In recent years, like a lot of people, I’ve been buying more of my wine online. The picture I would prefer to hold of myself is the fellow who faithfully patronizes (perhaps plagues?) the local wine shops rather than browses some brightly arrayed screen. To be sure, I’d rather be there in person, discussing a wine’s qualities with an enthusiastic merchant rather than passively scrolling through professional tasting notes. And I believe in the importance of neighborhood proprietors (whether they sell wine or house paint) to a vital, thriving community; they’re the hubs of the real social network.
I enjoy delicate, mature wines exponentially more than their youthful, exuberant versions, and online retailers tend to have a wider selection of older wine, while most brick- and-mortar shops only have enough room to carry the latest vintages.
I’ll click around the Web for the best price and a clue to the quality of the retailer’s storage facilities, wondering whether the real-life operations are as tech-cool or retro-dusty as their sites. I enjoy browsing the nerdier ones, like North Berkeley Wine and the Rare Wine Co., which provide their own blogs or even photos of staffers’ tasting trips, essentially offering a wider experience of what it means to engage with a wine.
So I’ll call, say, under the pretext of a question about shipping, but then I’ll ask about other vintages of the wine I’m interested in, hoping that the person I’m talking to (a salesperson or maybe even the owner-I’ve found many of the retailers to be smallish, partner-run operations) is knowledgeable and willing to chat, just like in my local store. I’m admittedly a difficult customer, being a slightly delusional wine lover/collector, someone without deep pockets but who favors older, mostly European wines. Not being a hedge-fund manager, I can’t touch superstars from the classic regions, but sometimes the wines of slightly less-renowned producers, especially in underrated vintages, can be great values, especially when you’re guided by a good adviser. My favorite online retailer is Mission Fine Wines, which is based in Staten Island, New York. Its website is defiantly old-school, just a stripped-down listing of inventory that you can sort by region, producer and vintage, featuring not a single picture or much of anything else that’s descriptive, save for a few sentences on a featured wine. I found the Mission website a few years ago when a friend mentioned that he ordered regularly from them, as he’d gone to college with the owner, a voluble, lovable, big-hearted oenophile named Joe Palmiotti, who named his company after the first wine (La Mission Haut-Brion) that had wholly captivated him. As it turned out, that wine ultimately repaved the course of Palmiotti’s professional life. Because of multiple sclerosis, he had to quit his career as a bond trader, and he soon started selling fine wine, first via word of mouth and then through the Web. Joe was, of course, hugely enthusiastic about the wine, holding forth without an atom of snobbery or pretentiousness, his comments smart and comprehensive and nuanced, convincing me that I should try this richly fragrant, silken wine despite its “poor” vintage, promising me, too, that I could return the rest for full credit if I didn’t absolutely love it. I’ve found that most of the online retailers I regularly patronize are similarly accommodating, standing by their wines by offering credit for corked bottles (counter to what the usual stipulated “conditions of purchase” read). They want you to trust them, for it’s the only way someone will become a regular buyer, especially of more expensive, older wines; some even indicate on their websites, as Mission Fine Wines does, that they welcome visitors.
I couldn’t help but arrange a visit to Mission’s Staten Island warehouse, a windowless, gray-plastered building across from the malodorous waters of a harbor busy with work boats and loading cranes. I’ve never seen such a collection of rare and valuable wine in so workaday a place. Multiply this warehouse by scores and you realize this is the real advantage of buying wine online-that you can comb the stocks of dozens of good purveyors and can get almost anything you want (and can afford), that you can click and browse and dream. But this is no automated robot-run operation: Think of your own basement, only cleaner and bigger and colder, though no less cluttered, with seemingly random stacks of wooden case boxes of cult California Cabernet and grand cru Burgundy peppered with loose bottles of Penfolds Grange. The organization is clearly a reflection of Joe’s mad-wine-genius brain, the bottles and cases arrayed in an idiosyncratic house of memory: There’s an open box of ’79 Krug Clos du Mesnil here, some ’96 Mouton there, ancient ports and Madeiras perched precariously on a narrow shelf.
Our talk centers on the wine in the glass but is not limited by it, as we’re laughing as much as swirling, joking about politics, the pratfalls of middle age, raising kids. And I’m reminded that this is the ultimate reason you buy any wine, virtually or not: The truth is, you want to get up from your seat, venture beyond the screen, whether via telephone or in person.