The Noble Writ: Wine Shopping from Afar

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A point comes in many wine lovers' lives when they are unable to find a bottle they really want in their local wine shops. It might be a wine from the birth year of a special person, a bottle enjoyed while traveling or just something about which they've read that simply captivates their imagination.

The simple fact about wine distribution is that far from everything is available in any particular market. While we St. Louisans are relatively well placed in a large metropolitan area spanning two states, there are times when ordering a wine from another state is the only way to get it.

click to enlarge The Noble Writ: Wine Shopping from Afar
Regardless of whether you are looking for a particular wine, or just shopping for rarities, using a dedicated wine search engine is a step you'll want to take. Randomly Googling for a wine or going though the sites of wine shop after wine shop won't yield very good results. I personally like Wine Searcher and have used it for many years. Before children, when my wine budget was significantly greater, I even stumped up for the site's "Professional" subscription, which really does yield many more results. There are other choices out there now, such as Snooth and WineZap, but I haven't found anything that works as well as Wine Searcher for me.

Once you've located the wine you're looking for, it's not as simple as entering your credit card number and checking out. Instead, the prudent shopper needs to make sure they are buying from a reputable merchant. And since you're going to the trouble and expense of shipping wine from another state, you presumably want the wine badly enough to spend a few extra minutes checking out the store. Unfortunately there are a few unscrupulous merchants who don't take care of their stock, and even some who don't have wines listed on their website in stock, though they're happy to charge your credit card immediately. Some quick searches on the major Internet wine discussion forums should provide a good baseline; if you're a member of such a forum, a post there soliciting other users' experiences may prove worthwhile.

Be prepared for the fact that shipping isn't cheap. Wine is heavy, so a case of wine shipped by ground service will cost $30-$40 if sent from one of the coasts, while second-day air will see that price approximately double. I don't recommend ground shipping unless the entire route your wine will travel is temperate. If it will be above 80° F or below 30° F anywhere along the way, I would either pay for second-day or ask the shop to hold the wine until better conditions prevail. Personally, I have my wine shipped only during two relatively short windows in the spring and fall when conditions are optimal. I see no point in tracking down rare wines from great retailers and then potentially destroying them through impatience.

Here is a short list of out-of-state retailers with whom I've personally had very positive experiences purchasing wine over the years:

The Age of Riesling: Impeccable specialist. German and Austrian importer and retailer. Large backstock of older vintages and rare auction bottlings from top producers. Poet and riesling guru Bill Mayer may not have the website inventory up to date, so call or e-mail for the latest list.

Astor Wines: Big NYC retailer with a stellar selection of Italian and French wines. Inventory moves quickly, and prices sometimes reflect the prime real estate, but this is a good all-around source.

Chambers St. Wines: NYC shop specializing in natural wines from around the world, with particular strengths in the Loire, Rhone and Burgundy regions of France, Italy, Germany and Austria. Top-notch selection and very helpful staff. They have been having Internet issues lately, so the site may be down from time to time.

Dee Vine Wines: Specialist riesling retailer with a large, well-stored inventory of older vintages and auction wines.

D&M Wine Merchants: Outstanding Champagne selection, with prices that belie its San Francisco location.

K&L Wine Merchants: Very reliable Bay-area merchant with an excellent selection of hard-to-find California wines and Bordeaux. One of the few places from which I would consider ordering Bordeaux futures. Nice selections from other areas of the world, too.

The Wine Exchange: A high volume Los Angeles-area merchant that gets large allocations of many sought-after wines. You still need to be quick, but great wines from Bordeaux, California, Germany and other areas are almost certain to pass through this retailer. Beware of Southern California temperatures when arranging shipment.

Woodland Hills Wine Company: Another fine Los Angeles-area merchant with an unbelievable selection of Burgundies and special emphasis on Italian and German wines. Great provenance for older vintages.

Dave Nelson is the author of the blog Beer, Wine and Whisky. He writes about wine for Gut Check every Tuesday.
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