I got an e-mail from my friend Jonathan the other day. He lives in Chicago, and he really enjoys good wine, but isn't what you'd call a wine geek by any stretch of the imagination. His e-mail included a forwarded newsletter from an online wine retailer that shall remain anonymous. This was one of those retailers that seem to have sprung up by the dozen in the last year or two that offer special deals on hard-to-find wines.
What my friend Jonathan wanted to know, simply, was what I thought of special six pack of wines they were offering him at a limited-time 20% discount!.
This question, he pointed out to me, comes up for him and many other wine drinkers all the time. We live in an age of e-mail marketing, and those who choose to purchase online are often (unwittingly and unwillingly sometimes) signing up for a lifetime of marketing e-mails from online wine retailers touting their newest acquisitions.
Of course frequent buyers of wine use such communications to scoop up deals as they come along, because there really are many retailers who get a few bottles of something good in the door, offer it at a fair price to customers via e-mail and sell it within a few minutes of sending out their e-mail blast.
More experienced wine buyers know instantly whether the price is good, but most average Joes, like my friend Jonathan, have no idea whether these special offers are indeed special.
So here's what I did to answer his question, and here's what I suggest you do if you ever get a wine offer that you're tempted to buy into but are not 100% sure if it is a good deal.
Step 1. Google the winery, and see how much their suggested retail price is on the winery web site. Many wineries now sell direct, and even if they don't, they list the "release" prices of their wines on their sites. These prices usually reflect one of two realities: either they are usually the highest price that the wine sells for (if it is a current vintage) or they are the lowest price that the wine sells for (if it is a cult winery that sells all its wine to mailing list members, some of whom then turn around and sell it elsewhere or auction it off, etc.). For most wineries their listed price will be higher than most retailers. Why? I'm not exactly sure, but I don't think I've ever seen a non-cult wine that is sold at a lower price at the winery than in a retail store. Mostly I think it is the fact that wineries set a suggested retail price, and then most every retailer sells it at a discount (but still well above the price they paid for it).
Step 2. Use a wine retail search engine like Wine Searcher, Wine Zap, or Froogle to see what people are actually selling the wine for online. These services index thousands of retailers around the globe, and can give you a pretty good indication of what the wine is generally selling for, or if it is even available.
In Jonathan's case, the supposedly discounted price that the retailer was offering was exactly the same price he would pay if he ordered it directly from the winery. Some deal! There were no other online wine retailers offering the wine for sale, however, which meant that even though it wasn't a great price, if he wanted the wine, it looked like he either needed to get it from this offer, or he needed to order directly from the winery if he didn't want to spend his time poking through all his local wine shops in search of a bottle. Sometimes if people live in states or countries that have particularly restrictive liquor laws, these special deals, even if they don't represent much savings in price, are often the only way to get your hands on smaller quantity wines.
I also offered Jonathan one other piece of advice: if he had never tasted the wine before, why on Earth was he considering buying six bottles of it? To the uninitiated, perhaps, there's a certain glamour to buying wine by the case or by the half case, but it can be one of the costliest mistakes that wine lovers make, whether because they don't get around to drinking all the wine they buy, or because they don't like it.
I told Jonathan to call up the winery and get them to ship him a bottle each of a couple of different wines for him to try, and then if he liked them, to order more. That has the added benefit of getting him on the winery's mailing list so that in the future he might get a chance to buy wines that even that retailer wouldn't get a chance to sell.
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