I will find myself a great little wine shop . . . and I will be loyal to it.
It's indisputable that there are more ways to buy wine today than ever before - and it isn't just because of the Internet. Even if the Web and the e-commerce it enables had never happened, there would still be warehouse discounters like Costco and B.J.'s, direct sales from wineries (where legal), and wine clubs mostly managed by third party behind-the-scenes fulfillment companies like Signature Wines.
The way most of these operators try to set themselves above conventional brick & mortar retail outlets is by offering - or pretending to offer - more choice and a better price. What they're surely not going to tell you is what they won't be providing: namely, any appreciable amount of the color, romance, humanity, and context that add - or ought to add - so much to the pleasure of buying and drinking wine.
To derive this not insignificant added value you need to look elsewhere. To one of those (probably) small, (perhaps) struggling local wine shops where every bottle on the shelf is there because someone on the knowledgeable, passionate staff thinks it's worthy to be; where the owners use their vacations to travel to the places where wine is made; where customers are invited to taste the stock on a regular (at least weekly) basis; where winemakers who come through town stop in; where they honest-to-god know your name and what you bought last week/ month/year; the sort of place where familiarity with a foreign language isn't, you know, a foreign concept.
Now here's the thing. To be a regular at a place like this offers benefits that go way beyond ambience. At a smallish, independent wine shop that knows and values your business, you can bet they'll be buying wine with one eye on what you (and their other steady customers) like best. You'll be among the first to know when a special opportunity comes along (a steal of closeout deal, maybe), and when there are a limited number of seats at a winemaker dinner, you may get preferential treatment.
Of course, buying all (or most) of your wine in one place, should also mean that you'll get the largest volume discounts they offer. Wine shops take on the personalities of their ownership and clientele, so you'll want to find one that feels good to you. We know some where skinny jeans and facial hardware seem to be de rigueur and others frequented by one percenters. One even has dog on the staff -- mostly, I'm told, for the quality of his nose. Sometimes the back in the day way is the best way.
Stephen Meuse can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org