Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough,
A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse—and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness—
And Wilderness is Paradise enow.
—The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam
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About Buying Wine
Buying Wine Locally
Those fortunate enough to live in a place sufficiently urban to have a multiplicity of local wine shops are fortunate indeed. A good wine shop will have a wide and diverse assortment of wines available, and a staff that is knowledgeable on a broad spectrum of wines, as to both types and regions of origin. The wise buyer will experiment prudently with such advice from various shops till one or a few are identified as having such knowledge.
Having identified any such reliable shops, then, as Polonius put it, grapple them to unto thy soul with hoops of steel. Very possibly wines from such shops will cost a bit more than one might obtain them for elsewhere, especially from mega-retailers (sure to exist wherever there are already enough wine buyers to support local shops), but the wise buyer will regard the extra as a small tariff paid for the benefit of personalized (and utile) advice and assistance.
That is not to disdain mega-retailers. If you have built up on your own—that is, with little assistance from any local shops—a useful knowledge of what you want and need, places like Total Wine and Costco are hard to beat on price. The bottom line, ethically, is that one should never plunder a local shop's expertise and assistance only to use it to buy elsewhere a little cheaper (the same problem local booksellers have with Amazon.) When you encounter good will and useful help, the right thing to do is to reward it with some loyalty.
Buying Wine on the Internet
Meanwhile, though, there are many wine drinkers for whom a local shop with a wide stock and reliably knowledgeable assistance is only a wistful dream. For those, the internet provides a bountiful source of wine offerings. But some words of advice are appropriate before you plunge into internet buying.
The Forgotten Factor: Shipping
Obviously, price is an important factor when dealing with retailers. (Sales tax is usually not, and soon or late will not be at all, since it is clear that before too long Congress will oblige all retailers, regardless of location, to collect sales tax on retail online purchases.) But "price" can be a deceptive term when dealing with on-line retailers, because it has two distinct components: nominal sales price (what the retailer shows as "price"); and shipping costs. That second is all too easy to forget, and yet in many cases diferences between retailers in shipping charges can more than wipe out any apparent difference in "price" based only on nominal offering price (or, in other cases, it can exaggerate such differences even more).
A retailer's shipping charge is not always an easy thing to determine. Some retailers are relatively straightforward about their shipping charges, presenting clear tables in their "About Shipping" information pages; but many, probably most, do no such thing. With those retailers, the only way to find out shipping costs is to put a case's worth of wine in their Shopping Cart and enter your location, then see what the cost is (don't forget to then remove the case from the Cart). That is more trouble than many buyers think to go to. And all too many buyers don't really pay full attention at checkout time, having formed a mental impression of their expenditure from the listed bottle prices.
Shipping charges can range from literally zero up to almost ten dollars a bottle even on case orders. The cost may be, and usually is, determined in part by your distance from the retailer, though a few retailers offer "flat-rate" shipping (at least within the continental U.S.). Unless the retailer makes shipping a special deal (more on that in a moment), the lowest cost will probably be about $2 a bottle (again and always, for case-lot orders—on-line ordering by less than case lots is usually inordinately expensive per bottle) if the retailer is relatively nearby, and can range up to $6 or more per bottle if it's across the country (or, for a few predatory sellers, it can be up to $10 a bottle). Those rates, mind, are all for ground shipping; if you want some sort of express, such as 3-day, 2-day, or—when available—overnight, shipping costs skyrocket.
(It is highly inadvisable to order shipped wine during months of temperature extremes, most especially summer months, unless the retailer is pretty close by; that is because even if you request Monday shipping, which you should always do in any "Special Instructions", there is still a fair chance that your wine will spend a weekend in some shipper's non-air-conditioned warehouse, and in any event it will certainly spend some days in an extremely hot or cold truck. Buy in spring and fall, or winter if you must, but not in summer except locally.)
