With an unlimited budget, finding great wine is easy: proceed to auctions for the old vintages and leading shops and the wineries directly for the current releases. Yes, there are some details such as struggling to get on the latest cult winery mailing list but the general point remains the same: if price is no object, there are a lot of choices in the wine world.
What’s really hard is trying to find good, exciting wine that doesn’t break the bank. So if the household budget has limits on wine, or even if you are trying to find an expensive favorite for the lowest price, several strategies can maximize the wine dollar.
Where to shop
When bigger is better. Large format retailers drive hard bargains with producers and distributors and mostly pass those cost savings on to the consumer. However, in order to keep costs down, the range wines offered may be neither large nor exciting. If Kendall Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay is what you’re after, then Costco is the place for you.
Small is beautiful. While small wine shops are lots of fun, it can be difficult to find bargains. Usually owned by a proprietor who works on the premises, small shops can have a specialty (often a particular country). They are conveniently located either around the corner in a city or next to a supermarket in the country mall. Talk with the staff, particularly the owner, and find out where the shop’s strengths lie. And take advantage of any discounts or freebies listed below, such as free tastings on Fridays or Saturdays.
Mid-sized may be the sweet spot. The mid-sized chain has enough clout with distributors to move the goods and deliver low prices yet may not have forsaken its small shop roots. San Francisco’s The Wine Club and Chicago’s Binny’s and Wine Discount Center are some good examples of low prices and great selections.
Clicks and mortar: The internet has proven a great place to shop for books, DVDs and the latest electronics, but the full potential of the internet has not yet been realized for wine consumers. The recent Supreme Court decision will hopefully radically reshape this landscape very soon. Amazon’s recent partnership with Wine.com could be a sign of things to come in this dynamic space.
How to shop
Taste on someone else’s tab. With so many thousands of wines produced every year, consumers can be easily overwhelmed. And retailers know that. So many of them pour their wines for free! Check you local store for free tastings, often held in evenings during the week and during the day on Saturday. Tasting through all the wines at any given tasting (and yes, spitting is allowed!) will give you a better understanding of the different wine styles available, which over time, will help sharpen your own knowledge and preferences.
Take advantage of seasonal sales. Wine retailing is a business and businesses care about inventory. Certain times of the year demand is slow or new products arrive to push the old ones out the door and consumers should prey on these opportunities. Spring and fall are common times for sales so stock up. One consumer told me recently that he buys about 10 cases of wine a year for his house and buys four or five cases at the spring and fall sales. Walking out of the shop pushing a cart full of multiple cases may seem like a lot, but not only is it economically prudent, it also provides a heady feeling having all that wine (but be sure to store it properly).
Buy in bulk. Large discount retailers claim to offer shoppers “the best prices every day” and therefore don’t rely on sales. Most other shops, however, has some sort of loyalty program or incentive to have you buy more. The most common discount is after bringing a mixed case (12 bottles) to the register, the whole purchase receives a discount of 10, 15, or 20%. This is also a handy index to markups at a shop: the higher the case discount, the more you know the average per bottle price is ripping you off.
Become a regular. Wine shops can offer a “friend’s price” to regular patrons through various loyalty schemes. I recently went to a shop that offered 10% off a single bottle and 20% off cases to members of their club. The only way to become a member of the club, however, was to buy 50 different bottles of wine. This works if it is the shop near you; if you are just visiting the relatives out of town, it may be better to bring wine from home. Loyalty also has the perk of having the staff either reserve certain hard-to-find wines for you or to make accurate and personal recommendations for you.
Check for specials. Bottles that don’t sell can wind up as “bin ends.” Sometimes these are bottles that have had a hard time selling. However, use caution with these wines—a “how can you go wrong for $5.99?” attitude can end up costing you $5.99 if you just end up pouring it down the drain! Check the label for a lack of wine stains and push the cork to check for looseness, both of which may indicate the wine had been improperly stored. Discounts can also be thematic for a week or a month (for example, I recently saw “Pinot Envy” at Union Square Wines in New York in honor of the movie Sideways which discounted Pinots by all 10-25%).
Search the web. I recently bought a camera for cheap through Yahoo Shopping by plugging in the model number and then doing “sort by price.” Wine on the web is not quite at this level of pure price competition yet several search tools do bring it somewhat closer. Wine Searcher and WineZap offer buyers who are looking for specific wines the opportunity to type in a producer and a vintage, which generates multiple vendors. While many local shops may be able to ship across state lines thus avoiding sales tax, it is essential to check the shipping rates as this alone can eat up any cost or tax savings.
Let someone else carry it home for you. Many shops, particularly urban shops, have free delivery to customers in range. While it is not exactly a cost savings to get someone else carry your wine for you, it can be convenient not to have to schlep the 40 pound case any more than you have to.
Happy value hunting. Cheers!