As any wine lover worth
his or her cork knows, 2003 was an exceptional vintage in Europe,
producing wines with very rich levels of ripeness. Say you knew that and
sought a 2003 Chianti-Merlot, a very lush bottle with limited
distribution. You'd likely begin your search on the Internet. And, until
recently, your search there would often end in failure.
State laws prohibiting
the sale of wine across state lines have made online wine selling
somewhat of a contradiction in terms until recently. Merchants could
offer wine for sale online, but an arcane web of states' own rules about
interstate sales of wine meant that, in many cases, you couldn't
actually purchase wine from those sites if they were located in states
other than your own. All that changed on May 16 this year, when the
state laws deemed unconstitutional for cherry-picking
other states with which they allowed the sale and distribution of wine.
The ruling effectively invalidated the laws governing wine sales in 21
states and has opened up a whole new world of wine online.
With the Web now
extending wine sellers' reach, we decided to review a few of the leading
sites with the help of a panel of experts, two of whom
had weighed in
earlier on the sites, when interstate barriers were
still in place.
The three sites in
question were some of the Web's biggest merchants: Wine.com, which is
owned by Amazon.com; Winetasting.com, which was
acquired by 1800Flowers.com; and KLWines.com, the
online arm of K&L Wine Merchants.
We asked our panelists to
look at the sites' selection, ease of use, price ranges, distribution
options -- and anything else that grabbed their wine-loving instincts.
increasingly interested in out-of-state wines that they can't get at the
store," noted Vic Motto, a principal at Motto Kryla Fisher, a wine
business advisory firm in St. Helena, Calif.
Indeed, selection was a
key point for our panelists. "For most Americans, nirvana is a place
that offers a broad, general, and reliable selection of wines with few
barriers to entry," said Richard Blau, a lawyer at GrayRobinson in Tampa
and an expert on the laws that govern the alcohol industry. Blau wasn't
the only one who pointed out that on that score, Winetasting.com fell
short of the other two. That's partly because Winetasting.com is the
retail arm of the Winetasting Network, a distribution and marketing
service for northern California wineries that also counts catalogs and
membership clubs among its businesses.
One of the sticking
points for our experts had to do with the amount and quality of
information provided by each site. After all, until recently, these
sites did serve largely as research tools for consumers who were unable
to buy directly from them.
Dave Chambers, the
founder of Direct Customer Access, a direct marketer for wineries, said
that K&L Wine Merchants, despite being "one of my favorite wine shops,"
relied too heavily on establishment wine experts such as Robert Parker
"and other homogenizing influences on the wine world." Wine.com, on the
other hand, simply offered too few words for wine aficionado Chris
Dominguez, who observed that "information on the wines is thin."
And just how much should
wine sites change over time? According to one of our original panelists,
Dominguez, all three sites could still be a little more user-friendly.
Dominguez said that in his view, Winetasting.com's required registration
was cumbersome and seemingly unnecessary, while Wine.com built in hidden
shipping costs that off-set the real deals on price offered on earlier
But the sites are
changing. Winetasting.com was sold last year to 1800Flowers.com,
reflecting a trend toward wine as a gift like flowers and not just for
experts and aficionados. Wine.com, too, as a part of Amazon.com, offers
packages for gift-giving.
For consumers, the change
to watch is in the impact the new ruling will have on the universe of
online wine merchants. According to Blau, the biggest question facing
wine retailers is "whether the Supreme Court's recent decision on direct
shipping will lower the barriers to entry for wine e-commerce. More
competitors will lead to price cutting." And that can only be good for
where should you shop for wine online?
With the help of four
experts, Inc.com compiled an overview of three of the top online wine
Best thing about
Huge selection: 10,000 domestic and imported wines.
Hidden shipping costs. Too impartial.
"The Sears of online wine shopping, and that's not a slap. For most
Americans, nirvana is a place that offers a broad, general, and reliable
selection of wines with few barriers to entry." --Blau
Features food and wine pairings. And you can get frequent flyer miles on
United Airlines and American Airlines when you buy through Wine.com.
Best thing about it
Membership comes with privileges. The Winetasting Network offers
information and deals for its members.
Selection limited to its client wineries. Cumbersome registration
"They are to be applauded for their impressive client list, but suspect
as an unbiased source for wines you may like." --Chambers
Bulk discounts available for multiple bottles or cases of the same wine.
K&L Wine Merchants
Best thing about it
Offers "best selling" list. "Knowledgeable but non-snooty staff members
able and willing to share their wine enthusiasm with people at all
levels of experience," says Dave Chambers.
Lacking objective criteria such as alcohol level, body density, acidity.
Only delivers to 20 states.
"K&L has a nice search functionality and for the French wines, you can
look up the region on a map." --Dominguez
Provides information on quantity available before you buy. E-mail
notifications of wines you're looking for.
Richard Blau: a lawyer at GrayRobinson in Tampa and an
expert on the laws that govern the alcohol industry.
Dave Chambers: the founder of Direct Customer Access, a
direct marketer for wineries.
Chris Dominguez: vice president of business development
at iFilm and a wine aficionado.