This post is from GRS staff writer Donna Freedman. Donna writes a personal finance column for MSN Money, and writes about frugality and intentional living at Surviving And Thriving. Since she just found out she is going to be a grandmother, expect to be bombarded with cute-baby anecdotes about seven months from now.

More than one million wineries currently operate worldwide. Each produces at least three different wines, and plenty of them stomp out 20 or more.

That’s a lot of potential hangovers. But if you sip responsibly you can enjoy the taste, the history, and the geography of the grape without any concurrent headaches.

And if you have champagne tastes but a Boones Farm budget? Buy the fruit of the vine online. A discount comes in handy at this time of year, given the expenses associated with the holidays. In the next couple of weeks you might be:

  • Having people over for your only fancy meal of the year, which surely calls for a grown-up beverage
  • Making mulled wine or glogg for a holiday open house
  • Looking for a good deal on bubbly for New Year’s Eve

Or maybe you’re just an everyday wine enthusiast who likes a glass with dinner. No matter what your reason, there’s no need to pay through the nose, so to speak, for a decent bottle. Thanks to increased competition, better technology, and smarter winemaking, there’s never been a better time to be an oenophile, according to wine critic Natalie MacLean.

“I’m a wine cheapskate at heart. Why pay more than you have to for pleasure? These days you can get a wine that tastes twice as expensive as it costs,” says MacLean, author of Unquenchable: A Tipsy Quest for the World’s Best Bargain Wines.

Although talking with an experienced wine seller can be a pleasure, not everyone is lucky enough to live near a wine store, or even a liquor store or a supermarket that sells wine. And let’s face it: Your local booze emporium or grocery store probably doesn’t have the space to devote to a truly huge selection of vino.

Online sites like Wine.com and WineExpress.com have deep cellars, and sell enough of the stuff to offer discounts. Specialty sites exist, too, with somewhat smaller lists but interesting back-stories — and competitive prices.

Kissing vinous frogs
It isn’t just the discount that’s attractive, but the chance to try dozens (or hundreds) of vintages you might not find in the local carafe-a-teria.

Don’t know where to start? The online sites make it easy:

  • You’ll see sections like “90 under $20,” i.e., bottles that have received 90 points or more from wine critics.
  • You can search by price point, by region, by type of wine — or even by clearance sales.
  • When you click on a wine title, the next screen may also include suggestions à la Amazon.com, “Customers who bought Mad Dog 20/20 also bought…”

Another way to find new varieties: Natalie MacLean and other wine critics have Facebook pages and Twitter feeds, as well as homepages. There you can learn their hottest (and cheapest!) new discoveries. MacLean tastes at least 30 varieties per day. Nice work if you can get it, huh? Yet as she puts it, “I’m kissing a lot of vinous frogs to find those princes for you.”

Or prospect at a specialty site like People’s Wine Market or the Accidental Wine Company, both of which offer discounted sips with interesting backstories. The former buys overstock vintages from artisan, environmentally-friendly wineries. “Overstock” means that only a few cases are left and a wine distributor won’t bother with such a small order. The producers sell it cheaply just to make back their production costs, according to company spokeswoman Ashley Sytsma.

Three varieties, “usually the last case or two in existence of that vintage,” are featured each week. The lowest price was $7; the most expensive was a 2006 Philippe Delavaux Grains Nobles for $49, which would normally retail for as much as $125 per bottle.

The Accidental Wine Company’s original niche could be described as “oops”: vintages whose labels were applied crookedly or got soaked by a bottle broken in transit. If I were an oenophile I’d be all over the scratch-and-dent stock, i.e., focusing on the inside of the bottle. (Then again, I bought “slightly irregular” cloth diapers for my daughter. True story.)

Accidental Wine still sells irregular vino but also sells end-of-season stock and other special deals. Some of the best prices aren’t advertised prominently on the site due to agreements made with the producers. A couple of recent examples:

  • 2006 Six Sigma cabernet sauvignon for $12 (normally as much as $50)
  • Reds and whites bought in Spain last summer, $7 to $10 per bottle. “If it was made in America we’d be getting $20 a bottle,” says David Forbes, the “grape wrangler” who did the buying.

How to find non-posted prices? Poke around on the website, or e-mail the company (Kelly@accidentalwine.com) with the types or varieties you typically drink.

