WineGlobe, San Mateo, Calif.
Easy navigation with good bottle information, ratings and notes. Interesting selection of Port and rare wines.
Following major legal changes, online wine sales are flourishing. Our columnists on pitfalls, ordering strategies and their favorite sites.
April 28, 2006
When it comes to online shopping, it's suddenly a wine, wine world.
We buy thousands of bottles of wine annually for our column from all over the country, so we've been shopping online for years. Lately, thanks in part to a Supreme Court ruling, state law changes and Americans' growing comfort with the Web, the online wine business has been undergoing a sea change: There's a surge in the number and quality of sites devoted to educating consumers, highlighting unusual regions and, mostly, selling a lot of wine.
Hundreds of wine shops offer Web sites and quite a few of them deliver to most states. Football-field-sized stores such as Sam's Wines & Spirits in Chicago, with a selection many of us could once only dream of, now are as close as a click for many consumers. There's a Web site that features Austrian wine, a site with only kosher wine and a site that specializes in wines under $15.
The past year alone has seen all sorts of fine stores get into the game, such as Surdyk's Liquor in Minneapolis. ("You have to keep up with the times," says its owner, Jim Surdyk.) It has never been easier to find a 1974 Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon -- or have Sutter Home White Zinfandel delivered to your door.
While we couldn't find any figures we considered reliable on the amount of wine sold online, it appears to be about 1%, which is still a hefty chunk in a U.S. retail business estimated at $26 billion by the California-based Wine Institute. The percentage is obviously growing. Some long-established stores, such as Sherry-Lehmann Wine & Spirits in New York City, report that fully a quarter of sales or more now are online. "Wine is global, and about seven years ago we looked into our crystal ball and we said if we do not develop a Web site now -- even though a lot of us didn't know what that meant -- we would be left far behind," says Michael Aaron, chairman of Sherry-Lehmann. "It's impossible to do business today without having a Web site."
Eight good wine Web sites
, plus links to eight more
We have watched first-hand as a handful of wine sites has burgeoned into hundreds, and as delivery zones have spread to most places in the country. On the whole, our experience has been positive. We've ordered hundreds of cases without incident (we order as regular consumers, without identifying ourselves as wine writers). We've managed, with ease, to get a 50-year-old Château Latour from across the country, and to find an unusual white from an Oregon winery called Hip Chicks Do Wine.
Suffering Through Missteps
We've also found stores with great selections and terrible Web sites, as well as handsome sites where the selection is weak. One vendor sent us dripping bottles, and another delivered a massive bottle of cheap Chianti because we ordered the wrong size on its poorly designed site. And we can't count the number of times we've had to start over when a site crashed just as we were hitting "finalize order."
Over time, we've found a number of sites stand above others in terms of ease of use, selection and reliability. Eight of those are in an accompanying chart
, and eight more are exclusively on WSJ.com
. We've also come up with a few of our own guidelines for ordering wine by the Web, which we'll share below.
The most recent online wine rush is partly the result of last year's ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, which struck down some laws concerning direct-to-consumer winery shipping. While the ruling wasn't about retail stores, it has led to dramatic changes in state laws -- and convinced many stores that it's worth the risk to find a way around laws that still exist. The legal ground for all of this, in many cases, continues to be murky because of a wide and confusing array of state and local laws.
Just last month, Texas sent cease-and-desist letters to more than 40 wine shops in eight states, telling them to stop sending wine because shipping by retailers into the state isn't permitted. "Future violations of our state law will
result in legal action," said the letter, which noted that three violations would constitute a felony. Wineries can ship into Texas if they have proper permits, but almost 30 wineries lacking the approval, including a winery in Florida, received the same letter. A federal lawsuit has been filed challenging Texas's law.
Online sales are just part of a broader transformation in the way Americans buy wine. The largest retailer of wine in America today is Costco, which not only sells everyday stuff but also hard-to-find Bordeaux, often at bargain prices. Small, walk-around stores, meanwhile, are increasingly focusing on careful selections and user-friendly descriptions. (One, the Best Cellars chain, has categories such as fizzy, fresh, soft, luscious, juicy, smooth, big and sweet.) Web sites are important to all of this, even in areas where shipping isn't permitted, because they are helping consumers become better-educated wine buyers, offering a wealth of information and opinion and a whole new level of price transparency.
