As liquor laws relax across the country, expect innovative restaurants and wine bars to step up delivery and tweak their business models to survive.

(Bloomberg)—Your favorite restaurants and bars may be closed, but online wine buying is booming—and already was before the Covid-19 coronavirus outbreak.

A January report from Rabobank, a global food and agribusiness bank, estimated that U.S. online sales reached $2.6 billion in 2019, growing 22% year on year. At the recent annual Impact Marketing Seminar, Rich Bergsund, CEO of giant online retailer Wine.com Inc., said the site pulled in $150 million in revenue in 2019. Wine.com is No. 259 in the 2019 Digital Commerce 360 Top 1000.

“No matter what happens, wine consumers won’t abstain,” wrote Rob McMillan, senior vice president of Silicon Valley Bank’s Wine Division, in a recent blog post. He predicts even higher wine sales are coming.

Gary Fisch, the CEO and owner of Gary’s Wine & Marketplace in New Jersey, can attest to that. In an email, he reported that sales during the week ending March 15 went up 62%. He also saw a 300% increase in local delivery and pickup orders.

And every bottle counts.

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During social distancing, popping a cork while viewing the free operas the Metropolitan Opera is streaming or gathering for a glass with friends over video chat virtual happy hour helps people in the industry keep going, whether it’s a small producer in Sonoma, Calif., France, or Italy; a retailer; or a slew of workers at a huge company such as LVMH (No. 20).

Direct shipments from wineries, virtual tastings

Winery shipments to consumers now account for nearly 11% of the value of all wine retail sales, according to the latest Sovos report, a collaboration between Sovos Ship Compliant and WinesVines Analytics. Many are wines for members of wineries’ clubs, which are easy to join.

Since the closing of California’s tasting rooms, more of them are becoming extra creative.

Chanel-owned St. Supéry in Napa is holding online tastings once a week, on Thursdays. You order a six-pack tasting kit, called Injoy @ Home, then tune in to taste one each week with the winemaker on Zoom.

Sonoma’s Inman Family Winemakers just launched a “Meet the Maker” happy hour via Facebook Video Chat, which you can access after purchasing three-bottle tasting packages. (If you’re dreaming of summer, go for an $84 single vineyard rosé.)

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Next week, Kendall-Jackson will be hosting virtual tastings with winemaker Randy Ullom, plus a 20% discount for online wine orders.

Alcohol marketplace platforms

Think of Drizly as the Amazon Marketplace of wine. Founded in 2012, it’s a delivery service platform that contracts with top local wine stores in 180 locations across the U.S. and Canada, allowing you to shop for wine, beer, and spirits on its website and delivering your picks in about an hour.

CEO Cory Rellas spelled out recent growth numbers for me. As of Monday, March 16, its GMV (gross merchandise volume) was up 500% year over year, and during the three days leading up to March 16 grew at five times the rate from earlier in the year. He says people are now spending 50% more than normal.

Some 31,000 different wines are available overall, but your choices are limited to your local retailers’ inventories. Among those for New York’s Chelsea district, for example, you’ll find 547 cabernets and 313 pinot noirs.

Similar to Drizly, but smaller, Minibar Delivery also partners with local stores. It saw a huge spike in orders last week, with those on Thursday, March 12, 80% higher than on the previous Thursday.

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Online Auctions

The biggest online auction house is online-only WineBid, with a 25-year history and global reach to Europe and Asia.

“We are still seeing consistent demand. Buying and selling fine wine goes on,” says CEO Russ Mann. Of more than 100,000 registered members, half use WineBid’s mobile phone app. You’ll find a much wider diversity of brands and prices than at major auction houses, with single bottles as low as $10, though the average is in the $100 range.

Because of its Asian buyers, Mann became aware of the coronavirus situation in China and ramped up new sanitation protocols weeks ago, making sure workers wear gloves and wipe down bottles with antiseptic wipes.

Dedicated online retailers

Most wine drinkers know Wine.com, the reliable online national leader that’s growing 15% to 20% a year. The site sold more than 40,000 different wines during 2019; right now it’s offering nearly 9,000 for New York buyers. It resembles a huge wine warehouse at which you need to know what you like and want. Often, prices are lower than elsewhere—but not always.

Unlike Wine.com, WineAccess.com—which grew its business 244% during 2019—is more like a curated wine club, with a much smaller selection approved by a collective team that tastes every bottle. You’ll find first growths, Dom Perignon-level bubbly, first releases of collectibles, and scarce, unusual labels. Price range: from $12 to $2,500.

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Facebook group will go live on March 21 to connect members with the wine team for advice and questions.

Among the good deals on the website on March 19 was the bold, rich 2017 Band of Vintners Consortium Cabernet, from the Napa Valley ($35), and 2018 Mathieu Cosme Les Promenards Vouvray Sec, from the Loire Valley ($25), a delicious white from a rising star winemaker.

Further thoughts

As liquor laws relax across the country, expect innovative restaurants and wine bars to step up delivery and tweak their business models to survive.

In New York for example, a March 17 change permits bars and restaurants to sell and deliver alcohol along with takeout food. La Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels is offering four edgy wines, including a gulpable Beaujolais, for $95, with a limited food selection; a tasting video on its YouTube channel is in the works. Air’s Champagne Parlor in Greenwich Village is partnering with Tokyo Record Bar: You can order a $20 bento box, along with a bottle of Champagne or sparkling wine, from its list.

Finally, if you want to load up on great wine all in one go, don’t forget Sotheby’s Instant Wine Cellars. With one click and $5,000, you’ll get 50 bottles of wine within 24 hours.

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They’re all ways to stay close to home and still raise a glass.

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