Buying wine online — a big risk?

As online-only wine merchants, we’ve had to face the fact that some people won’t buy wine online.  Even from us, and everyone knows we have the most awesomely, fantastically stupendous online wine shop that ever existed! 😉   Seriously, though, we get it.  While you can find some things online you can’t get in local wine stores, and maybe some good deals, too, it’s not for everyone.  And as you’ll see below, there’s some not terribly good wine out there on the internet.  Of course, you can get less-than-good wine at wine stores too, but walk-in stores have their advantages:

If you don't know much about wine, every bottle can be a mystery. But why will some people only buy wine from stores and not online?

1)      We talk about convenience in online shopping since the product gets delivered to us.  But for a bottle or two of wine, it’s equally convenient to stop at a local wine shop or even the grocery store on your way home.  To buy the wine online you have to think about it ahead of time and then make sure you’re there to sign for the wine when it arrives.

2)      In a good wine shop, someone in the shop tasted every wine before making the decision to carry it.  (That may not be the case in the grocery store, but there you’re probably sticking to a known quantity anyway.)  So even if you don’t get to taste the wine in the shop, you can probably talk to the person who did.

3)      There’s something to be said for face-to-face interactions.  If you don’t like the wine recommended to you, the next time you’re in the shop you can tell the people there exactly what you didn’t like about a selection they’ve helped you with and (usually) get a recommendation for something you will like. 

4)      There’s a real incentive for the shop owner/worker too – if you’re a customer who’s willing to talk and ask questions, then you’re also likely to tell your friends about your interaction in the store, good or bad.  

With wine, as with anything else...

Buying wine online adds an element of the unknown, and not always a good one.  Although I know we carry great wines at excellent prices, the online wine industry (at least when you’re not buying directly from a winery) is a big “buyer beware” marketplace.   With dozens of sites, tens of thousands of wines, hundreds of so-called “experts,” and more closeout markdowns than an Oriental rug store, you can get a great find or a great swindle and everything in between.  Even if you know something about wine. 

This point was driven home twice in the past week.  First, I went to a wine tasting event with wine bought online from retail sites.  And then I read a blog post by a knowledgeable wine guy who got taken by an offer that seemed like a good deal. 

The tasting had a fun premise:  the presenter selected five wines he’d never tried or heard of from online stores.   He had to be able to find (by google or otherwise) good reviews or other indications that they might be good wines, the wines had to be at least 25% off from their regular prices, and the seller had to offer free shipping.  We tried wines costing $11 to $18 per bottle. 

I had a great time even though none of the wines was anything special.  An $18 California Sangiovese was the best of them, but not one I’d seek out at that price and certainly not at the “regular” price of more than $30.  The $11 Bordeaux (down from $40 or so) was kind of flavorless.   I had high hopes for a $13 Rhône selection supposedly marked down from $23, but it wasn’t memorable, and the others were drinkable if undistinguished.  A nice learning experience, a chance to have some good conversation, cheese, and bread, and no one spent a lot of money.

What specifically did I learn?  Regular prices are meaningless.  If you read one of Macy’s advertisements, you’ll see a little disclaimer that the “regular” price wasn’t necessarily one that resulted in any sales at that price.  Most wine sites don’t say this, but it’s obviously true for them too.  Even if the regular prices seemed typical for wines of their types, these particular wines weren’t worth it.

Two days later I read this post on the Good Grape blog.  The blogger, Jeff Lefevere, is a self-described wine wonk and writes extremely well.  He’s exactly the kind of person you’d think would be able to sniff out a great deal.  Lured by a coupon, he bought some $25 bottles of what should have been an outstanding wine even at the regular price. 

I won’t give away all the details, because Mr. Lefevere writes about them better than I could.  But everything from the too-light bottle and fake-looking label to the not very good wine points to a problem, to say the least.  And what’s more, this wine passed through a lot of hands before Mr. Lefevere bought it:  an importer, a distributor, and a retailer at minimum, any one of whom should have examined and tasted it and determined there was something wrong.  There’s no self-pity in the blog post, the point is that if it happened to him it can certainly happen to anyone. 

Sometimes even the experts get burned.

Does the supposed mystique of wine make online wine sales riskier than other products?  I don’t think so, but most online orders from the big sites make it worthwhile to order more bottles (deeper discounts or free shipping), so you could be stuck with a lot of wine you don’t like.  It’s difficult if not impossible to return the wine, and although you may be able to get some money back, most people won’t bother.  Why not?  I think that may be where the mystique/snob appeal comes in:  if you as a non-expert buy a wine that has been praised by the so-called experts and don’t like it, you may feel less than confident in your own opinion and asking for a refund.

Obviously, I’ve got a lot at stake with this issue.  I can’t guarantee you will love every First Vine wine, but I can guarantee I have tasted them all and won’t sell anything I think isn’t good.  But I’d like to hear about your experiences buying wines online from retailers.  Or why you’d rather not buy wine online at all.  So please leave a comment or send an e-mail and let me know what you think.

