Flash Wine Sales – Buyers Beware!

If you are a wine bargain shopper you’re likely to know about the “Flash” Wine Websites like Wine Woot, WTSO, Lot18, Wine Spies, Last Call Wines, etc. These sites have an online sale on a wine for a short period of time or until they are sold out. These “Flash” sale sites began during recession and they have caught on with many a wine consumer. Imagine how this works. A winery unable to sell its inventory needs to make room for its latest vintage. The winery is able to dump this wine, dealing with one of these “Flash” Websites behind the scenes, so to speak, with little damage to their reputation as a high profile winery. Wow, what if you were a wine club member and happened on one of these “Flash” sites only to find one of your wine club selections priced much less than your wine club member discount?

Three members of our Vintage Wine Tasting Club, including myself. were once regular “Flash” wine site consumers or shall we say more realistically, addicted users of “Flash” wine sites. That addiction has ended as we’ve discovered over time that the wines offered were not always a great deal. It is easy to get carried away and move quickly with your purchase without thinking things through, because the price seems fantastic and you don’t want to miss out before the wine is sold out. The wine descriptions they use always sound so good, but in reality those descriptions are just sale pitches.

The biggest drawback to these “Flash” wine sites is that you cannot taste the wine. It is very much a guessing game as to whether you will really like the wine once it arrives at your doorstep. I purchased six bottles of a Russian River Chardonnay produced by a noted California winery for $15.99 a pop. I thought it was going to be a great deal for my wife who loves those big oaky, buttery Chardonnays. Unfortunately, the wine really did not live up to the hype. It was just okay and had we been able to taste the wine beforehand, we would never have purchased it.

Vintage member Bruce reported that on one “Flash” site the wine he purchased was shipped from New Jersey. So does that mean a California winery shipped their wine to New Jersey first and then it backtracked to Bruce’s house in California? That is a whole lot of shipping and how do we know how the wine was stored during those travels? Once, Bruce received a bottle with a popped cork. He never bothered to go through the hassle of getting his money back for that bottle. Vintage wine club member Ray says: “It’s really a ‘pig-in-a-poke’ thing if you don’t know much about the wines offered.”

Once the excitement and anticipation of these daily deals wore off and, after a few disappointing purchases, we stopped using these “Flash” sites. We have come to the conclusion that living on the San Mateo Peninsula and being very close to San Francisco, there are tons of opportunities to find heavily discounted wines. K&L Wines and the Wine Stop in Burlingame, for example, send out frequent email blasts about wine deals. Costco is said to markup the wines only 12 to 15 percent from their purchase price. Sometimes they throw in a coupon for a couple of bucks off their regular low price, which means they are just breaking even or even losing a few cents on the bottle. Many of the wines at Costco come from elite wineries in the Napa Valley and Sonoma and they are current vintages.

Trader Joe’s has their “Hustle Buys” and if you are an alert shopper or read this blog, you probably have found some fantastic wines under this heading. Trader Joe’s makes a deal with a winery much like the “Flash” sites and distributes X number of cases to selected stores. Once this wine sells out, there is no more to be had.

The big advantage to buying locally is that you can buy one or two bottles to taste and then run back to buy a caseload if you love the wine. In our humble opinion, wine bargain hunters are better off sticking to local wine shops to get the best bang for your buck. The “Flash” wine sites are not all that they are hyped to be up to be; otherwise, all three of us would still be shopping at “Flash” wine sites.

Comments

  1. Rockbell says

    enjoy you blog and jealous of you availability of good inexpensive wines but being in a crazy alcohol state, (AL), flash sites fill a void. Continue the good work!

    • Thanks for reading the blog and good to know about Flash sites for States that have situations like yours.

  2. Excellent points, plus the carbon footprint. As I type this, 4 bottles of fine, 6 year old Tempranillo are cooking up in some warehouse, shipped from WTSO last Monday (yes, I ordered on a Saturday 7 days ago). The wine was supposed to be here (SF Bay Area) yesterday (Friday). Never again.

    Perhaps a local flash site does make sense. There is one in Napa, a short drive from my place. But there is nothing like your local store, if you have one. There is a wonderful place in Lafayette I go a lot (wine thieves, fwiw)

    Cheers, and viva el vino 🙂

    • My friend just order a Chilean red on a flash site and found the same price at BevMo. Strange wine world we live in these days!

  3. Living In the armpit of eastern Oregon, we don’t even have a wine shop. Okay, so there is one coffee place/über-cool lunch spot/beer and wine shop here, but selection is not vast by any means. And sure, i can get to walla walla and go winery direct! But sometimes you are just looking for a NZ Sauvignon blanc or a Viognier that is hard to come by in ww. And since I am a total fan of randomly trying wines, I dig the flash sales. At least those thru which I can mix a case. And Last Call has a minimum of only 4 bottles for free shipping. Sounds good to me. Let you know if I get burned.

  4. I would agree with most of what is written in this post, but it seems to be written with some bias. I don’t work in the wine industry and I have no interest in any wine or liquor business. I just love wine and love it even more when I can get it for a deal. This is one wine drinkers $.02 and I am almost reluctant to give it. I typically buy from Last Call Wines and I will be perfectly happy if all those delicious “flash” wines wait for me.

