In the past two years, wine retailers have emailed and tweeted discounts practically every hour--and they'll continue to as long as the economy is weak and surplus wine sits in warehouses. Between producers, importers, distributors and retailers, someone along the chain will take a hit to generate cash to buy the next vintage--so online wine deals are here to stay.
Don't get us wrong--we love the flood of offers and deals that arrives in our inboxes each day. But there are several things to watch for and be aware of, such as minimum orders to get "free" or one-cent shipping; the discount applying only to the wine, not the shipping; or the discount only applying to the first portion of cases sold, not the entire allotment. And sometimes the wine offered is a big name from a weaker vintage--which can be a good thing if you want to experiment with new regions or grapes. Overall, though, the realm of online wine sales has a language and style all its own. Below is our quick guide to online-wine-buying terms and details you need to know before you buy:
Pre-Arrival: This means that the store is selling the wine, but doesn't have it in stock yet.Unfortunately, the term can mean any number of things. "Pre-arrival" could mean that the wine is in the store's possession, but it hasn't been unloaded or accounted for at the warehouse yet. It could mean that the store ordered the wine and it's a matter of mere days or weeks before it arrives--but it could be months or even years. This sometimes happens when retailers deal with so-called "gray market" wines. It's a broad term that applies to a number of scenarios, but it basically means the store isn't buying the wine from a regular importer or distributor. Rather, say, a wine shop in France or Italy gets an allocation of the wine but can't sell it--so that store turns around and sells the wine to a retailer in the U.S. Oftentimes, the prices are very good to the consumer, but the wait for the wine's arrival can be long and the guarantees can seem half-hearted. Whatever the case may be, when you see the term 'pre-arrival' used, be sure to call the store and get a definitive answer as to when the wine will arrive. It's your money, so don't spend it if it feels like you're getting the runaround on when exactly you'll receive the wine.
90+ Pts: Many retailers advertise discounted wines by the score a critic awarded it. A high score is never a guarantee that you'll like the wine, but the score may not even be from a critic you trust--or one you've actually heard of before. There are several magazines, sites, newsletters and blogs that use the 100-point rating system, such as Wine Spectator, Wine & Spirits, Robert Parker's Wine Advocate, Wine Enthusiast, Burghound and Steven Tanzer's International Wine Cellar (IWC), just to name a few. If a wine got a low score from one critic and a 91 from another, there's no doubt that the retailer selling you the wine will only advertise the high score. And if the high score comes from a critic you've never heard of, that doesn't necessarily mean you should click the 'Buy' button. Also keep in mind that a retailer may use WA to signify Wine Advocate, but that doesn't mean Robert Parker himself rated the wine; in that case the store might use RP. This is all assuming, for the moment, that you even buy wines based on critics' scores. If you never have or never plan to, an email or tweet advertising a "91WS, 93WE Pinot Noir" should go right into the Trash folder alongside the Viagra and weight-loss spam--especially if it's a wine you don't already know and trust, or have heard good things about from a fellow wine geek.
Wine-Searcher Switcheroo: Sometimes the price on wine-searcher.com isn't what's advertised. Wine Searcher truly is the great leveler for shoppers. If you see a deal for a Napa Cabernet that's still a little steep, no problem: Just type the wine name and vintage into Wine Searcher, and you'll find many of the retailers across the country that carry it, what the average price is and what the best price is. (Cinderellawine.com, part of Wine Library, often advertises the best Wine Searcher price alongside its own price, so you know how good a deal it is you're getting.) Unfortunately, some retailers use Wine Searcher simply to suck you in; once you click on the wine and go to the retailer's site, the price may be higher. You can call the store, but odds are they won't give you the Searcher-advertised price. This doesn't happen often, but if you do come across a bait-and-switch like this, it's important that you report it to Wine Searcher's staff--which will then warn the retailer and/or remove the listing from its site. If you do still want the wine, buy it from another retailer that posts the same price on their own site as on Wine Searcher.
Repeat offenders: Sometimes a wine shows up in more than one deal--maybe on the same site over a matter of a couple weeks, or on different deal sites. That's not necessarily a good thing. If you see the same wine over and over again on one site (first on its own, then as part of a two- or three-pack--or the other way around), that's a sign that the rest of the wine-drinking world isn't getting terribly excited about that particular item. In other words, the retailer likely bought too much of the wine and couldn't sell it all--even at the discounted price. What's more, you might even see the same wine on different sites, at different discounts. This means that the supplier had hundreds--perhaps thousands--of cases to move, so the retailer that bought more cases got a better deal and, in turn, is offering a better discount to you. Unfortunately, the more sites there are offering a particular wine, the more this indicates that (a) there's a huge surplus of that wine, and (b) other wine lovers aren't particularly fond of it. If a wine-deal site lists its prior offers, scroll through and see if the one you're being offered now showed up recently for the same or a higher price. If the wine's been listed two or three times already, that's all you need to know. However, if it's a brand you trust, by all means scoop up some bottles. If it isn't a brand or winery you know, there's no harm in waiting for a different deal to come around.
We hope this guide is helpful to you as more and more discount wine offers flood the web. And if you have a particularly frustrating or harrowing wine-discount experience of your own, please share it with us and everyone else here below.