Who is ordering online these days? Even winemakers themselves. "For me, it's great to be able to find a particular wine or, say, see what's out there in the Lagrein rosé category. I'm not making that up -- I did a search last year in anticipation of summer sipping," says David W. Graves, co-founder of Saintsbury winery in Napa. "The other thing about Web sites is that they make comparison shopping for price so easy."
Sam's, the big Chicago vendor, started its Web site a decade ago, before many of us were fully aware of the Internet. Now about 9% of its sales are online, says wine director Todd Hess. More and more people are using the site -- it offers about 3,600 wines from 25 countries -- to avoid having to drive to the store. Other customers, who live in nearby states where delivery isn't allowed, order over a period of several weeks and come in to pick up wine. And Sam's, like some other stores, uses email aggressively to let customers know about sales, special items or highly reviewed wines.
That's what Al Heltman does. "Stores email me lists, three or four times a week, of online specials and I order off those," says Mr. Heltman, who owns a property-management company in Miami. "All have wines I don't have a prayer of finding in this market, and their prices are competitive." For our search of America's best wine sites, we relied on our own experience and also enlisted the aid of our assistant, Melanie Grayce West, who is younger than we are and far more Web-savvy. In our list, we eliminated stores that have given us problems in the past, even though some appear to have good Web sites. One store sent us bottles with damaged labels, apparently figuring that no one who saw those bottles in the store would buy them so, hey, let's foist them off on the online people. (The wines were a Valentine's Day present for Dottie, who had to be restrained from calling them up to give them a piece of her mind.) One sent only half of our order, with no explanation; when we called, they said that, oh yeah, the rest were out of stock. Another store held up our order for two weeks, with no explanation, until a backordered item came in.
And this is our favorite: One store once sent us the wrong wine. When John called to report this, the salesman on the phone insisted that it was the correct wine and John just didn't know how to read a label. "I know wine," the salesman said. "You don't." (If you wondered if stores recognize our names on the order and treat us differently, there's your answer.)
We narrowed our list until we found eight we could recommend without reservation for good service and reliable delivery. In every instance, we have ordered wines from these stores -- in most cases, multiple times. Of course, it's possible there are some great online vendors we missed, but these eight will give you an idea how good a wine site can be -- from winelibrary.com to Web TV to winex.com bargain basket.
In addition to this list, there are many sites that offer something special. Wineaccess.com represents 120 stores across the country; by typing in a specific wine, you can find out where it is available and possibly order it. Wine-Searcher.com lets browsers look for wine among more than 7,000 stores world-wide and then provides links to the Web sites. Premiercru.net has an elegant site that's strong in futures -- wines that haven't yet been released -- and particularly appeals to serious wine shoppers. Wine.com is a joy to navigate (and check out the excellent "wine basics" tab). Winebuys.com has a clever question-and-answer section for the casual shopper. Winebuys.com also has an interesting perspective, according to Brent Hurtig, consulting chief operating officer: "When we designed the site we tried to make it female-friendly, since we know that women are such a huge component of online retail sales. We saw that most sites looked like smoky men's clubs."
Taking the Web Seriously
We expect the online wine experience will only continue to improve. As we spoke to wine stores about their sites over the past few weeks, it became clear that merchants now are taking Web retailing very, very seriously and aggressively studying each other's online presence. Customers, too, will push the transformation: While there will always be a market for people who want to order directly from a winery and geeks like us looking for rare stuff, our feeling is that, in the long run, online wine sales -- similar to other online businesses -- will rise or fall based on whether consumers use it as an everyday convenience for everyday wines, just as they use Amazon.com for books. It's impossible to know if you will have a bad experience with any merchant online. But the good news is that there are so many sites now that you never have to order a second time from a site that leaves you dissatisfied. So if you are thinking about ordering wine online, here is a mixed case of things to keep in mind:
• Look around the site first to see if it delivers to your state. Some stores tend to be coy about this because they're skirting local laws. That's why you will often see language like this: "The title to the wine you order passes to you as soon as it leaves our doors; it is up to you to know the relevant laws in your state." Even if a site says a store cannot deliver to your state, you should call to make sure. Laws are changing rapidly and, in any case, stores often deliver to places they don't publicly admit.
