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Online Wine Shopping: A Guide to the New Normal
By Norm Roby
Sep 15, 2020
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Whether you call it “the new normal” or “the new abnormal,” the way we go about our daily lives has changed in 2020.  Although home wine deliveries aren’t new, they have become a game-changer for many producers and importers, a life saver for sheltered-in-place wine drinkers, and collectors and a way to remain in business for small, Mom & Pop wineries.  

Over the last five years, I’ve been following, evaluating and writing about the major online wine retailers and wine clubs as well as buying wines online.  That’s B.C. (before Covid), when the world of online wine selling was just beginning to be recognized, going through lots of ups and downs, and not being accepted by everyone in the wine biz.  

Wine clubs such as Winc, Vinesse and nakedwines pushing subscription box memberships have done nothing much to distinguish themselves, whereas the virtual wine store/retailer types like wine.com and wineexpress.com have upped their game in response to the new stay-at-home normal.  

As a result, exceptional wines once allocated to restaurants and many cult wines once limited to sales direct from the winery are now becoming increasingly available in the e-commerce world.  

Yes, we are seeing current vintages, not old unwanted stock.  Well-established and famous wines, not private, custom labels.  Not bulk wine packaged with cute names and artsy labels.  

This past week I saw deals for Groth Reserve Cabernet, 2017 Lail Blueprint Cabernet, Pride Mountain Cab Franc, Dominus, Heitz Cellars, Booker, Clos du Val, Pine Ridge, Whitehall Lane, Vine Cliff, and Silver Oak.  Suddenly it seems several websites are offering Heitz and Silver Oak Cabs at discounted prices.  

I was particularly intrigued to see special deals on wines from Rams’ Gate, Lang & Reed, Three Sticks, Amuse Bouche, Paradigm, Arnot-Roberts, Larkmead, La Sirena, Frank Family, Ridge and Eden Rift.  As the week went by, more and more California and Northwest wines normally on strict allocation to wine club members appeared in an online sale.  

Selections are now more exciting on the import scene as well, with special deals on super Châteauneuf-du-Pape from 2017 and 2018,Condrieu, Chianti, Barolo, Brunello....you name it.  Big named Burgundy, Rhône and Bordeaux wines once dominating restaurant wine lists are now being offered online and destined to be stashed away in home wine cellars.  

Though the circumstances are rough with wine tourism and restaurant business down to a fraction of normal, the present provides great opportunities to stock up on wine.  The 2017 Lail Blueprint offer consisted of 15 cases, likely some shuttered restaurant group’s allocation.  I suspect the same would explain the offer of the 2017 Louis Latour Corton-Charlemagne.  Or the spate of high-end Chablis, Cornas and other typical restaurant wines.  

Shopping and buying wines for home delivery is not without a few problems, such as shipping costs, temperature and varying state regulations.  Though there will always be glitches and bad reviews on Yelp, most e-commerce wine companies have learned from bad experiences and have improved the services.  My recent purchases have come nicely chilled thanks to built-in chill packs.  Shipping is often free for 6 bottles or for a minimum dollar purchase.  Sometimes there’s a one cent shipping on case deals or an offer of free shipping for a year from a particular website.  

Whether you prefer wines for everyday enjoyment or are more interested in cellar-worthy wines, or both, shopping online can be a pleasant and productive use of the extra time wine lovers are spending at home these days.  

My feeling is that it is wise to take advantage of the present deals on high quality wine because, as Mark Twain once, noted: ”It is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future.”

But if you haven’t bought wines online yet, welcome to a strange new world.  Whatever their focus may be, most websites active today are trying to find a comfort zone or niche market and make a go of it.  It can be overwhelming if you look over the field.  Some sites like wine.com and getwineonline.com list over 10,000 wines.  Then several others offer one wine a day.  

Many remain wannabe wine clubs offering themed packages or quarterly shipments but open to selling to anyone who visits the site.  A few emphasize big discounts while others are a more traditional wine shop as far as pricing goes.  

At last count, some 2 dozen or more e-commerce wine guys notify me of their latest offers.  One way I’ve tried to make some sense of the e-commerce wine world is divide them into two types: Daily Specials Sellers and Traditional Wine Stores.  That’s over-simplifying a complex world, but let’s go with it here.  

To ease into this complex world, let’s first look at two well-known major online companies both headquartered in Northern California.  Wine.com and vivino.com have little else in common, except that they sell a lot of wine online.  

Should anyone be with me after this initial column, we’ll continue with other major players in this dynamic part of the wine world.

Best All-Purpose Site:  wine.com

Founded in 1998 and headquartered in San Francisco, wine.com comes with an enormous number of wines (10,000), an easy to navigate website, and “expert advice” popups if you care to chat with an expert.  

The list of wines at wine.com is seemingly endless and makes you feel you are back at BevMo or Total Wine…or trying to walk through a huge maze disguised as a wine warehouse.  There are 2,000 Chardonnays and over 2,500 Pinot Noirs to consider.   But then, as you explore the "New Arrivals" and click on the various groups sorted by price categories and other filters, this site is so well organized that it begins to win you over.  

