Good wine: Get comfortable with buying wine online
Wine is just a click away, as wineries, auction houses and e-tailers grab for America's enthusiasm for shopping online.
For value, suburban Chicago's retail prices are hard to beat. Our unique liquor regulations support spirited trade with discounts for quantity purchase, in-store tastings and wine in sold in groceries.
But if you're looking for a specialty item, or have no access to a well-run wine outlet, online wine shopping can be a convenient and fun alternative to brick-and-mortar.
Winery "direct-to-consumer" is big business. Small wineries can rake in two-thirds their annual income from online shopping, wine clubs and tasting room sales, making e-tail as essential as a "Welcome!" sign.
For standard items, you'll pay more through a winery online shop than buying locally.
More valuable is wine club membership, with tasty benefits like library vintages, private labels and advance invitation to events be they in Chicago or overlooking the vineyard. Visit each winery's website for wine store and wine club options.
Online wine shops range as widely as the big box stores and gourmet markets where you shop for groceries.
Wine-Searcher.com is the industry standard in locating specific wines and prices online in the U.S. and abroad. Standard access is free. The "pro" version allows advanced search options, sends email alerts and posts free classified ads for those wanting to sell rather than buy.
Garagiste.com offers daily email blasts covering one wine or food item to members; product is shipped twice a year. Founder Jon Rimmerman roams the globe, negotiating deals and sending offers via mobile device, spur of the moment. Limited production items sell out just as quickly. In the time it takes to absorb Rimmerman's colorful narrative, the offer may be gone, so read fast!
Appellation America combines wine school and winery-direct marketplace. The Appellation Index provides background on every approved viticulture area in the U.S. and Canada. The Winery-Direct Marketplace links shoppers to 194 winery partners, with "Best of Appellation" describing each region's characteristic flavors and exemplary wines.
K&L Wine Merchants offers the complete range of regions, vintages and bottle size, with real-time inventory updates and comprehensive product description. While current vintages match the region's prices, K&L has substantial access to mature vintages and specialized bottlings.
Begin by signing up for each site's newsletter to learn the site's characteristics, latest offers and insider gossip. Check each site's fine print about and substitution policies, inter-state shipping fees and insurance, including hot- and -cold weather damage.
Triple-check your selection in terms of vintage, size and label designation. Then click on "Buy!" and sit back and start figuring who will sign for delivery from your online shopping spree.
And then there's wine auctions, which aren't new to Chicago. In the 1990s, Christie's launched U.S. fine wine auctions here, again thanks to Illinois' liquor regulatory law. Today, Chicago-based Hart Davis Hart and Chicago Wine Company are international leaders in the auction of fine and rare wine.
From the stunning events, the rush of outbidding the room for a treasured lot, or simply rubbing elbows with someone who can, nothing beats the thrill of a live auction, but online auctions offer convenience, option to bid for individual bottles (rather than multiple-bottle lots sold live) and anonymity while practicing your cred as a canny wine buyer.
But take note: "Buyer beware!" is never so important as in the purchase of fine and rare wine. Be crystal clear regarding winning bid fees (as much as 18 percent) and handling charges (even for wines picked up personally). Study descriptions of each bottle's provenance, previous storage and current condition. Understand shipping hazards and regulations. And once your online paddle is up, keep track of your bids or you may find yourself owning a lot more lots than you bargained for.
• Write to Advanced Sommelier and Certified Wine Educator Mary Ross at email@example.com.
Ross' choicePinot Noir Rose
Willamette Valley, Oregon
• Suggested Retail and availability: About $19 from the winery, some online shops and suburban and Chicago boutiques (Distributed by Wirtz Beverage Illinois, Belleville)
A firm and dry Rose with a bright fruit bowl of flavor -- cherry, raspberry, watermelon and ginger -- and bracingly tart finish to refresh the palate after finger-lickin' good dishes including Chinese barbecue duck, tuna melt and fried chicken. The wine's complexity and package also is suited to more swell-egant occasions, for aperitif and with flavorful appetizers such as smoked salmon canapés and rumaki.