Source: New York Times

In an ever more digital world, there are a few things that remain reassuringly analog. Wine, for example. The mysteries of a Montrachet or the magic of a Margaux remain too complex and too nuanced to reduce to the zeros and ones of digital DNA, though I imagine someone must be trying. Although technology has its limitations in the making of wine, it is increasingly useful in the buying and selling of it.

The Internet accounts for only a tiny fraction of worldwide wine sales. Most people buy their wine at local shops or supermarkets. But online sales have been growing strongly for a few years in Britain, Germany and some other European markets, as well as China and Japan. There are signs of progress in the United States, where regulatory hurdles have been a problem.

At the end of last year, Amazon opened an online wine shop in the United States. Presumably the e-commerce giant hopes to do for Bordeaux or Barolo what it has done for books: Make a previously unimaginable selection available to anyone, anywhere, at any time and at a bargain price.

But Internet wine sales in the United States have been complicated by Byzantine rules. Some states forbid online sales, others restrict cross-border shipments. Others maintain monopolies over distribution. So Amazon is starting with only a handful of states and the District of Columbia.

Europe, so fragmented and divided in other ways, is more coherent and unified in this niche of the economy. From my home in France I can order wine online from almost any other European Union country and expect it to show up at my door in a few days.

The only variable is cost. For some reason, Italian parcel services tend to charge more than €50 to ship a 12-bottle case of wine to France, about $70. German delivery companies often do the job, faster, for less than €20. There you have the euro crisis in a nutshell — or a case of wine. Still, my cellar would be a lot poorer without those occasional deliveries from the sunny south.

The most advanced online wine market is probably Britain. Wine Intelligence, a research firm in London, estimates that up to 15 percent of all retail wine sales in Britain take place online — perhaps five times the U.S. percentage.

Growth in Britain has been led by supermarket chains like Tesco, which have been using wine as a way to promote Internet grocery shopping services. But specialist British wine merchants like Berry Brothers & Rudd were also early online innovators, opening e-commerce sites well over a decade ago.

“Not only do we like wine, but we also like the Internet,” said Antonia Branston, an analyst at the research firm Euromonitor in London. More and more British online wine specialists, like Laithwaites, Slurp and Naked Wines, are expanding to other countries in Europe, the United States or Asia. Slurp, for example, opened sites in Germany and France last year. While the prospect of a British Web site trying to sell wine to the French might sound a bit like carrying coals to Newcastle, Slurp insists there is a place for it.

“Basically, France is very focused on French wine,” said Audrey Bouttier, who oversees Slurp’s Continental European sites. “We are trying to do something a little bit different. Especially among young people, it’s becoming very hip to bring something other than the traditional bottle of Bordeaux to a dinner party.”

So Slurp offers a vast selection of what the French call “vins du monde” (wines of the world), or imported wines.

Greater choice is one of the biggest benefits of Internet wine shopping, but beware of exaggerated claims. While I often buy wine via the Internet, I rarely use generalist sites that promise a bit of everything — some Burgundy, some Bordeaux, some Australian shiraz and maybe a bit of Napa Valley cabernet, too.

Why? Isn’t the promise of anything, anywhere the raison d’être of the Web? Perhaps, but wine continues to confound the algorithm-writers’ efforts to commoditize it. Many of the best wines are made in quantities too small to suit the national or global scale of the Internet.

Many big wine Web sites simply offer the same bottles you see on the supermarket shelves, at the same prices. To get the best wines, retailers need local knowledge and connections. Many of the best online wine sellers are offshoots of local shops, located in wine regions.

While small shops struggled initially with the challenge of the Internet, many of them now sell wine online. That means even more consumer choice, though you’ll need help navigating the maze. This is where perhaps the most useful Internet wine site of all, Wine-Searcher, comes in.

Wine-Searcher, based in Auckland doesn’t actually sell wine but helps you find it. It lists the offerings of tens of thousands of merchants around the world and links to their Web sites. Whether you’re looking for something as ubiquitous as Mouton Cadet Bordeaux or something as rare as a Riesling Trockenbeerenauslese from Egon Müller in Germany, Wine-Searcher will point you to the right place, and show you the prices.

There is something reassuring about buying wine from retailers with a track record. In France, some online-only retailers have employed questionable business models. Several customers of, a French site that is named after the year of the first classification of Bordeaux chateaus, have filed lawsuits and won court judgments against the company over delayed or unfilled orders.

The problem appears to have been that 1855 offered for sale wines that it did not actually own. When a customer bought one, the company tried to acquire it elsewhere, at a lower price. But certain wines, like prized vintages of Bordeaux, instead surged ahead. Like a hedge fund caught in a “short squeeze,” 1855 found itself having to pay more to buy wine than it had made selling it.

1855 said it was dealing with the problems. “The peak of complaints is now behind us, and all should be cleared within six months,” the company said in a statement.

But some investors seem to have doubts. A leading shareholder in 1855, Jean-Pierre Meyers, son-in-law to the L’Oréal heiress Liliane Bettencourt, sold his stake and severed his ties to the company.

Elsewhere, however, online shops are sometimes seen as more reliable than the bricks and mortar kind. Yes My Wine, a Chinese Web site that has been growing rapidly, is an example. Consumers apparently trust the site more than their local shops in China, where fake wines abound — the transport and storage of real ones is shoddy as well.

As a result, online wine sales are starting to take off in China, a potentially enormous market, given the enthusiasm for the Internet and, as of the past few years, for fine wine. Wine Intelligence estimates that about five million Chinese shop for wine online — about a quarter of those who say they are regular buyers of imported wine.

So, while big players like Amazon dominate many areas of the digital economy, there doesn’t appear to be a universally successful approach to online wine selling.

“It’s not like insurance or flights,” said Richard Halstead, chief operating officer of Wine Intelligence. “There’s a lot of local variation.”

As there is with what’s in the bottle.

Source: New York Times


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