One direct way to search for good values is to click on Top Rated Wines (90 point +) under $20 where you’ll find several excellent 2015 Chianti and both Schug’s Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from the Sonoma Coast.  There are 400 other California wines under $20.  

If you love Bordeaux, then here you can look over 700 Bordeaux, including the 2010 Ch. Margaux for $1249 or the 2000 Margaux for $1,300.  Of course, Mouton is included in the impressive listings of Bordeaux.  Right now, wine.com lists quite a few 2019 as “futures.”

But good deals are plentiful such as the 2015 Ch. Fombrauge, a personal fav at $36.  And the 2016 Ch. Teyssier Montagne Saint-Émilion at $16.99 is the best price these days.  Otherwise, wine.com offers a decent range of other wines.  But not all are discounted.  I like to search by “Savings,” and find the Most Popular list useless.  Every Friday, I check for “New Arrivals.”

For $48, you can have free shipping on any and all orders for a year.  

Overall, wine.com prefers working with producers with a track record and avoids blow-out, one-time crazy sales stuff.  Even its recent additions like Arnot-Roberts Chardonnay, Brewer-Clifton Pinot Noir and Odette Cabernet are well-established.  

Its offerings remain reliable, its choices enormous, and new wines are added weekly.  It is also excellent at tracking your package with its own staff following up on any questions.  I have no problem using wine.com to send gifts to friends and family.  

When reviews are available, wine.com cites ratings from the usual publications, but there are also ratings and notes under the WW abbreviation.  That stands for Wilfred Wong who was with BevMo for years but who, more importantly, is one of the most meticulous wine tasters and judges around.  

Best for Discounts:  vivino.com

Founded in 2009 by two creative techie guys from Copenhagen, vivino began as an app that enabled people to check reviews of a wine by snapping a photo of its label.  It also encouraged subscribers to post reviews of wines tasted.  

These reviews from members follow the Tripadvisor 5-star format, and some reviewers are then followed by other reviewers on Facebook.  Several subscribers, mainly sommeliers, have reviewed over 10,000 wines.  

Today, vivino claims over 40 million subscribers.  And something like 9 million of them have reviewed a wine.  

Recently, it has been coming up with two special deals of the day.  
According to the founders, its “users contribute ratings for millions of wines from around the globe, and collectively, this database makes up the largest wine library in the world."

The website has gone through several major changes since 2009.  The home page is now streamlined and you can click on "Wines," "Offers," "Wine Pairings,” “Grapes,” and “Regions.”  

The categories for wines then fall under "Most Popular," “Most Affordable,” and "Best Sellers." The “best” lists sort wines by discounted prices.  

Looking for serious discounts is the main reason to consider this site at all.  Recently, a 2017 Beau Vigne Barrel Chaser Cabernet for $29.99 is 60% below the winery price.  2016 Frank Family Napa Cabernet at 28% below is hard to beat.  

But the daily hype and wild descriptions of wines can be sheer torture to read for the following reasons:

Vivino relies on in-house sommeliers who, almost without fail, rate every wine in the 95-100 bracket.  

The headline sales pitch, the come-on, explores the outer frontier of hyperbole.  I love this recent one and the image: “Knocks Your Socks Off Just With The Nose.”

The winemaker is most likely a legend or an icon, better yet someone who once made a wine rated 100 points.  

The vintage is usually one that some critic rated in the high 90s, better yet close to 100.  

And the wine itself will somehow often be from a vineyard next door to a cult wine, or made from a protégé of a famous winemaker or whatever nebulous connection might be made.  

Moreover, accuracy is an issue sometimes.  The currently available 2015 Clos du Val Napa Valley Cabernet is pitched as coming from “The Stags Leap Estate,” which is not true.  It once wrote that Stags’ Leap Vineyard has been making world-class Cabernet since its founding in 1892, ignoring the fact that it was closed for 50 years.  

But they sell a lot of wine.  They just added a Joseph Swan Zinfandel, and were the first to offer Ram’s Gate wines, Beau Vigne, Bennett Lane, La Sirena, Hartwell, Merus, DuMol and Ramey.  

And many more.  

Shipping is normally free for 4 or 6 bottles and the discounts range from 25% to 60%.  Not all wines in its massive inventory are discounted.  

In California, its wines are offered through a local retailer, and different retailers handle shipments in most other states.  Once you add a wine to your cart, shipping options appear, often from 4-5 different companies.  Included in these are other sites or even competitors like wine.com and getwineonline.com.  When I selected a Honig Reserve Cabernet, the last option with the highest bottle price was the winery itself.  

Vivino is a vast interconnected network of wines, retailers, shippers, and producers.

Summary: Vivino started out as a search engine for prices and ratings using a photo app and grew as its subscribers grew and became reviewers.

It is now linked to retailers around the world, kind of like Amazon.

There you have it: two high volume websites and two radically different styles.

Next up: the crazy world of flash sales and daily deals. 

More wine columns:     Norm Roby
Connect with Norm on Twitter:   @RobyWine67