Tip of the Day Blog
    The Web
« Notebook CPUs | Main | Easy PC RecyclingEasy PC Recycling »

Online Wine Shopping Tips

Is There a Sommelier in the House?


I LIVE on what might be described as a drinking block.
It starts in the morning, when a steady stream of my neighbors walk by carrying cups of cappuccino. (We have four competing baristas within a two-block radius.)
This being Northern California, and barely an hour from Napa, we have a high level of interest in other liquids, too. By sundown, the focus shifts to wine, and from my balcony, I can see Tina and Stephanie drinking on their balconies. Some nights we have cheese and crackers and conversation, during which Bruce and Bill display a familiarity with vineyards and varietals that rivals Parisians’ intimate knowledge of signature dishes at local bistros.
This may sound idyllic. But every neighborhood has a dark underbelly. Ours is called the progressive dinner.
The problem isn’t the food part, actually, which isn’t scary at all, as it requires each couple to prepare only a single course of a meal. The problem is the wine.
Here is what I know about wine: There is red and there is white, and a glass (or two) of white makes me happy when I cook or help someone with math homework.
Here is what my neighbors know about wine: The Sinskey pinot noir caresses the palate with a piquant bouquet of wild berries and licorice, in a perfect balance of acidity and opulence.
So a few weeks ago, when Anne sent an e-mail message to remind the rest of us to check our calendars for the next progressive dinner, I ignored it.
I admit I was scared.
“I’ll come up with a few dates to offer,” Anne wrote.
I ignored that, too. But I knew I needed wine help ­ and fast. My goal was to sign up for an online wine club that would broaden my horizons by sending me monthly selections of unfamiliar and interesting wines.
When I went online to look, I quickly learned that there is no shortage of wine clubs on the Internet, each with its own personality. With a few clicks, I visited, featuring small California wineries;, with six monthly plans ranging from $29.95 to $149.95; and, which has a big selection of wines carried by major distributors and lets club members specify preferences like “reds only.”
When buying wine online, however, the first question to ask is not “What kind will you ship to me?” but rather, “Are you even allowed to ship to me?” Labyrinthine shipping restrictions that date to Prohibition have gradually been relaxing, and these days 33 states, including New York, as well as the District of Columbia, allow direct interstate shipping to customers. Nine other states allow interstate wine shipments only on purchases made on-site at a winery by the state’s residents. But decoding the laws’ nuances can still provoke headaches. For a state-by-state summary, see the “Who Ships Where” section at
If you live in a state that allows direct shipments, you still need to check the shipping policies at individual wine clubs’ sites; not all sellers have licenses to ship to all states.
For instance, my neighborhood wine store, which sells wine online at, has its own club (from $20 to $60 a month for two bottles), but ships to only 18 states, with an added warning for Texas: “except dry counties.”
I was lucky; since I live in California (a state that supports the wine industry with the same enthusiasm that Michigan has for automobiles), everybody can ship to me.
But I had no time to savor my good fortune because I ran into Tina (who had just painted her fence and therefore had a vested interest in inviting the neighbors over), and she asked, “Do you know when the next progressive dinner is?”
I lied. “Soon, I hope.”
Then I rushed home to the computer. I stumbled across a new online wine club called Wine Access Monthly, at, which promised to send me “hidden gems,” unusual bottles from small-production sources that even my neighbors may not know about.
For $100 a month, Dan and Elizabeth Beekley, wine sellers who also own a store called Square Deal Wine Company in Portland, Ore., would send four unusual bottles from organic vineyards; from winemakers who specialize in growing older, rare varietals; or from wineries that produce only a few hundred cases of a particular wine.
On the same day the monthly shipment goes out, the Beekleys send e-mail messages to customers describing each of the four wines: where they came from, how the grapes were grown, how much wine was produced.
It sounded good. But were the wines really unusual?
Mr. Beekley, who worked for a winery for five years, turned out to be rigorous about finding offbeat selections.
“Next month, one of the bottles we’ll be sending out comes from an owner in Oregon who put pinot noir vines in a torn-apart old cherry orchard whose owners had lost their contract with Smucker’s, and I love her wines,” Mr. Beekley said during a phone interview. “She has no out-of-state distribution, and only has 450 cases between two wines, and we have her Amalie Robert pinot ’04.”
At least three of the four bottles the club selects each month are reds.
“People want big, rich, fruited, powerful tastes,” Mr. Beekley said. “Last month, this was amazing, there are these 90-year-old petite sirah grapes planted on what is essentially a sand dune in California. Matt Cline is the winemaker. His vineyard sources are around Lodi and Contra Costa County, and we had his Trinitas Old Vine petite sirah ’03.”
Would these wines be wasted on me?
“You’re our ideal customer,” Mr. Beekley said. “Someone who wants wine to be part of their life, who wants to learn about wine without the rigor of coming to a shop and standing around looking at an ocean of bottles that they know nothing about.��
I asked whether I could customize my monthly selection to get more white wine.
“Not at this point,” he said. “But after we get the main wine club up to a certain level, we’ll have enough members to justify diversity in the types of wines the club offers.”
“I like white wine,” I said.
“Me too,” Mr. Beekley said. “My hands-down favorites right now are from Alsace. I have these wonderful wines from Domaine Barmès Buecher. They come in tall bottles. People think they’re sweet, but they’re not. They’re some of the most ripe and concentrated and finely layered and complex wines you can imagine.”
I typed as we spoke, and up popped Mr. Beekley’s online storefront, one of dozens supported by
I ordered a bottle of Domaine Barmès Buecher pinot blanc ($16, “from cooler soil, which gives the wine more mineral backbone”). Then, because I have an open mind, I added a bottle of the Trinitas petite sirah ($20) to my shopping cart.

I’m ready to toast the neighbors.

EmailEmail Article to Friend