A Guide to Ordering Wine Online

From surfing through shipping to sipping


The internet has pretty much taken over my shopping. I think I’m getting frequent-flier miles on Amazon and eBay these days since I’m on their sites so much. Even when it comes to wine I am an addicted Internet shopper. I know many people have concerns when shopping over the Net, but the selection of wine you can find -- not to mention the prices -- makes ordering wine online more attractive than ever. Of course, there are several issues you should familiarize yourself with before diving in headfirst. By equipping yourself with the answers to these questions, you’ll be ready to begin ordering wine online with confidence.

Is it legal?

The answer to this question is very difficult to answer. Interstate wine shipping is a state-level issue, and almost each state has crafted its own unique rules governing the shipment of wine. In general, you can simply find out if the retailer you are hoping to shop from ships to your state. For more information, specifically as it relates to the ability of wineries to ship directly to consumers, visit the Wine Institute website.

Why shop online?

Ordering your wine online not only affords you greater choice, it’s sometimes the only choice. For example, wineries may offer exclusive selections to the members of their wine clubs or certain retailers in states that allow direct importing may have wines you can’t find anywhere else in the country. On the other hand, those same states that allow retailers to direct import wines are also the source of the best prices in the nation, since they have effectively skipped the three-tier systems that see profit margins added at the import, distribution, and retail levels.

Will I get a bargain?

All this adds up to the all-important question: Is it worth buying wine online? Well, if you’re searching for wines that are not available anywhere else, that’s pretty much a moot point. On the other hand, if you’re looking to save money there are several questions you’ll need to answer before you will able to figure out if you’re going to end up saving any money.

How should I have it shipped?

There is no easy answer to this question, but taking a look at the weather is one of the keys that will allow you to determine what your options may be. Shipping wine in temperatures above 70F or so can be a dangerous business. It’s not the 70F that you should be worried about, but rather how hot a truck can get sitting in 70F heat while waiting to deliver your wine, or while waiting to meet a connecting truck or plane.

It’s a good idea to ask your shipper what route your wine might take if you are opting to have it shipped in weather that is warmer than recommended. I always check to see what the temperatures are both at the point of departure as well as locally when arranging the shipping of my wine. In addition, you need to also take into consideration the temperatures your wine might have to travel through, so consulting a complete weather forecasting site is essential when planning wine shipments. I always refer to the graphical forecasts created by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Weather Service.

How much does shipping cost? 

I’ve included a rough estimate for shipping a case of wine from California to New York for each method discussed below, in order to give you an idea of the comparative pricing of each.

Your basic options begin with ground shipping, which I would recommend only for shipments when the weather is between 32 and 70 degrees, or for those shipments that are so short as to effectively be next-day delivery to you.

- 1 case shipped ground coast to coast runs about $50 or $4 a bottle at volume.

For more expensive wines, I recommend three-day air for shipping. It’s not that your wine will be treated with any more care, though that may be true, but the key here is that if you arrange for your wine to ship on a Monday, three-day air will make sure you get your wine the same week it is shipped, eliminating the possibility of your wine ending up in an unheated or uncooled freight depot over a weekend.

- 1 case shipped three-day select coast to coast costs around $100 or $8.50 a bottle.

Second-day air is an even better option, making sure your wine gets to you quickly and safely. This level of shipping ensures your wine is expedited through the system, moving from ground transportation to air quickly, without the possibility of sitting too long in one place. This is a viable option for shipping wine in warmer weather, though I would still caution against shipping wine even with second-day air when temperatures are higher than the mid-70s.

- 1 case shipped second-day air coast to coast costs around $150 or $12.50 a bottle.

The most effective way to ensure that your wine is delivered in a safe manner is to have it overnighted to you. The truth of the matter is that I rarely opt for overnight shipping as the price of the shipping tends to eliminate any potential savings I may have realized by purchasing out of state. For older wines, and particularly valuable wines, I would still recommend overnight shipping, if nothing else so that should you have any issues with the wine you can essentially eliminate the shipping as the cause.

- 1 case shipped overnight coast to coast costs around $200 or $17 a bottle.

So, is it worth it?

Now that you can roughly add your expected shipping costs to your order you can begin to decide whether or not having wines shipped to you makes any sense. For me, there is definitely a threshold under which I almost never even consider ordering wine from out of state.

Living in New York, I pay some 8.5% sales tax on my in-state purchases. Knowing that shipping will be at least $4 a bottle means that I would have to save at least $4 a bottle for the whole process to make any sense. In general, that means I’m looking at wines that retail for at least $25 a bottle, seeing as savings rarely exceed about 20%, though there have been some occasional sales that have doubled and even tripled that figure.

What's the bottom line?

So, the bottom line is that you’ll have to make up your own mind if ordering out of state is worth the added expenses and effort it can take to order online. You’ll also have to wait before receiving your wine. And, of course, you will remain at the mercy of the weather, which may mean that wines bought in May don’t get delivered until November! 

Even with all these issues, I still buy most of my wine online. The added selection and savings I realize have made me a dedicated convert to the online marketplace. Is today your time to join me?

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