    In general, I do not use the flash or liquidation sites as a sampling mechanism. However, if you know what you like, and use your discretion when purchasing a wine from a flash or liquidation site, you can get some screaming deals on superb wines. Case-in-point are the most recent vintages of Nickel & Nickel cabernet that are often sold through Last Call Wines for $75-a-pop or frequently 2 for $150 with free shipping. LCW varies the free shipping based on the price of the wine. It could be free shipping for one bottle (usually over $70) or free with the purchase of four bottles (usually anything under $25). You would be lucky to find any Nickel & Nickel Cab at a shop for less than $90, usually you are looking around $100, especially with the jump in the 2010 vintage prices. Find me my 2009 or 2010 N&N Branding Iron or Dragonfly Cab for less than $75 shipped and you will soon find me purchasing the entire stock.

    Being a faithful club member of about a half-dozen high quality wineries, I appreciate being able to taste a multitude of wines straight from the winery or in my club shipment and subsequently having the opportunity to purchase multiple bottles or cases for less than I can get them from the winery with club discount. You are also unlikely to get free or cheap shipping unless the winery is running a special.

    While it is true that some wines can be purchased for slightly less, if you get lucky, it takes very minimal time to do a quick Wine-Searcher query to see if what you are getting is priced accordingly. Maybe try to put a little thought into that purchase before hitting the “finalize purchase” button. Usually you will find that, even if you see the wine for slightly less somewhere else, the shipping cost tips the price slightly over that of the flash sites. If you are online buying wine at a flash site, it takes less than a minute to verify that the price is right. If you are really paranoid that it is going to run out, just add them to your cart and then verify that you like the price before submitting the order. If the flash wine is a bit more expensive than you can find it elsewhere, you should be able to decipher that in a “flash,” and purchase elsewhere or not at all. Not realizing that a sale is not as good as it looks in this scenario is just lazy and is not a legitimate reason to avoid these sites. Obviously you can’t see if the store down the street is having a sale, but it is extremely unlikely that any shop that is in your vicinity will have that particular wine for much less than the best price you can find online. I am not saying it can’t happen, but it’s like seeing a white tiger.

    The shipping information provided in this blog is also a bit misleading. Having been purchasing wines through my clubs and online for a multitude of years, it is difficult to decipher how your bottles are getting to you unless you use overnight shipping, which is going to jack up the cost of your bottles to a point where any minor discounts cease to matter. I live in Colorado and wine from many, many, California wineries will first ship through the South from California before getting back to me (and I am speaking of the real South, not down to Arizona and back). I have spoken with numerous employees and owners of various wineries about this and that’s just the way it is, unless you want to drop the coin for the overnight shipping. This is one of the main reasons that most fine wine clubs have a break in shipping club shipments over the most heated summer months. Another point on that topic is that none of your wine shops are going to be overnighting their wine, so they also face some of these same shipping issues. A caveat to this however, is the fact that liquor distributors are typically doing the handling and should be keeping an eye on the temps and condition of the wines. I have purchased the better part of ten cases (I was familiar with all but a handful) from LCW and I have not had one bad bottle. I cannot say that about the wine I have purchased from Costco or even bottles received directly from the producer (note that they have all replaced these bottles without exception). About two weeks ago I had a two-bottle club shipment arrive with both corks pushed out and obvious leakage from the extremely cold temperatures during transportation. The producer had them replaced within a week with their apologies. Although, no apologies were necessary as Mother Nature will do she pleases, just like when it is still on the vine. To my knowledge UPS/FedEx/USPS employees don’t keep a separate insulated location in the truck for us wine lovers.

    I won’t mention the names of the producers with whom I hold a membership because I love being part of those communities and they have always been extremely expeditious with replacing any bad bottles. I may have to pay a little more (even with my 20-30% discounts) than when I find a great price online, but the personal attention, rare and library releases, and the education gained from those communities is insightful and very special.

    In short, I would not let this commentary steer you away from the flash or liquidation sites. If you know what you are ordering and you verify the price is good, you should buy away. No one can promise that a bottle won’t be bad, but in my limited but respectable experience, I have not had a single bad bottle from LCW. I cannot say that about the wine I have purchased from physically standing wine shops or even directly from the wineries via in person sales or wine club shipments. Do your research, know what you like, buy what you like when you see it and load up your cellar with savings.

    • I agree with your take. Just don’t go crazy, do a little research and if you get underwhelming wine, let the site know. My experience is that they are very responsive.

    • roger winter says

      I think that is an excellent take on the “flash” sites. I live in NY and being able to buy three or four bottles, with no shipping and [dirty secret] no sales tax is very appealing. I also have never had a bad bottle and have never once felt I was gypped. I spend time in California and think Costco is terrific, in NY and other NE States they are not allowed to sell booze. I know what I like and tend to wait for regular favorites.
      Roger W

  5. I continue to be a fan of the flash websites although I have certainly curtailed my purchases until I find a wine I’m familiar with. My favorite is winehoarder.com that acts as a clearinghouse for the most popular websites. On the whole, I’ve been satisfied with my purchases. In fact, when I complained that a particular wine was “corked,” WTSO refunded the per bottle price. The free shipping is always an added incentive.

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