basically read, "Pack a lunch." The first phone call yielded, "Sorry, we have the wine here, but we're still really backed up from the holidays." On the next call I got, "We've got four more containers of wine to unload. It's here, I promise." On my last call, I heard, "Sorry, that wine won't be here until April. We haven't received our allocation from the château yet."

I stopped short of asking the guy if his previous work experience included Internet-based Nigerian investments.

I have no way of knowing for sure, but I think the retailer underpriced the wine so drastically that they just didn't want to give it to me. It now sells for about $45 per bottle more than I paid, so the store happily offered me my money back—because then they could sell the wine for what it's actually worth. I give myself a little credit for being resilient and not giving in, but that doesn't make up for my embarrassment when I arrived on my friends' doorstep without the wine.

My advice is don't play the pre-arrival game unless you're absolutely certain you can live without either the wines or the money for a while. And by "a while," I mean until the U.S. men's soccer team wins the World Cup.

The tough part is that these particular wines really are worth waiting for. I've tasted them. I know they're that good. I knew if I got my money back I'd feel like I missed out on something special. But I can tell you one thing for sure: I'm not buying pre-arrival wine again, even if the instant I taste the wine it makes me feel like I've discovered religion.

I've learned the hard way that while these wines suit my taste, they don't suit my personality. I'm the type of guy who wants to share great wines with friends in the here and now. I might have to pay more to get the wine right away, sure. But in return I'll get less frustration and a lot more enjoyment when I pull the cork an hour or two later—not six months later.

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