Velvet Palate specializes in time-limited sales on selected wines. (Velvet Palate)

Internet-based wine sales currently are dominated by, which shipped 2.2 million bottles last year. Other smaller models have struggled. Lot18, a “flash sale” site that offers time-limited discounts on select wines, folded its British operation earlier this year. A new site with a similar approach is called

Flash-sale sites like to brag about their deep discounts on hard-to-find wines, but as a consumer, it pays to do some research. The “retail” prices listed on Velvet Palate, for example, are considerably higher than I could find elsewhere online, making the site’s sale prices less dramatic.

On a recent sale for Cicchitti Emkem Malbec 2006 from Argentina, even the $24 sale price was high — I saw the same wine listed elsewhere for less than $20. And as a Maryland resident, I couldn’t have bought it from Velvet Palate anyway. That’s because Maryland’s new law, which took effect in July 2011, allows direct shipping to state residents by wineries, but not by retailers. (Like most sites that facilitate such sales, Velvet Palate does not identify its vendors.)

However, I could have purchased two bottles of Bella Vetta Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 from Napa Valley, which Velvet Palate offered for $60 with free shipping, marked down from its “retail” price of $113. That’s presumably because the winery would be shipping the product, while the aforementioned Argentine bottle likely would come from a retailer. And I could have saved money on this deal: Bella Vetta’s Web site offered the wine at $45 a bottle, and I would still need to arrange third-party shipping.

What’s more, Velvet Palate has a nice graphical way of describing a wine’s flavor profile, and when I submitted a food-wine pairing question to the site’s “virtual sommelier,” I received a thorough and well-reasoned answer within a few hours.

Consumers looking for a direct connection to exclusive European wineries should explore The site is the brainchild of Kevin Sidders, a former investment advisor to Silicon Valley software firms, who enjoyed exploring California’s boutique wineries and buying bottles through their mailing lists. Sidders, who now lives in Charlottesville, applied the mailing-list concept to foreign wines. Visitors who register at VinConnect (membership is free) can sign up for e-mails and special offers direct from the wineries.

VinConnect launched a year ago and has a short-but-impressive list of French and Italian wineries, including famed Burgundy producer Clos du Tart, Domaine du Pegau from Chateauneuf-du-Pape and La Spinetta, a noted barolo producer from Piemonte.

For the wineries, VinConnect offers a direct link to their U.S. consumers without relying on the importers or distributors who themselves are a tier or two away from the consumer in the three-tier system. For the wine lover, VinConnect provides a personal connection to the vintners and a chance to snare some hard-to-find wines. And that’s what direct shipping is all about.

Further reading:

* Is Amazon closer to solving the wine-shipping puzzle?