And now for the recipe.  That big football game is on this Sunday.  You know, the Super-duper thingy.   It calls for hearty food, but since you’ll be sitting around for hours (if only for the commercials) you might not want to eat something too heavy.  So here’s my recipe for Chicken Chili made over years of experimenting.  It’s sort of like a Chile Blanco, but I find most of them don’t have much flavor.   I like to use some red chili powder.  So we can’t call it “blanco” anymore.  And I like to cook the base without the chicken for a good while, which mellows everything nicely.

There are a lot of steps here, I admit it.  But none of them is difficult and none requires very much of your time.  There is one shortcut you could try:  I like to poach skin-on, bone-in chicken breasts for more flavor, but you can substitute raw boneless, skinless chicken breasts, just cut them up and add them at the end.  The corn tortilla as thickener is also optional, but I like the flavor and I usually have corn tortillas in the fridge anyway.

I like beer with chili and this one is no exception.  But I also like two of our everyday reds:  Domaine Fond Croze Merlot ($9) and Domaine de Mairan Cabernet Sauvignon ($14).  Both will stand up to the spice but won’t overpower the chicken.  And if you’ve been spending January eating and drinking less, now’s your chance to reward yourself without a lot of guilt.  Save that for the Oscars, where you can experience schadenfreude watching all those people wearing clothes they can’t sit down in.

Bon Appetit!


Tom’s Chicken Chili

Serves 8 or more 

6 skin-on, bone-in chicken breasts (3-4 pounds), or 7 boneless, skinless chicken breasts

1 quart chicken stock (boxed is fine)

3 tablespoons olive oil

2 large onions, cut in large dice

2 fresh jalapeño peppers, ribs and seeds removed, minced very finely

4 cloves fresh garlic, minced

1 4-ounce can diced roasted green chiles

1 tablespoon ground cumin

1 tablespoon ancho chile powder

1 tablespoon medium-hot red chili powder

1 teaspoon dried oregano

Salt and freshly ground pepper

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

4 15-ounce cans Cannellini beans, rinsed and drained

Freshly-squeezed lime juice

Optional:  1 or 2 small fresh corn tortillas

Optional garnishes:  sour cream, diced raw onion, sliced pickled jalapeños, shredded cheddar cheese, lime wedges

For the bone-in chicken, put all the pieces in a large pot and add the chicken stock.  Bring to a boil over medium heat, then reduce the heat to simmer and cook for 20 minutes.  Turn off the heat, cover the pot, and let everything sit for another 10 minutes.  Take the chicken pieces out of the liquid and set them aside to cool a bit more, then cover and refrigerate them.  (For the boneless breasts, cut them into bite-sized pieces and refrigerate.

Mix the cumin, ancho and regular chili powders, oregano, 1-1/2 teaspoons of salt and a few grinds of pepper in a small bowl and set aside.

In a separate large heavy pot with a lid, like a Dutch oven, heat the oil over medium-high heat.  Add the onions and a teaspoon of salt, stir and cook the onions over medium heat for 5 minutes.  Add the minced jalapeño (don’t stick your face over the pot or you’ll get burned from the vapors) and cook for another five minutes or so, until the onion starts to brown a little.  Add the garlic and cook for 30 seconds.  Then stir in the spice mixture and cook for another 30 seconds.  Add the canned chiles and the Worcestershire sauce, then stir in about 1 cup of the broth to loosen anything that’s sticking to the bottom.  Add the rest of the broth, bring to a boil, reduce the heat to low, and simmer for half an hour.

Stir in the beans, bring to a boil again, then lower the heat, partially cover the pot, and simmer for 45 minutes.  Using a heatproof 2-cup measure, remove about a cup of the beans and liquid and blend until smooth.  Return the puree to the pot.  At this point, you can cover the pot and let it sit for a while.

Remove the skin and bones from the chicken and cut it into bite-sized pieces.  Bring the bean mixture to a boil and then turn the heat to low.  Add the cut-up chicken (either the raw or cooked pieces) and stir for about 10 minutes, until the chicken is cooked (if you used the boneless breasts) and heated all the way through.  Taste for salt and pepper.  Add a tablespoon of fresh lime juice and then taste and see if you need some more.

For the optional tortilla thickener:  tear one tortilla into small pieces and put it in the blender jar.  Add about a half cup of liquid from the chili and blend until smooth.  Add to the chili, then taste and decide if you want to add another tortilla (or part of one). 

Serve with or without garnishes.  It will stay hot nicely on the stove without the heat on for at least an hour, and it’s great left over too.

This entry was posted in Chicken chili, Domaine de Mairan, Domaine Fond Croze, Musings/Lectures/Rants, Online wine sales, recipes, Tom Natan, wine delivery washington dc and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Buying wine online — a big risk?

  1. Great article. I certainly agree that it does seem like a bigger decision to buy wine online. However, the internet also gives the customer more chance to make up their mind. They don’t have to buy right there and then because they are not standing in the store. After picking a few wines, they then have the opportunity to search for reviews from customers, not from the website itself which could be biased. Perhaps more online wine stores should have better review sites and forums attached?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s