From perfectly timing your purchases to working it at your local wine shop, take this guide to the bank with our tips for buying — and saving on — all your adult beverages this summer.
By overwhelming majority, the top tip for saving when swilling this summer is to find a wine shop or liquor store you love, where you feel comfortable, and befriend knowledgeable staff who recommend wines, beers, and spirits that you’ve enjoyed.
Craig Drollett and John Hafferty, co-founders of Bin Ends, the “Filene’s Basement of Fine Wine,” just outside Boston in Braintree, MA, created their shop as a destination for high-quality, “serious wines at serious savings,” in a welcoming environment where customers can hang out, ask questions — even try a wine or seven.
Bin Ends feels so strongly about first educating their customers that they’ve built live Twitter tastings and a virtual sommelier into their online website, and do wine tastings seven days a week, throughout the day, in their shop. “We start out with a few bottles earlier in the week, and by Saturday it’s practically a Bacchanalia in here,” Hafferty said.
They stress that, even now, consumers should be focusing their booze buys on quality over quantity. “If it’s not good, it’s not a good value,” Drollet said. “You don’t have to sacrifice quality to get a good deal.”
Hafferty, a jovial and unassuming wine aficionado and educator, stresses that buyers of all levels of knowledge should build relationships with local purveyors as the surefire way to put more money in their pockets over the long haul.
“Develop a relationship with a store or two where you feel comfortable, where the store asks you questions and consults you versus just pushing stuff on you,” Hafferty said. “Once you have a rapport with a store, they can offer you guidance or direction on things you’ll like. If you don’t like oaked chardonnay, for instance, they won’t recommend you purchase a burgundy. Ask questions. Get to know a sommelier. Look for retailers who offer great service vs. places that just fill the place up and then count the money.”
WINE & BEER CLUBS
Most wineries offer their own wine club memberships, and many sites and retailers such as Wine.com, FlyingNoodle.com, Sur La Table and Williams-Sonoma have also introduced nearly nationwide wine club offerings over the past few years, in addition to the traditional Wine of the Month Club. The experts argue, however, that neither wine clubs nor buying directly from the winery is necessarily going to get consumers the best price or the best deal.
Adam Levin, marketing director for Snooth.com, the largest wine community and marketplace on the web, says that wine clubs are great if you really love that winery, or if you’ve visited a winery in the past and want to recreate that memorable experience in your home. Personally, however, he’s not willing to give up the flexibility (and frugality) that comes with being in control of selecting your own wines.
Levin suggests that if consumers are going to buy directly from a winery, either because they like their wines or they want to support the winery without going through middlemen, that they switch to a new winery the following year.
Noah Dorrance, marketing director for Crushpad, a DIY winemaking facility in San Francisco, also says that he’s personally participated in wine clubs in the past, and actually finds them to be less cost-effective in addition to giving up control.
“They’re a great money maker for wineries, but in general you’re kind of locked in — you forget to cancel your membership, and you’re not able to take advantage of best pricing at other places,” Dorrance said. “But, if you get into a wine club that you really like and whose selections and pricing you like to begin with, you can save big.”
Dorrance urges consumers to make sure it’s a wine or beer club whose products they really enjoy, and that, for those who don’t enjoy the experience of shopping, it could add up to a significant time and frustration saver.
“Traditionally, wine clubs have been a great way to try wines that you might not find at your local liquor store or grocery store, not necessarily to save money but to have an expert pick certain bottles for you, to become more of a connosseiur, to find out what you like and don’t like and become more educated about wine,” adds Samir Bhavnani, the voice behind GotTannins.com, a World Wines Group blog. “Consumers have an opportunity right now because things are kind of tough to take advantage of special offers from wine or beer clubs, like free shipping or discounts.”
Bhavnani also urges consumers to call up these wine or beer clubs and ask them if there’s anything they can do within a particular budget — say $79. “Sometimes the wine clubs will say yes, or they might waive the shipping fee,” he said. “Typically, there does tend to be a bit of flexibility, but you have to ask.”
A TIME & A PLACE
As with everything, there’s a right time and a right place to make your move. The experts argue that in order to save on wine or beer, the same is true, and that consumers can save big by stocking up at times of year when prices are normally lower.
“American wineries generally have a release cycle in the fall and the spring, and if they are backed up on the previous vintage before the release, they need to get rid of the inventory and will sell it cheap,” Levin said. “Right before then, maybe in August, you’ll see prices drop on wines because distributors are trying to get rid of the previous vintage before they have a new one to contend with.”