Above we referred to "special deals" on shipping. Many retailers offer some form of "deal", but some deals are much better than others. The best deal is zero—free—shipping. A few retailers offer it, invariably with conditions; usually the key condition is the purchase of some minimum amount, sometimes specified as a total price and sometimes as a bottle count, but some work it other ways. Or, on occasion, one's first order may ship free (or at some very low cost), the retailer obviously hoping to draw you into becoming a regular customer. The commonest form of "free shipping" offer, though, is free shipping on some certain select subset of the retailer's offerings, a set list, which can range from just a couple of bottlings to (in one case) between 1,300 and 1,400 wines. Some retailers offer shipping that is not free but is a flat-rate by-the-case charge, usually low; costs there can run from one to two dollars a bottle, which can be an excellent deal if you like the retailer but live a long way from them.
Let's go into some specifics here. To keep things simple, we will simply present our short list of internet wine retailers we think of special interest. That is not by any means meant to even implicitly disparage any not listed here—there are lots of other places that offer one or another sort of special service or price or unusual set of selections; but you will probably turn those up for yourself if you go looking for any bottle not so easy to find. The ones here each have some combination of elements making them always worth a look when shopping.
This brief list does not attempt to include any of the numerous shops that have a listed subset, usually small, of wines that ship free. The leader there, so far as we can see is the Woodland Hills Wine Company, which had a list of 1,348 when we checked; but overall we feel that trying to shop off a special list tends to push one into buying wines one otherwise wouldn't.
Though we haven't included any individual wineries' sites—many have shipping deals—one oddball of interest is the "négociant" label Cameron Hughes Wine, which will ship a case for a flat $10 (and an order of two cases ships free). If you're unfamiliar with them, you might want to check them out in the articles at Forbes or the Wall Street Journal.
(Another interesting little oddity is Cellar Angels, an outlet featuring limited-distribution wines from small Napa winemakers; the interest is that 10% of proceeds go to charity, and shipping is a flat $10 the case. Prices tend to be high, but the wines are rarities.)
The Economics of Selecting Retailers
The wines one orders typically can be assigned to one of two categories: unfamiliar wines that one wants to explore, or favorites that one wants to stock up on. Those present quite differing economics.
If we are dealing with one or more wines that we know we like, we will be wanting to stock up and will thus be willing to buy in some quantity. That gives us the advantage on both possible case discounts and shipping rates, because many retailers offer discounts on blocks of 12 bottles at a time (sometimes you need to be ordering a case of a particular wine to get a discount, but most retailers with a discount will also apply it to so-called "mixed cases", meaning a set of 12 bottles even if of diferent wines), and also many offer special shipping discounts to case-lot purchases (and even those that don't will still charge more per bottle as the number of bottles being ordered goes down). In these instances, one can use the wine-search engines to locate the least-expensive (including shipping costs) retailer offering Wine X, or possibly Wines X and Y.
When, however, we are ordering unfamiliar wines for experimentation, we are typically only interested in one or two bottles of a given wine. Here, then, the problem arises of trying to construct a case-size order from a given retailer. Even if you order two bottles of each new wine (recommended, because a single bottle can, for one or another reason, mis-represent the wine to you), you still need to find a minimum half-dozen wines you want to sample from that one retailer. But when you get down to it with pencil and paper, what you will often find is that Retailer #1 has Wines A and B but no others you want just then, while Retailer #2 has Wines A, C, and D, and Retailer #3 has Wines A and E, and so on. Finding one retailer with both low prices and reasonable shipping who carries half a dozen of your current targets can be a headache, to say the least.
But the headaches can be minimized if we let up a little on the need for very lowest price. When you are ordering a given familiar wine in quantity, the edge matters; when you are ordering experimental samples, it's not so critical to seek the lowest possible cost. OK, so these two bottles of Chateau de Chat Eau will cost you two or three bucks total more from Retailer X than Retailer Y; if X also carries quite a few other bottlings you are interested in, it makes sense to order the lot from X anyway, and take advantage of the case discount (if any) and shipping reduction.
