Where to Buy Wine

The “Wine For Lawyers” series is written by sommelier and criminal defense lawyer Brian Tannebaum.

“I go to Total Wine, that place is awesome.” Yes, I know. I go to Total Wine too; that place is awesome. But it’s not the only place to buy wine.

There are five types of places to buy wine

  1. Wineries
  2. Online retailers (some that have brick-and-mortar shops as well)
  3. Small wine shops
  4. Grocery stores
  5. “Big box” places like Total Wine

Every state has different laws on the sale of wine and liquor. Some states don’t allow direct shipping or direct shipping from individual retailers/wineries. Some states don’t have Total Wine–type stores. I’m not here to discuss all of those issues that, for a wine geek like me, are interesting.1

Let’s just assume you have access to purchase wine and want to know the pros and cons of each type of retailer.


Only buy wine from wineries that is not available anywhere else.

“Wait,” you say. “I want to bring back a bottle of Caymus Cabernet and say I bought it at the winery in Napa.” Okay, a bottle. Fine. But do not buy a case.

I use Caymus as an example because they make a lot of (good) wine that is available all over the place.

I don’t know what Caymus Cabernet costs at the winery, but I bet it is not $54 with no tax and free shipping. They made a Zinfandel that was only available at the winery (aptly called “winery only” wine) which is a bottle of wine I would buy at the winery.

If you visit a winery and love their wine, by all means get on their mailing list and buy away. But if you are buying by the case and it is available from a wholesaler or other retailer for much less, consider the cost. I bet if the wine is distributed you can get it by the bottle for at least $10 less. Shipping from wineries can get expensive as well, and online retailers will often offer free shipping, saving you anywhere from $35-$65 a case. Depending on the price of the wine, that can easily add up to a bottle or two.

Online Retailers

Here is where you get many emails, great deals, and often free or reduced shipping.

But be very careful. Some of these are merely websites with access to wine. You can figure it out by seeing that they have a wine you cannot believe they have, and when you try to buy it, they don’t have it. Sometimes, they will offer a wine, and when you contact someone, you learn it’s not the 2010, it is the 2012. That’s a no-no.

I am getting paid nothing for mentioning these, but here’s a few who I trust in the online retailer wine world:

Small Wine Shops

These folks have big rent, small purchase power, higher prices, more top quality wines you’ve never heard of, and an owner who knows wine. This type of wine shop is where you go because it is your anniversary, your college roommate is turning 40, or you need to get that local lawyer a great bottle for that referral. They also usually have weekly or monthly tastings.

One good tip about these places: they get to know you, and you often mention them to others, so don’t be surprised when the owner calls you to tell you someone bought you a bottle, and it’s awaiting your pickup. They also get to know what you like and when a small stash comes in; you’ll get the call — assuming you took my advice in the last article to buy a bottle when you go to their tastings.

Grocery Stores

Grocery stores are starting to get smart. They realize the wine world is growing, and they want to be your one-stop shop. I don’t remember seeing wine being given out at the grocery store when I was a kid, but now it’s rare not to see a table with a few open bottles being served. The wine section is now more than a couple shelves; it’s a corner of the store.

Because grocery stores are getting into the wine game, prices are getting more reasonable, and the quality is increasing. I also see people working at grocery stores now that know something about the wine, so don’t be afraid to ask for that coveted great Pinot under $20.

Big Box

Big box wine stores are like candy stores for people like me. Tons and tons of wine, everything from $3 to $3,000 a bottle, and most people shopping there have no idea what they are doing. They only want a smooth cab under $10 or think, “That’s a cool label.”

When I’m having a party, I often go to a big box store. They will have multiple cases of cheap wine, and I know what I want. For those that don’t, take some advice.

Price point and type of wine (the famous $10 Cab) is a great place to start — but never commit to the grape. I mentioned before the $7 Grenache I’m serving now at parties. I can’t find a comparable $7 cab. So if price matters, lose the fixation on the grape, regardless of what your spouse said (“just bring home a case of any $10 merlot”). I would ask “what’s the best red/white you have” at the price you are willing to pay. I guarantee you are going to get a better Grenache or Pinot Gris for the same price as a Cab or Chardonnay, and your guests won’t care.

As for purchasing fine wine at big box stores, they have them, but unless you need it tonight, take two minutes and go to Wine Searcher to see for what price other retailers are selling the same wine. Figure in $5 per bottle shipping, minus tax, and see if it’s worth buying the bottles now. If it is less than a $10 difference, or it is a bottle of wine that is not mass produced, make the purchase.

Final tip: always ask for a case discount. Most retailers will give you 10% off unless the wine is already severely discounted.

Next: how to navigate a restaurant wine list.

Featured image: “ Salesman in supermarket offering bottle of red wine to smiling woman” from Shutterstock.

  1. I’ll buy you a drink if you’ve ever visited www.shipcompliant.com 

1 Comment

  1. Avatar Jonathan Blecher says:

    Online buyers should pay close attention to the climate. Many online retailers won’t ship until weather improves (snow in winter, heat in summer). Some will hold your summer wine order until cooler temps prevail. You can call the online seller and ask if they will cold ship, but I don’t take that chance. As always, thanks for the sage advice.

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