Hafferty of Bin Ends, who considers himself a “fine wine bounty hunter,” also urges consumers to learn a little bit about wine regions of the world, and to look to the fringe of popular areas for the most frugal options. “Take advantage of ‘road less traveled’ opportunities,” he said.
Pointing to a map of the Chianti region in Italy, Hafferty showed how buying a wine outside Chianti Clasico — from a nearby but lesser known area — can save consumers big bucks. “Because it’s from the wrong side of the tracks, so to speak, it can’t command the same price, but the quality is there,” he said.
Hafferty also urges bucking the current wine trends and looking to varietals that have fallen out of popular favor, for those are going to be much better deals than wines that are all the rage with critics – what he calls “The Sideways Effect,” after the movie starring Paul Giamatti that notoriously bashed merlot.
“Buying wine is kind of like buying stocks, except that the Bordeaux market doesn’t crash,” Hafferty said. “If pinot noir is popular and merlot is on the outs, buy merlot. Right now, pinot noir isn’t a particularly good value because of supply and demand — yields go up and quality goes down. Syrah from California is a hard sell, but it’s a really great value.”
SEARCH, CLICK, SAVE
Noah Dorrance of Crushpad also says that right now is a great time to be buying anything. He suggests keeping your eyes open for sales, and using the internet to search for your favorite drinks using an average price paid in the past as your benchmark for finding deals. “BrownDerby.com, for example, has every wine in their inventory at 25% off,” Dorrance says. “It’s not marked as such because they’re limited by [state liquor laws] not to have a sale.” Dorrance also recommends other sites like WineSearcher.com, which offers price comparisons and shows consumers where wines are available in their area, allowing one to find the cheapest reasonable price.
Daily and weekly bargain alert websites such as The Wine Spies, RadCru.com, and WineWoot are also great ways to find interesting deals on booze, says Levin of Snooth. “I’ve also just been introduced to Wine.com and their stewardship program, which is like the Amazon Prime program, where you pay once for shipping for the year. That is a great deal,” he said.
As marketing director for the largest wine website in the world, Levin knows his stuff, and suggests that if you find success with a particular online marketplace, sign up for their email newsletter.
“In the wine world, emails really sell wine, so more and more retailers are turning to email marketing and loyalty programs as their forum and their place to reward customers,” he said. “Sign up to be on the newsletter list for your favorite stores, because when they have a deal, they’re going to turn to their mailing list first. That’s the easiest way to get the best bang for your buck.”
TO SHIP OR NOT TO SHIP
Some states, such as Shoestring‘s home of “Taxachussetts,” make buying booze across state lines notoriously difficult, or actually ban it outright. It’s no secret that some people get around these restrictions by shipping to a relative in a neighboring state, filling out their postal service form as “juice,” or packing up the trunk of their car and hoping for the best.
In Canada, there’s a completely legal service at SaveonBooze.ca – the so-called “Booze Bus” — which drives between Toronto and Niagara Falls. The “deluxe highway coach” offers its patrons the opportunity to “save up to 38% on the cost of Canadian liquor — up to $450 per trip!” (Similar services, which we were unable to track down, supposedly also run between England and France for Londoners looking to avoid high tariffs on their favorite Bordeaux.)
“Unfortunately, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone in the wine industry who doesn’t think those laws are bullshit,” said Bhavnani of GotTannins. “At the end of the day, there are ways around it. But is it worth the hassle? Nine times out of 10, the answer is no. You’re better off developing relationships and finding discounts within the distribution channels of your home state.”
Bhavnani cited his experience as an undergrad at Boston College, where he and friends — like many Taxachussans — would drive an hour north, across state lines, to the New Hampshire state liquor stores — particularly on Sundays, when state blue laws previously prevented the sale of alcohol. “I’m driving an hour and a half to get something that I couldn’t get, but it’s not as though you’d want to be doing that on any other day of the week,” he said. “There are very few circumstances where consumers will go to all that effort to save a few bucks.”
Instead, he recommends writing to your state and local representatives to encourage and enact change, rather than having your wine shipped to your grandmother across the state line on a regular basis. Grassroots campaigns like FreeTheGrapes.org also act as catalysts between legislators and the public, helping wine lovers change the laws so that wineries and retailers can ship wine directly to consumers.
Copyright 2009: Shoestring, LLC. Photo: Courtesy of Bin Ends.