By Ed McCarthy, Mary Ewing-Mulligan

The online wine-buying experience today mainly involves purchasing wines from the websites of established brick-and-mortar wine shops or choosing wines from flash sites that offer an ever-changing but limited selection.

Online merchants

A few companies do sell wine only online — such as Wine.com, ShopWineDirect.com, and Vinfolio.com.

Most websites of established wine shops are all-purpose online shopping sites. Most sites can ship wine to almost any location, with the exception of those destinations that are off-limits because of state regulations.

Some wine-selling sites specialize in certain types of wine, such as elite European wine or collector-level wine. Some sites convey an air of refinement and prestige, while others seem intent on making the shopping experience fun. What kind of site you choose to buy wine is really all about your preference.

Flash sites offer a limited selection of wines at any given moment, usually at very affordable prices. Flash sites are the wine equivalent of shopping for sale items at the mall: If you find something you want, buy it before someone else does. Most flash sites enable you to sign up for e-mail alerts so that you can stay abreast of their offerings.

Wine on the Internet

When you purchase wine online rather than at a store, the issues of service and storage are tough to evaluate. Selection, availability, and price are the criteria that determine which online store deserves your loyalty.

If you’re shopping for a specific wine online, try Wine-Searcher.com. This search engine site enables you to look for specific wines, even specific vintages, and discover which of the site’s member retailers (including most major wine shops across the United States and online retailers) are selling that wine, and at what price. You can then contact that retailer online or by phone to purchase the wine.

You may not always want the shop with the lowest price, however. Sometimes shipping charges from a distant store negate the lower price.

You won’t find offerings from flash sites on Wine-Searcher.com because the wines offered by such sites change too quickly, sometimes several times a day. Some flash sites that you should check out include Vitis.com, WinesTilSoldOut.com, Invino.com, and GreatWine2U.com. All these sites generally list wines at affordable prices (some highly discounted) and sometimes with conditional free shipping.

The pros and cons of wine clubs

When you’re on the wine circuit, you’ll get many offers to join wine clubs. These clubs are wine-buying programs, sometimes sponsored by respected print publications, that send members a few preselected wines every month or so. They sound like a good deal: The club selects wines for you, offers them at attractive prices, and delivers them to your door. And you’ll probably like some of the wines.

The catch is that the wines are unknown entities, and they’re not necessarily bargains. The brands are usually private-labels that are exclusive to the club (no comparative shopping is possible) and were purchased at really low prices. And you have no say in the wine selection. Yes, wine clubs are convenient. But when you know about wine, you’ll want to make your own selections, preferably with the aid of a knowledgeable wine merchant whom you trust.