(We should put in a word here about buying by the case: it pays. The cost of a case of wine may seem, depending on your personal circumstances, a daunting expenditure. But, in reality, you do not spend money when you order wine, you only really spend it when you drink wine; till you have drunk a bottle of wine that you own, it is conceptually the same as money you have stored in a bank. In fact, if it is a half-way decent wine, you probably could actually convert it back into cash. Further, like invested money, invested wine generally appreciates in value with time: the seven-year-old bottle you drink tonight that you bought three years ago would almost surely cost you more if bought today—even allowing for inflation—than it did when you actually purchased it, especially if we're speaking of the same vintage. If you are going to drink twelve bottles of wine in the next whatever period of time, it literally pays you to buy them all at one time, not serially.)
Locating Useful Online Retailers
If we first want to try to go by who has deals on shipping, the list we gave above shows most or all of the meaningful possibilities. Moreover, if we put aside the one-time and temporary offers, only four remain. While it is difficult to generalize about pricing, it looks to us as if they range from least-expensive to most-expensive like this: Lueken's, B-21, Saratoga, and Elephant. But that is, as we have noted, only part of the equation: the other part is availability. At least of the things we seem to find ourselves looking up, Saratoga appears to have by far the largest selection, with the other three hard to choose from.
Here's a pricing sample. It is one random wine, but it wasn't easy to find something that all four carry that is common and decent; it is for Liberty School Cabernet Sauvignon (and is, of course, just a snapshot taken on one particular day): Lueken's, $10.99; B-21, $11.99; Saratoga, $12.44; and Elephant, $16.49.
So, of the shipping-deals retailers, you pay a little more at Saratoga, but have access to a much wider selection, and at the others you will pay a little less but often have a hard time finding what you may want. Remember that for wines you know you like, and will buy in quantity, none of this matters: you can use wine-search engines to find the lowest posted prices, check shipping, and buy from whomever comes out lowest. The figurings we are doing are important when shopping for a variety of things to sample. There, it looks to us as if Saratoga is the best choice.
Because of that, for wines in our lists that Saratoga does carry, we provide a separate, labelled link to them. In the interest of full disclosure, note that we have become an "affiliate" of Saratoga, which means that if you follow one of our links to them and then buy something, we get a small commission. That does not affect your price, nor has it or will it affect our recommendations. Just so you know.
Another wine retailer that we find immensely useful is Total Wine, whose prices are usually at or close to the lowest anywhere, and who have an immense (but far from complete) selection; moreover, they have so many retail outlets that there is very likely going to be one close enough to you for the shipping rates to be low. The problem for us here on this site is that Total Wine is not one shop: no two Total Wine outlets have the exact same stock, nor prices. You need to go to their web site and locate their store nearest to you to check availabilities and prices.
And, of course, there is Costco, which collectively sells more wine than any other retailer in the nation. But they don't ship, or even list on line their stock (which, in any case, varies from store to store and day to day). If you occasionally shop at a Costco, do carefully check out their wine department. But there are some online sites that purport to alert visitors to Costco wine deals. They include:
Then there are online retailers that don't offer "special" shipping deals, but who may be close enough to you that their "standard" shipping is still in the roughly $2-a-bottle range (on cases, as always). Here, one gets away from a short, easily delineated list to subjective choice from a wide variety of candidates. If you are on or near the west coast, there is K&L, recommended by many sources. On the east coast, there are numerous candidates; rather than try to explore them all here, we point you to this Wine Berserkers Forum thread on retailers for ideas and recommendations from knowledgeable wine consumers. If you're not close to either coast, consider Brown Derby in Missouri.
There is one last category of retailer you should note: the specialist. Those are retailers who have a specialty of some sort, typically regional. They will carry vastly more wines in their special line than most of even the large shops will, sometimes including things no one else in the nation carries. Not surprisingly, you must expect to pay a premium for such wines, but if you want them, it is usually Hobson's Choice. A few examples include Blue Danube Wines, whose provenance is well expressed by its name; The Spanish Table, whose provenance is also obvious; Wine Monger, specializing in Austrian wines; Madison Wine Cellar, specializing in Croatian dnd Slovenian wines; Cape Ardor, handling wines of South Africa; and Avalon Wine, focussed on the wines of Washington & Oregon. (That is very far from an exhaustive list: Google is Your Friend.)