• While you are looking at online sites, sign up for every online newsletter you see. These are often interesting and, in some cases, marvelously chatty. They're a great way to pass the time at work. (Don't worry; your boss is probably reading them, too.)
• Be very careful to make sure you are ordering bottles in the size you want. On some sites, it's hard to tell. We have ordered magnums or half-bottles -- not to mention the giant Chianti -- without knowing it.
• Similarly, check vintages carefully. Remember that most wines these days are meant to be drunk young, so you want to make sure, in those cases, that you get the newest vintage. If this is important to you, and if the site has a "comments" section, tell them that you don't want vintage substitutions.
• Along the same lines, be sure to read the fine print about substitutions. Some sites say they can substitute a different wine if it's under a certain price -- say, $15. (You can often find this in the "FAQ" or "shipping information" sections.) If you don't want substitutions, say so.
• Look for the return policy. Returning wine is a hassle in any event (and local laws sometimes govern such policies), but a store's return policy is often a sign of its consumer-friendliness. Some charge significant "restocking" fees.
• Look around the site to see if there are case discounts. Good stores often offer them.
• Check the minimum purchase necessary for delivery. You don't want to spend your time putting together a shopping cart only to discover that you don't have enough in it to be delivered.
• Try to find shipping costs before you order. Some sites don't tell you the price of shipping until you check out.
• See if you are being charged for "insurance" on your order. Some sites quietly charge a percentage to insure your shipment. That can be a significant hidden charge that you may not want. We pay for the insurance because it seems a small price and we're nervous types, but the truth is that, in all of our years of shopping online, we have never suffered a broken bottle.
• Pay for expedited delivery. Warm or cold weather can wreak havoc on wines and faster shipping will help to minimize that danger. In any event, it's a bad idea to have wine shipped at all in extremely hot or cold weather. Some stores simply won't send wine until bad weather lets up.
• Work with the store or the shipping company to figure out when the wine will be delivered. Deliveries have to be accepted by someone who's at least 21, so an adult needs to be home.
Here are some good wine Web sites, listed in order of our preference. We judged them on a number of criteria including easy navigation, real-time inventory, selection and prices, clear and detailed shipping policies, vintage information and case discounts. All deliver to at least several states and some to almost all states. Check the site or call to find out if a store can deliver to you...
Pop's Wine & Spirits, Island Park, N.Y. A simple-to-use site with clear shipping policies and fair prices. Pop's customer-friendly sales philosophy is nicely outlined in the "our principles" section.
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WineGlobe, San Mateo, Calif. www.wineglobe.com
Easy navigation with good bottle information, ratings and notes. Interesting selection of Port and rare wines.
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Morrell, New York A particularly charming feature in the advanced search function is the "product type" category with ready-to-order lists such as "Futures for Your Father."
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Berry Bros. & Rudd, London Ordering from the U.K. is pricey -- and not always possible -- but the education on BBR's Web site is absolutely free. Its excellent wine knowledge section includes a wine pronunciation guide.
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Wally's, Los Angeles Everything from an outlet section to ordering futures.
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Brown Derby, Springfield, Mo. Straightforward search and browse functions with some images and rating information.
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Astor Wines & Spirits, New York Clever site with a wine and food matchmaker and plenty of value picks. Cellar-in-a-Box is a great gift idea, a monthly selection of 12 wines from all over the world for about $164.
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Northside Wine & Spirits, Ithaca, N.Y. A thoughtful site for shoppers with a fast and easy browse function. The "wine news" section offers staff picks from places like Hungary and Sicily.