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Every expert tip you'll need for navigating shipping, shopping, and sipping bottles you buy online.

By Betty Gold
Updated April 10, 2020
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As social distancing measures have temporarily shuttered our favorite bars and restaurants (rendering virtual happy hours the new status quo), wine fans across the country are increasingly buying bottles online and shipping them straight to their doorsteps.

While ordering alcohol online was once unheard of, now it’s easier than ever. There are different services to turn to depending on your needs, such as direct-to-consumer wine sites (such as Wine Insiders, Wine.com, Firstleaf, and Winc), delivery from local liquor stores (via Drizly or Minibar), direct shipping from wineries, and even buying wine online from many of your favorite grocery stores (including Kroger, Target, Boxed, and Instacart).

Before ordering wine online, remember that alcohol regulations vary by state and county, so be sure to scope out which services are available in your area. Here’s everything you should know about buying bottles online, according to two wine industry experts.

Check out your shipping options before you start shopping.

“When buying wine online, a good rule of thumb to stick by is to spend more of your money on wine, less on shipping," says Christopher Hoel, Founder of Harper’s Club and wine curator for Wine Insiders and Martha Stewart Wine Co. Many online wine services offer free shipping if you buy a certain amount of bottles or spend a certain amount.

“Just remember that not every seller can ship to every buyer,” explains Alison Napjus, Wine Spectator senior editor and tasting director. “Study the seller’s website carefully to ensure they are legally allowed to sell wine and ship it to you.” Shipping a case of wine (a dozen 750ml bottles), which weighs about 40 pounds, can be expensive—typically $40 or more. A simple solution: instead of buying a single bottle online, stock up on a half dozen or more. “That way, you’ll have more freedom to experiment with your choices, stock up on your inventory, and qualify for free shipping,” adds Hoel.

Think of it as a learning experience.

Shopping for wine online is best suited to those who already know exactly what they want, or at least have a pretty good idea. If you don’t know what you want to order, take your time doing your research. “The absolute biggest challenge we hear from consumers when buying wine online is selecting which bottles to try out, especially when you can’t sample them beforehand or seek a recommendation from wine store employees,” says Hoel. The silver lining is the opportunity to educate yourself (you finally have plenty of time to kill!) on wine tasting and various varietals. “You can turn browsing into a learning opportunity, all from the comfort of your couch,” adds Napjus. Many online retailers offer a great deal of information about the wines they sell, so browsing their websites can be a way to learn about wine at your own pace. Napjus also recommends consulting independent experts to access reviews of specific wines, or general information about producers, grapes and regions that can help make you a smarter shopper.

Experiment, experiment, experiment.

“My primary piece of advice is to branch out and try new wines,” Hoel says. “There’s a big world out there, with plenty of exciting bottles to try. Don’t limit yourself to your usual standbys. Play around with new brands, labels, regions, and varietals based on what you already like.” For example, if you typically drink Sauvignon Blanc, then try out other whites like a dry Riesling, Pinot Grigio, or a sparkling like Prosecco. If you’re a die-hard Pinot Noir fan, then explore other lighter reds like Tempranillo, Sangiovese, or Syrah. Or sample Pinot Noir bottles from regions outside of France, such as Chile, New Zealand, or California. Most online wine sites also include curated packs, mystery boxes, or subscriptions that will encourage you to try new bottles. “And don’t forget about half bottles—they’re a great way to try a new wine without being committed to a full bottle if you find it’s not your cup of tea.” The bottom line is to make sure you have fun. You may not love every new bottle you try, but you will certainly identify some new favorites, and that will make your next order even easier.

Envision the wine’s purpose beforehand.

Think about how you want to experience the wine, and then decide what goes best with that experience. “For example, if you’re indulging in a casual afternoon glass, then look at lower alcohol wines made for easy sipping, like Albariño or Vinho Verde,” says Hoel. If you want to pair the wine with a specific meal, then think about the weight and origin of the dish. If you’re making a hearty Italian meal, like pasta or veal, then look for a robust Italian red wine like Montepulciano; if you’re having something light like fish or fresh vegetables, then consider a sippable, dry wine, like a Bordeaux Blanc. Or, if you’re sharing a bottle among roommates or family in quarantine, then consider popping a bottle of bubbly Cava or sparkling Rosé to cheers to life and this time together.

Price: Expensive doesn’t mean better.

A common misconception is that wine is higher quality as it gets more expensive. However, this is simply not the case. “You do not have to spend boatloads of money to find a good bottle of wine,” Hoel emphasizes. “When shopping online, your best bet is to focus on wines in the $8 to $20 range. Wines within this price point are considered ‘premium wines,’ which means they’re typically high quality, delicious wines that won’t break the bank.”

Forging relationships with wineries.

Even if you can’t physically go to a winery to enjoy their tastings in person, you can still support them online. Most wineries are selling their bottles or wine clubs online, and several are hosting ongoing virtual tastings. “I would estimate that every wine region in the country, and likely the world, is hosting some sort of virtual experience to connect with customers right now,” Hoel says. For example, Napa Valley Vintners maintains a running list of virtual tastings and events in the region, with similar efforts underway in Washington state. Grassroots organization United We Taste is hosting virtual events to explore wines of the world. Despite all the chaos in the present environment, now is a good time to “travel without traveling” and experience amazing wines from across the U.S. and the globe. Find Real Simple’s guide to virtual wine tastings here.