Online Sources For Wine Deals? A Reader's Question

Am I shamelessly recycling an email exchange with a friend?  Actually, I think they call it repurposing these days.  Either way, yes I am.  Thanks, Dave.

Question: I was wondering if you had a suggestion for what on line wine shop gives you the best deals.

Very Wordy Answer:
First of all, thanks for reading the blog. I occasionally check my website hits and always wonder who that one person is.  Now I know.  Gold star, my man!

Second, great question - if only I had a great (and short) answer.

I know of plenty of online sources for good deals, but none of them are so consistently discounted across all genres of wine to be a single go-to place.  Here's why: an etailer can choose to concentrate buying power in one or two regions (or wine brand holding companies), but even the biggest can't achieve that scale across the board.  They change where they concentrate based on market conditions, too, so it's a constantly moving target.  Let me give you an example.

A few years back in NJ was selling the 07 vintage of Beringer Knights Valley Cab for $15.50 a bottle.  Go into any local retailer now and you'll find the (less terrific) 2010 vintage for around $30.  Gary had likely negotiated a deal (probably for a full container load - around 1000 cases) directly with Foster's (Beringer's then parent company).  At the same time Gary's prices on most Spanish wine was the same as you'd pay locally.  Today, it's a different story as Gary has shifted his buying leverage to adapt to changing consumer tastes - hence the moving target analogy. 

Retailers do their best to know their customers, anticipate what they'll be drinking next month, and procure accordingly.  And no two retailers' customer bases are the same, so the focus (and deals) will be different from site to site from month to month.

All that said, there are a few rules worth following in the online buying game:
  1. To avoid making yourself crazy constantly checking massive online inventories hunting for deals, you need to know what you're shopping for.  Keep a running hit list - and add to it as you experience wines that resonate with you.  Then shop for what you know you already like.  Note the vintage, producer, appellation, etc. Google them or use Wine-Searcher (and be sure to be specific) and see who's got the best deal out there.  But buying wine online that you've not had before is adding a layer of purchasing risk. 
  2. In order to make it worthwhile, you need to buy in case quantities.  Shipping two bottles often costs almost the same as twelve.  If you don't want to buy a full case of one wine, see what other wines you like that the same etailer has. 
  3. Do the math - all of it.  A lot of states are now forcing internet shippers to collect state sales tax.  Factor that in to the per bottle price along with the shipping costs before you decide whether it's a deal to go online or not.  Also remember to compare that to the local per bottle case price (10% discount in most places).  The gap between local and online pricing is narrowing.  See the example below.
  4. Look to unregulated markets for the best deals.  Etailers in CA, NY, NJ, and FL dominate the game.  Also, the closer geographically, the lower the shipping cost.  Some favorites noted below.
  5. Buy during shoulder seasons, not when it's sub-freezing or north of 70 degrees out, otherwise the wine will get damaged in shipping.  Not a joke.
  6. Most wine \shipped via conventional means (UPS/FedEx ground) experiences shipping shock.  That means you need to give it a few weeks of rest after arrival to shake the stresses of the journey.  Also not a joke.
Here's a real world example of the math you want to do: Using a recently recommended wine - 2010 La Atalaya from Almansa, available locally for $17.99+tax - I looked on Wine-Searcher.  Note that I had to filter through older vintages, similarly named lower quality bottlings, and etailers that require credit card info just to get a price.  Finally, I found a place in New Jersey that I'd never heard of selling it for $11.99.  On the surface that looks like a smoking deal.  I added a case to my cart and selected the lowest cost shipping option.  This particular site doesn't charge taxes for out of state shipments, so my per bottle price ended up being $14.48.  Not bad. Now, if I can get this for $17.99+tax locally, minus my 10% case discount, my local per bottle price is $17.28.  That translates to a savings of $2.80 per bottle.

Now for the non-numeric factors counting against that $2.80 savings:
- There's a risk premium associated with dealing with a firm you've never heard of.
- There's a waiting period premium (it'll be almost a month for your wine to ship and settle down after shipping).
- There's a premium associated with having to buy a case at a time instead of a bottle or two as and when you want it. A case of the same wine is an awful lot when there is so much variety to experience out there.

Now, factoring those into the equation, is the online price really that much (or any) lower than the local retail price?  That depends on what kind of a wine drinker you are  But to me it' pretty close to a toss up.  At least in this case.

Some places I have had good luck finding smoking deals on:

If you've got an appetite for taking a gamble on older wines or wines you've not had before, a few others that I have a habit/history with:

Hope that helps.  Cheers and stay warm!