Note: some retailers offer case discounts. Pay close attention to the details: the offers are often seriously constrained. Sometimes they only apply to wines "not on sale" from retailers who claim almost every wine they sell as "on sale". Sometimes they only apply to a certain few items. Sometimes they apply only to full cases of some one wine, not mixed cases (or they may vary in percent depending on whether the case is mixed). In general, our take is that if you do make an order and a discount is involved, regard it as a pleasant surprise. It rarely if ever is a meaningful factor in selecting a retailer with whom to do business.
"Flash" Wine Sellers
A fairly recent development in on-line wine retailing is the "flash sale" sort of site: some oddment or endment of closeout wine snapped up by the merchant at a special deal from a winemaker or larger retailer wanting to clear out inventory, and then sold at big discount while supplies (typically rather limited) hold out. Such places offer emails that alert subscribers to each deal as it comes available, because you typically have to act fast if you want to pull the trigger before stocks vanish.
There are really too many of those for us to try to offer anything more than pointers to some lists assembled by others. Here are some:
These sites are highly specialized search engines. They each attempt to locate all the online retail offerings for whatever you enter, which can be anything from a particular wine's name to a winemaker to a wine type. There are quite a few of these, but only a few merit real attention. In our opinion, those are:
These searchers all have idiosyncracies, and each has its pluses and minuses. Let's take a look:
This is the new kid on the block. This one often turns in the most hits, though you have to be especially careful for false positives, because it is not terribly smart about names; you need to keep your search terms to the fewest that distinctively identify the wine, and even so you get those false hits that shouldn't show up (we call the tendency of search engines to throw the kitchen sink at you regardless of relevance "Amazonity").
Besides sheer numbers of hits, 1000 Corks has some other useful features. One is that one can sort results by "Relevance" (the default, and not obviously useful), Price, which is the natural form (and how our suggested-wine links work), Vintage, which has its occasional uses, and—best of all—"Distance", which is exactly that: an ordering by distance in miles from your ZIP Code (so you're not limited to relatively close-by places). This is probably the engine you want to turn to first when searching.
Wine Searcher regrettably comes in two flavors: the free one anyone can access and a paid "Pro" version costing (at this writing) $39 a year. The "Pro" version has some extra features, but the biggest difference is that the free version only shows a subset of what their engine locates. On one search, for example, it told us it was displaying 50 of 248 hits. Even so, the free version does a pretty good job, though perhaps not as thorough as, say, 1000 Corks. Whether it is worth a dime or so a day to you to have the full access only you can say.
What Wine Search is good at is figuring out what wine you mean from what you enter; for example, when we entered "Bodegas Martin Codax Burgans", it found the hits right away, while others stuttered and stammered till we had to use just "Burgans" to get the wanted hits. That is not an uncommon problem with wine search engines, and one also has to be very cautious in inspecting results to make sure they do not include vaguely similar things that are not what was wanted. False positive are unusual in Wine Searcher.
Wine Searcher is also smart enough (usually) to notice when your criteria match several possibilities, which it then lists individually in a side column, so you can try to decide which is the one you want.
Wine Searcher also allows one to narrow results by retailer location—country or, within the U.S., state. Or one can set a distance, from 10 to 200 miles, based on your ZIP Code. That can be very handy when trying to locate sellers whose shipping cost will be reasonable for you. (You can also restrict results by particular vintage.)
In all honesty, we haven't ourselves used this one much yet. It appears to be unpredictable: for "Burgans" (an Albariño bottling), it turned up 100 hits, far more than the other two did; but for "Boutari Santorini", it found but a pair of hits (which were actually the same shop under two names) while the other two engines came up with about 50 each.
One can sort results by Vintage, Rating (when there is one), Size (bottle size), and Price. As to geography, one is limited to "Worldwide" or "USA" (or "Europe" or "USA/Canada"). One can also see a map (as one can with 1000 Corks). For now, we think the other two between them suffice. YMMV.
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