Why novelist Chang-rae Lee buys his wine online.

Why novelist Chang-rae Lee buys his wine online.

Why novelist Chang-rae Lee buys his wine online.

Stories from Food & Wine.
Sept. 18 2011 12:31 AM

I Don't Want To Be the Kind of Guy Who Buys Wine Online

But I am. Here's why.

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In recent years, like a lot of people, I've been buying more of my wine online. Frankly, I feel guilty about it, for I abhor living too much in the techno-cave, with all these meager, glowing implements; I love a lively fire in the hearth and snuggling in beside my sweet-smelling wife and drinking wine so tasty that it makes me think I can sing. Who wants to make virtual any of this life's pleasures? Really, nobody.

Yet we all do: We surf the Net for reasons of convenience, efficiency, and frugality, which are mostly commendable things. And we're bypassing even the minor pleasure of buying things in person—books, music, and (most irking to me) wine. 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. Maybe you know the type: the oeno-pest who's in the store every Friday afternoon (does he have a job?) studying the labels like a cryptologist or chatting with the staff about a producer's vinification methods or a Piedmont vintage's weather. 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.

Yet sometimes, I simply can't deal. Maybe I've been writing all day, and my head feels as though it's been pummeled, and I can't quite bear someone hovering. Or an unfamiliar salesperson will descend and push a wine because it just received "a monster Parker rating." Or, perhaps worst of all, a normally trusty staffer will excitedly suggest a bottle, and when I taste it, I'm sorely disappointed; I'll be loath to go back and have an awkward, fitful conversation, its implication being, "No offense, but I despised that wine you dearly love." Things can quickly get too personal, especially in matters of taste. 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.

So I'll sit at my desk and search. 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.

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You can see that I'm more than a bit conflicted, that my opposing urges have me wanting a connection that's substantive and helpful, yet one I can keep at a comfortably virtual distance. But unlike the online buying of other taste-dependent products (say, novels), in wine cyberspace you can, if you look, find people to query and hear their commentary, getting both knowledge and personality without the trouble of putting someone off (or being put off yourself). And so inevitably, during my searches, I find myself wondering who is working behind the screen in Florida or Missouri. It turns out that I want to peek behind the digital curtain. I want to hear a human voice.

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. They're often game for conversation, so I'll ask for other recommendations, each of us sharing what we've recently enjoyed, probing the other for clues to preferred styles, tastes.

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. Once we do begin to connect, I might ask how he or she got into the business, if there was a pivotal "wine moment" (there often is), try to see if I'll be able to rely on her for advice in the future. Once I chatted for nearly a half an hour with a nice fellow (I never got his name) at the Rare Wine Co. about the differences in style between Conterno and Borgogno Barolos, then about respective trips we'd made to Italy. And while I'm sure I've been thought a nuisance or even a bit creepy, I've almost always found the person on the other end to be more passionate about her work than she has to be, maybe even a touch messianic; someone who'd much rather drink good wine and share notions about its glories than merely sell it.

My favorite online retailer is  Mission Fine Wines, which is based in Staten Island, N.Y. 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. Essentially, you have to know what you want—at least initially. For as with all the better online retailers, there's a live opinion available, if you desire; how else can you try something new (or old and perhaps fragile) with confidence, but after a real conversation? 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. I spoke to him before confirming my first order (something I try to do with a retailer I haven't bought from before), as I wanted to hear his thoughts on the '97 Château Palmer that was then featured on his site at a great price ($65 a bottle, around half what it's going for now).

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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 sadly have but two bottles left of the case. 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.

Naturally, such an invitation is irresistible to someone like me. 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. On the way there, I passed sheet-metal fabricators, pawn shops, Guatemalan hair salons, perhaps 900 Italian delis and pizzerias, and all the stoop-shouldered row houses pinched between them, with pimped-out Dodge pickups parked askew out front.

Inside, though, it's a different world. 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.

And though it seems impossible that one could ever locate a particular wine here, Joe can blindly reach behind roughly piled boxes of Rhônes and Rieslings and know he'll grab a zesty, minerally Leflaive Mâcon-Verzé he's been wanting me to try, which he opens for us now. Joe's partner, Alex Gelleri, and the rest of the Mission gang (all of two) take a break and come by for a taste, as does Charlie, the cheery warehouse landlord, who (blond hair aside) looks and sounds just like Leo Gorcey of the Bowery Boys and is soon waxing poetic on the mystical qualities of a 19th-century Bual he'd bought from Joe. 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. For you should, in fact, go there. And maybe really click.

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