Most people buy wine conventionally. They go to a supermarket or a package store and peruse the shelves, lifting bottles, looking at labels, seeing what's new and then making a choice.
Some people are a lot faster at it: They just walk to a shelf, grab a wine with a brand they know and head for the check-out counter.
Increasingly, however, we are seeing more and more buyers sitting at the computer, searching websites that sell wine. The lure is The Bargain that everyone seems excited about — though once other factors enter the picture (taxes and shipping costs among them), there may not be much if any savings.
Moreover, the people who do most of the internet shopping for wine are those seeking expensive wines at discounts deeper than they can get at their local vinous emporia - such as a $70 bottle that a deep-discount wine seller has for $49.97.
If you wanted six bottles of that stuff, you could save roughly $120, which should make up for any shipping costs.
It could get even better. Assume you are looking for a case of 2005 Chateau Lynch-Bages, and your local store has the wine for $150. But an internet search shows that this wine is available for just under $100 a bottle at three different wine shops.
Buying from one of the wine shops instead of your local store would save a cool $600, less the cost to ship it to you.
Then, you may ask, why isn't this being done more than it is?
There are a number of answers, many of which are extremely complex and include this: It is being done a lot and savvy buyers are the beneficiaries. But some of the shipping across state lines is being done illegally, since various states have yet to define what retailers can and cannot do.
Then there are wine collectors who have declined to save money since they are never sure what shape the wines they order will be in when they get them.
Buying wine from internet sources calls for a thorough analysis and some of the research could result in a wake-up call. Some examples of the issues with which buyers are dealing:
Provenance: How was the wine stored in the remote shipper from which you are buying?
In your local store, you can pick up the bottle and see if the cork has moved in or out of the bottle, indicating temperature variation, or whether the bottle has leaked a bit. Yu can't do this with an internet buy.
Also, if the store you buy from has fluorescent lighting and the bottles are clear glass and were exposed to that light, the wine might have been affected. (Case purchases are safe; no threat of light damage.)
Moreover, shipping wine great distances is tricky, especially in hot weather. The wine could be harmed by days in a truck. (Air freight is best, but a lot more expensive.)
The correct wine: If you order a wine, can you be absolutely certain it's exactly the wine you want? There are a number of wines from France with the name Bel Air (or Belair or Bel-Air). What if the wine that arrives isn't what you wanted?
The right vintage: It doesn't happen often, but I have occasionally gotten the wrong vintage when I have ordered via the 'net.