Generally speaking, the personalized service you get from a GOOD wine shop cannot be matched by an online retailer. There's something to be said for face-to-face interaction with a human being who knows something about the wines on the shelf. Add in the touchy-feely enjoyment of picking up and handling bottles, and it's next to impossible to re-create the experience through a website.
However, there are some online wine retailers who do as well a job as can be done with the virtual process. In my opinion, the key is not to try to emulate the traditional retail experience but rather to make the most of modern technology to create a new / alternative way of selling.
Such is the case with Porthos.com, a site that specifically caters to Napa and Sonoma wine fans. That's an interesting and effective slant — targeting a very narrow area on the world wine map. Let's face it, any run-of-the-mill online wine shop is going to have a hard time beating the varied selection and pricing of, say, a Wine.com, WineLibrary.com, or SamsWine.com. But Porthos can stake their claim as “the” place for high-end Napa and Sonoma wines — if that's what you're in to.
Naturally, Porthos carries California's finest, with bottles from well-known estates such as BV, Clos du Val, Far Niente, Etude, Dominus, Duckhorn, Chateau Montelena, and Cain Five, to the lesser-known, “cult” wineries such as Block 16, Barnett, Leeuwin, Newton, Coho, and Pahlmeyer — to name a few. There isn't a dog in the bunch, a stark contrast to the many “faux-boutique” online retailers that push off unknown, ordinary wines as “undiscovered values”.
What I really like about Porthos.com is the organization of the site. Because their selection is limited, it's easy and enjoyable to browse. In particular, the “Best Buys Under $30” and “Staff Picks” include intriguing wines that even a geek will appreciate. Too often on other sites, I'm overwhelmed by the dozens and dozens of choices per varietal — while selection is nice, sometimes you just want someone to tell you “here, try this, it's good stuff.” Based on what Porthos has currently put together in their “best buys”, mixed packs, and “staff picks”, I think they can be trusted.
Last point: though they specialize in Napa and Sonoma, Porthos does have a few bottles from other areas, and also offers a very limited selection of “Passport International Wines“. Again, I have to say that I like what they've chosen; for example, their current choices include two bottles from Chateau Routas — who I think makes some of the best pink wine in the world — and a Cahors from Clos La Coutale (IMHO, one of the best bangs for your buck when it comes to Cahors).
So if you are into the wines of Sonoma and Napa counties, I suggest you at least take a browse of Porthos.com and see for yourself. And please, leave your comments here on what you think of their selections and service.
(By the way, if you didn't major in English Lit in college, you may not know what “Porthos” means. Porthos is the name of one of the “Three Musketeers” — specifically, the wild and amiable, wine-drinking musketeer — from the Alexandre Dumas novel.)