Finding the best prices
If you already know which wine you want to buy, use a price comparison site such as PriceGrabber.com or CheapUncle.com. Type in “box of white zin” or whatever you’re looking for, and wait for prices to pop up.

These sites have online coupons to make the offers even more attractive. Or look for coupons through aggregators like Savings.com and RetailMeNot.com.

We now pause for a really stupid joke:

Q. What did the grape say when the elephant stepped on it?

A. Nothing — it just let out a little wine.

Before you place an order, check to see if the wineseller is affiliated with a cash-back shopping site such as Extrabux, Mr. Rebates or Fat Wallet. These sites also provide  online coupons (including free or nearly free shipping) along with rebates of 3% to 7%.

Note: If shopping through a cash-back site, use only the coupons you find on that site. Any “outside” discount codes will void your rebate.

Aggregators like Cashback Comparison Tool or Cashbackmonitor.com offer side-by-side comparisons from some of the better-known cash-back sites; be sure to double-check the posted rates, which can change without warning.

Wine on wheels
About that shipping: An order might be in transit for days. You might wonder whether your order will become a winesicle (North Dakota truck version) or an expensive bottle of vinegar (Florida truck version).

But all wine has to be shipped at some point, or it would never leave the vineyard.

The folks who do this for a living use extreme care, to the point of adding cold packs during certain times of the year.

Some sellers have a “hold until safe” option, i.e., they’ll store your purchase for weeks or months until the weather improves. Or you can opt to pay more for overnight delivery.

Note: Make sure your order will arrive when someone who’s at least 21 years old will be home to sign for it. No, it can’t be left on the back porch.

Obviously shipping adds to the per-bottle cost. But maybe not, thanks to deals and discounts like:

  • WineExpress.com ships some items free and offers 99-cent shipping for its “wine of the day.”
  • GetWineOnline.com has a “50/50 Club,” which means you can get half off standard shipping for an annual fee of $48.
  • Wine.com’s “Wine Steward-Ship” program provides a year’s unlimited shipping for $49.
  • UltimateWineShop.com has free shipping on some varieties if you buy in multiples of 12 (which could be a deal-breaker for some and an enabler for others).

Another way to keep costs low: Watch for social marketing deals. Recently I’ve seen deals like:

  • The “Holiday Gift Set” through LivingSocial, with two bottles of wine, two glasses, a gift bag and a “tasty treat” for $34
  • Four wines (three reds and a white) for $49 through KGB Deals
  • $70 worth of wine for $35 through Eversave

Watch for these deals, but be sure to do the math.

Tip: Depending on the social buying site you use, you can get credit for the next purchase or even an outright free order if friends buy using your referral code.

Haute sips or house swill?
I am not suggesting that you ignore local winesellers. But casting your net a little further than the neighborhood state store or Safeway can improve your enjoyment of wine and stretch your fun budget.

Of course, plenty of people are perfectly happy with Charles Shaw or the super-cheap Aussie vintages to be found at the local liquor locker. A good friend of mine is content with boxed wine, which she cheerfully refers to as “the house swill.”

So if you have a proletarian palate and know that good stuff will be wasted on you, or if you simply can’t afford to dream past three-buck Chuck right now, then continue to do what works for you. But if you want to branch out a little, give the online vintners a try.

Myself, I never drink…wine. (Extra geek points if you got the Bela Lugosi reference before clicking on the link.) I don’t know red from white or white from plaid. I don’t know whether Night Train is an aperitif or a cough syrup. But vinous beverages sure are important to a lot of people. Hey, it’s in the Bible that you should drink a little wine for your stomach’s sake. And did Jesus turn the water into Kool-Aid, or 2% milk? He did not.

A bottle of wine is like any other non-essential treat. No one needs cable TV per se, and few of us would actually die without a piece of chocolate now and then. Knitters probably should consider using up the yarn they currently have, music lovers could back off on completing their Murray Perahia collections, and someone who owns four cats would do well to consider the cost of adding another.

But those small pleasures enhance our lives. That’s why we budget for them. So go ahead: Crank up “The Big Bang Theory.” Enjoy some chocolate and a kitten (not together). Craft a scarf while listening to The Goldberg Variations. And enjoy an affordable chardonnay or merlot whenever you want. Wine: It’s not just for breakfast anymore.

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