Five Tips for Buying Wine Online
The usual advice you get from wine experts on how to buy wine often includes tips like:
- Find a local shop with knowledgeable staff and follow their suggestions.
- Try a bunch of different things and stick with what you like.
- Look at the back label and trust your favorite importers.
That’s all pretty good advice! If you happen to live near a good wine merchant, by all means please go and get to know them and follow those tips.
But, at the time of writing, we are all practicing social distancing in response to the COVID-19 virus, and our own shop is not open to walk-in traffic. This makes it especially hard to follow this advice. In fact, it’s been a wake up call to all of us that we need to refresh the usual advice on wine-shopping for an increasingly online world.
Maybe you’re always so busy that you just don’t have time to walk over to a local shop. There is also the challenge of bringing the heavy bottles back home. Maybe you’re worried about the prices or selection at your neighborhood shop. So, you shop local when you just need to grab something quick for tonight’s dinner, but you like to go to an online store with a larger selection for your more significant purchases.
Whatever the reason, if you’re reading this blog you probably will buy wine from time to time online. So here are my five tips on how to shop for wines online.
- Let the Shop Share Information with You.
This is the single best thing about shopping online instead of in-store. A good online wine store will have tons of information for you to browse and absorb. There’s no rush to get out the door or through the line at home, so take your time to explore the site! Learn about a wine before you purchase it, then you can reinforce that knowledge with your palate once the wine comes in!
This may start with descriptions of the wines on each product page. But a good store will take you far deeper than that. We put a serious focus on this at Flatiron, and our site is full of blog posts and guides that will hopefully inspire you to try different wines. Walking around a physical wine store can be pleasant and it’s nice to talk to people live, but you’ll never get the sheer amount of information you can online.
Here are some of our favorite blogs:
- Browse their Shelves.
The browsing functions on e-commerce sites seem like they were practically invented for wine. Take advantage! Say you want a red wine that is under $20 from Piedmont. Virtually any decent wine web site will let you enter those precise parameters into their site. If you shop at an online store with a large-enough selection, you will find it easy to find exactly what you are looking for.
Though if what you really want is to be tempted to try something new — very often a good idea — go back to item 1 above and read some blog posts!
These links will take you right to our wine collection, for you to start narrowing your search:
- Understand their Shipping Policies.
This may seem like a boring point, but it is really important! Wine merchants cannot legally ship to every state in the country. Different states have different rules about inter-state shipping, and not all merchants interpret these rules in the same way. Furthermore, it’s expensive to get wine from one place to another, and there is a large variation out there in terms of how to pass these costs on to the ultimate consumers. Some merchants opt for simplicity, with flat-rate shipping prices, and others emphasize low-cost shipping for customers who are more proximate. It’s key to figure that out before you shop with anyone.
But the complexity of shipping does not stop there! There are other issues to consider. Wine is fragile, and it will be damaged if it is exposed to extreme temperatures. Reputable shops will avoid shipping altogether in extremely hot or extremely cold conditions, and for longer-haul shipments they will use foam shippers that offer some protection.
One more consideration: Alcohol can only be delivered with an adult signature. Maybe you are lucky enough to have a doorman, but otherwise it can be a bit tricky to coordinate a delivery. Good merchants will work with you to make sure the wines arrive on a specific date, or to a pick-up location, to make sure someone is available to accept delivery.
Here are our Shipping Terms, by store:
- Expect Bumps in the Road.
No matter how essential, shopping for wine online will never be quite as easy as shopping for, say, books or diapers.
Unless you are buying factory-made wine, then you are shopping for a limited-production agricultural product that changes every single year. Years ago, before I was in the business of wine, I would order wine online quite often. Nearly every time, I would get back out-of-stock emails from customer service or, much worse, the shipment would just arrive with incorrect bottles (vintages were off, or wines were randomly switched out.)
These days, the problem persists: I buy wine online and then learn later by email that it is not available. But I understand much better what is going on behind the scenes to create these issues. Today, I’m going to pull back the curtain a bit and share that knowledge with you.
What’s going on? It’s not a simple answer, frankly. It could be many things, but most often it boils down to allocations, human error, or a conflict between the online and brick and mortar inventories. I’m sorry to say it’s not that entertaining to read about, so I’ll try my best to keep the explanation brief.
Say a merchant is allocated 24 bottles of a wine and that will be it for the vintage. So many things can go wrong:
- Maybe the two bottles are being purchased in-store moments before you purchase them online.
- Perhaps those two bottles have already walked out the door, accidentally sold as some other wine.
- And maybe there are obvious problems like theft and breakage, or human error entering data into the system.
The longer you shop for wine, the more you’ll realize that when ordering a mixed case of 12 wines, chances are that at least one of those bottles will be missing or out of vintage. So, the big question becomes--Is there anything to be done to avoid a broken heart? Certainly! If you trust the shop you frequent and have built a relationship with them (see #5), chances are they will reach out to you right away with a plan of action.
A good merchant will always email you about the missing bottles and will help you find substitutes or otherwise resolve the situation to your satisfaction. Just chalk it up as part of the experience. If any merchant doesn’t provide you with this service, then move on!
As always, email us with any questions or concerns:
For NY customers, email us here.
For SF customers, email us here.
- Form a Relationship.
The first four tips were very specific to online shopping. This one is not, but it’s very important. Many people think that it does not apply to online shopping, so it’s definitely worth another shout. Establish a relationship!
Sign up for their newsletter and read the emails they send that seem interesting to you. Then, make them your friends!
This relationship is important because many wine merchants continue to withhold some of their most interesting wine offerings from their website. If they receive a highly sought-after wine they are far more likely to email an offer to a customer with whom they have a relationship than they are to simply list the wine online.
But more importantly, online shopping does not mean that you have to forego the advice of a wine merchant! As you respond to offers or email about customer service issues, you are likely to establish an email relationship with someone and hopefully you will figure out what they like and dislike as they discover the same about you.
A good friend at your wine shop will help guide your wine selections, just like a sommelier at a restaurant. This is all so common that at Flatiron we now sell more wine by personal emails that we do in straight online purchases.
In fact, you can always just email me here and let me know you would like to be assigned a wine merchant at Flatiron; let me know something about the wines you like to buy and I’ll set you up with the right person.