Wine on-line (Part 2): A quick shoppers' course

Wine on line: A quick course for adventurers

Second article about shopping for wine on the Internet.

By now, most of us are familiar with the digital shopping experience. Buying on-line is generally, cheaper, faster, more convenient and more informative than venturing out to a store. What's true for buying books and fishing tackle and mutual funds should be true for buying wine. But on-line shopping has scarcely made a dent in conventional retail sales.

What gets in the way?

Shipping is expensive, since most wine bottles are still relatively heavy compared to the wine inside. Since retail markups are pretty low, the shipping charges make the average weekday bottle of wine much more expensive if you buy it online. The tangle of local laws that prohibit or tax the shipment of wine doesn't help much either. So the only people who might save money on line are folks living in isolated areas and people who buy very expensive wine.

What's more, the service on websites isn't very good, and problems are hard to deal with. Suppose you have a question before you buy? What do you do if your wine arrives in bad shape or isn't what you ordered?

There's also the matter of storage and provenance. How do you know how your wine has been handled? Will you be shipped some wine that waited on the loading dock in July or some bottles that baked slowly in an uncooled warehouse?

Worse yet, the advice on most websites is both too abundant and not good enough. Every wine has its own gushing quotes from the producers and maybe a handful of "scores" to establish its value. There's no simple way to use your experience of one particular wine to find a similar one. (Unlike other on-line purchases, a particular wine "goes out of print," and everything you know about it won't help you buy a similar one.)

Two revolutionary trends

It would seem that old-fashioned liquor stores could feel pretty secure. But trends in some parts of the wine world are undermining them.

First— and maybe most important— a great deal of high-quality wine from small producers can't successfully percolate its way through regular retail channels to get to you. A winemaker who produces one or two thousand cases of wine can't afford the distribution costs even if distributors were willing to deal with small producers. This good stuff needs to find its way to market— and online may be the only way.

Second, notwithstanding the logistical advantages of retail stores, it's getting harder to find a good one. Chain stores and discounters are taking a growing share of the market. Some wine shops are now owned by people who don't drink wine, but liked the retail opportunity it afforded. The result is stores with a homogenized selection and employees who don't care much about what they sell. Some great wine shops still survive, but they're a dwindling minority.

Questions to ask

These two factors make it likely that sellers of high-quality wine will gravitate to online outlets. Our task as consumers is to find those outlets. Here are some things to bear in mind as you look for a vendor.

—Do they provide a money-back guarantee?
—Do they handle a small number of wines?
—Do their descriptions sound like they were written by a farmer or a winemaker, not a salesman?
—Do they offer any access to other information about their wine and competitive wines

Want to start looking? Here are some websites to I suggest:

www.wineaccess.com. The best online database of prices in dozens of local stores and personalized recommendations based on your wine ratings. This should be your first stop.

www.2020wines.com. A wine-finder

www.zachys.com. The online version of the venerable New York store

www.canalswine.com. The online version of the Marlton, N.J. store where all the cars with Pennsylvania plates are parked.

www.moorebrothers.com. Another legendary New Jersey store beloved of Philadelphians.

www.brownderby.com. They were in the mail-order business long before the Internet.

www.winecommune.com. A wine auction site for rare wine.

If you live in Pennsylvania, you should also check out the website of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board: www.pawineandspirits.com. â—†


To read the previous article in this series, click here.



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