How to buy wine in a pandemic.

Above: the aisles are empty at my favorite wine shop in the U.S., Chambers Street Wines in lower Manhattan.

It’s no surprise that safety measures and isolation protocols have drastically reshaped the way Americans buy wine. Long gone are the days when wine lovers could browse the shelves of their favorite shops, perhaps taking a break to taste a wine or two offered by a salesperson or a guest “supplier rep.”

But one of the few places where the wine trade has seen an increase in sales has been the retail sector. The math is simple: people are spending more time at home, eating in more often, and because they can’t make that Thursday evening visit to their preferred wine bar, they are consuming more wine at home.

That doesn’t mean that wine shops aren’t struggling. Just like everyone else in the pandemic, they’ve had to reinvent how they market their services and sell their wines. And because in-person shopping and tasting is no longer possible (or less preferable in some cases where shops are allowing customers to browse), they have to rely on good old-fashioned person-to-person sales strategies, whether via email or phone, to engage with their clients.

Tracie and I have continued to buy wine throughout our isolation. I haven’t traveled in more than seven months at this point and while the amount of wine we consume hasn’t really changed, we enjoy wine exclusively at home now. We buy wine from a variety of sources, in part because we want to support the wine community locally and nationally and in part because there are so many great deals and discounts on some of our favorite wines right now.

Here are some tips, gleaned from personal experience, on how to buy wine in the ongoing pandemic.

Above: browsing the shelves at Chambers Street Wines in normal times is like leafing through a favorite wine book. 

Look out for deals and discounts on wines and shipping.

The Montinore winery in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, one of our favorites, just sent out an email that they’re waiving shipping fees for a year for anyone who joins their wine club. They already offer free shipping on 12-bottle orders. Incentives like these are becoming increasingly common as wineries need to drive sales. When you take advantage of these offers, you save money and you help support a struggling industry. It’s a win-win. I’ve made a point of signing up for every email list I can find and some of the deals I’m seeing — from wineries and wine shops — are incredible.

Many independent wine shops across the country have a work-around when it comes our nation’s restrictive wine shipping laws.

It’s illegal for a wine shop to ship wines to a consumer in Texas. But Chambers Street Wines in New York, my favorite wine shop in the U.S., can now ship me wines using a “third-party shipper.” Technically, the store isn’t shipping me the wine. A dedicated wine shipper is handling the shipping. It’s a dumb as the anti-competitive policies of my state legislature but it works.

Now more than ever, we rely on our relationships with wine salespersons to source us the wines we love.

The ongoing pandemic has disrupted the wine supply chain in ways that no one could have predicted or imagined. Exclusive allocations earmarked for by-the-glass programs, for example, have gone unclaimed and are being offered, hat in hand, to retailers. Now more than ever our retailers can source deals and deep discounts on wines that we love. But none of that can happen unless they know our tastes. Tracie and I have discovered so many new wines thanks to our favorite local retailers who reach out when they come across something they think we’ll like. If you can’t be with the wine you love, love the wine you’re with.

Restaurants are eager to sell you their wine.

Many states, including Texas, now allow restaurants to sell you wine to take home with you. In my experience, wine lists are a great resource for finding older wines that were prohibitively expensive in the time before the pandemic. And restaurateurs are increasingly open to making deals. Smart wine programs are designed with long term aging goals. But in this time of unprecedented crisis, that’s all out the window. As a result, the authors of wine lists are now often eager to walk you through their programs and offer you retail pricing. And as much as it may feel like you’re taking advantage of them, you’re actually helping them to grow cash flow at a time when they are desperate for capital.

Wine shop and restaurant employees are essential, front-line workers.

No matter where or how you’re buying wine, it’s important to remember that wine shop and restaurant employees are essential, front-line workers. Just like you and me, they are mothers, fathers, spouses, partners, and caretakers for the elderly and disabled, human beings with mortgages, rent, and health insurance premiums to pay and kids to feed. You can help support them by buying wine, by listening to their advice, and trusting them to source new wines for you to try.

Thanks for being here. Please buy some wine from your favorite wine retailer and enjoy.

4 thoughts on “How to buy wine in a pandemic.

  1. So glad to hear Chambers Street Wines is going strong. I drove past a month or so ago and it looked shut down — it was like a dagger thru the heart. Such a great lineup. I see they’re back open for pickups now as well, thankfully.

    • I just bought a mixed case from them and they did the wines for a virtual tasting I’m hosting tonight. They did a great discounted offering recently and I picked up some Kelley Fox (a fave) and let them choose all the others for a mixed case with parameters I gave them. Thanks for being here!

  2. Pingback: Terroirist: A Daily Wine Blog » Daily Wine News: Wine Judging

  3. Its hilarious how a state like Texas is so supposedly “free market” and “business friendly” is really just friendly to the big local distribution networks, keeping out of state stores from being able to ship wine there. I mean New York does this too, but doesn’t pretend to be so laissez faire.

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