The wine enthusiasts I know would much rather receive desirable cabernets or Champagnes from their long-distance friends and relatives than any of the new ice buckets that too often arrive on the doorstep. Sending wine by mail via the Internet, while getting easier, still takes some knowhow and comparison shopping to satisfy both giver and recipient.
If you know someone has a favorite winery, especially if it's small and its wines are not widely distributed, call to see if bottles can be shipped direct. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that wineries, hobbled by a web of state laws restricting direct shipping, are now free to do so. But states are still wrestling with the decision, and not all the barriers are down. Napa Valley's Charles Creek Vineyards, for example, still ships to just 14 states, but notes on its Web site: "The laws in other states are constantly changing, so please call the winery."
Shipping from one of the many online merchants, such as Wine.com or Winelibrary.com, is just as challenging. Wine.com ships wine to 23 states, although it sends edibles, corkscrews, and the like nationwide. So before investing time in choosing bottles, go straight to the shipping-policy tab on a seller's Web site to see if you can send the wine to your friend in, say, New York (yes) or Vermont (no). Alaska, Florida, and Idaho actually restrict direct wine shipments by zip code.
Wineweb.com, which sells wines directly from wineries -- many of them small -- is handy because it allows a search based strictly on what state you're shipping to. mywinesdirect.com, which currently ships to 26 states, specializes in small wineries with limited or no retail distribution and offers free shipping as well.
Now that you know how to buy, you have to decide what to buy. Gift certificates are easiest. And all of these sites have plenty of suggestions. But stay away from gift baskets that stipulate the shipper will make a selection of, say, "six wines from California." It's your money, so know what you are buying.
Thoughtful gift-giving should incorporate more creativity than that anyway. If your friend or relative has been nattering on about pinot noir ever since seeing the movie Sideways, introduce her to a similar medium-bodied red like Amarone, from the Veneto district in northeast Italy. At Wine.com, I found three: a 2000 Allegrini for $60, a 1997 Bertani for $80, and a Zenato 2000 for $52. It pays to comparison shop. That same Bertani '97 was just $58 and the Allegrini $50 at Winelibrary.com. Shipping for three bottles runs $15 to $20 depending on the destination.
Whatever you do, don't be tempted to get a wine enthusiast a fancy $50 or $100 corkscrew. Any oenophile worth his spit-bucket would rather have the wine.
By David Kiley