A Vintage Year For Wine Web Sites

Good buys galore and plenty of advice

A few months ago, Mark Goodrich was stumped as to what to give his future mother-in-law on her birthday. Then the 29-year-old senior analyst for Electronic Arts, a Redwood City, Calif., software and online entertainment company, recalled that she's a wine lover. He found the ideal present at Wine.com: a six-month membership in an online wine club. She has been bowled over by the two bottles a month she's been getting from California vineyards whose wines aren't available in stores near her Philadelphia home. "I scored big points," Goodrich crows.

Wine lovers have cause for rejoicing. In just the past few months, the handful of wine vendors on the Internet has improved markedly, and new sites have gotten up and running. What this means--at least in theory--is that more people will have access to a much wider selection than they would find at their local store or in their wine mail-order catalog. They also can shop at their leisure seven days a week and winnow the selections using all sorts of criteria--price, producer, and so on. If you want, say, a California Merlot for $15, you can quickly get a host of choices. And sites such as the recently bulked-up Wine.com provide much more information than most catalogs or salespeople can give. There's also the labor factor--your own. A case of wine weighs 40 lbs, notes Jay Essa, CEO of WineBins.com. With a cyberpurchase, "you don't have to schlep it home," he says.

I've been logging on, perusing sites, and ordering wine since before Thanksgiving, and I've found that the Web is an excellent way to go. Everyone from local retailers to online gift shops such as Send.com are jumping into wine sales. But the closest thing to a national Web wine merchant is Wine.com, the product of the recent merger of Wine.com and pioneer VirtualVineyard.com and backed by $96 million from such venture investors as Boston's Thomas Lee. Wine.com's crosstown San Francisco rival, WineShopper.com, just added $46 million to its coffers from venture-capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, among others. Napa (Calif.)-based Ambrosiawine.com has backing from Bill Hambrecht of Hambrecht & Quist fame; eVineyard.com of Portland, Ore., is trying to raise $30 million; and WineBins.com of Canton, Mass., is in talks with financier Ronald Haft.

The intensifying competition should only make the sites better, especially as the e-tailers pour the money they're raising into broader selections. Just before Thanksgiving, for instance, I was griping about Wine.com's poor selection of French reds. No longer. In recent days, I was able to find everything from a 1989 Chateau Mouton Rothschild at $265 a bottle to a 1995 Chateau Les Ollieux for $13. "Our receiving dock is groaning," says Peter Granoff, Wine.com's main wine expert. The site's ultimate goal is to become a wine portal--the first place to go online for all wine lovers' needs, from $200 Leverpull corkscrews to serving suggestions.

LEGAL MAZE. It's about time for wine online. Web wine sales have lagged because complex liquor laws enacted after Prohibition make setting up a nationwide network a nightmare. In Texas, for instance, selling via the Net is legal in some counties, but is considered bootlegging in others that remain dry. Some sites try to skirt such difficulties by requiring buyers to attest that the shipment is legal and absolve the seller of responsibility if it isn't. I'd avoid them if they're outside your state because you could be liable if something is wrong. Wine.com, WineBins, WineShopper, and others are making sure their networks are legal by getting local licenses, setting up shop in some states, and cutting deals with local distributors and retailers. In Utah, Georgia, Kentucky, and a few other areas where it's illegal to receive out-of-state wine shipments, forget it. Beyond those states, just type in your address, and you'll be told if you can buy or not. But Wine.com says it can sell to 45 states representing 90% of the U.S. population. Rivals are gearing up to match its reach.

Sorting through the information on wine sites is no problem. Wine.com has a nifty charting system that rates each wine on such qualities as dryness, sweetness, and intensity. EVineyard, WineBins, and Ambrosia give you ratings from magazines such as Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast, as well as from their own tasters. Combine that information with the wide selections, and these sites can be powerful tools for picking a bottle. The selections range from 500 wines at Ambrosia to 2,000 at WineBins, probably the biggest online inventory. Wines range from as low as $7 up to $1,249 for a 1959 Chateau Lafite Rothschild at eVineyard. There are also gift packs and wine clubs. As for returns, WineBins.com says it will refund your wine if the bottles are bad or broken. The others just say that you should contact them immediately.

Meanwhile, competition is starting to alleviate the big disadvantage of buying online: high shipping costs. EVineyard offers free shipping for orders over $25, and even the upscale Ambrosia gives out free shipping to first-time Internet shoppers. The list price of online wines also will probably come down, especially as some companies get big enough to buy in bulk and cut prices, the way Amazon.com is doing in books. Larry Gerhard, eVineyard's CEO, promises to match any other virtual vendors on price. WineBins.com says it will match the best price you can find anywhere on any wine it sells, even specials in local stores. Just call, write, or e-mail details to WineBins.

Plenty of deals already are on offer. When I placed an order on eVineyard, I was offered a bottle of Robert Mondavi Coastal Zinfandel, usually priced at around $8, for 99 cents. Sites also point out bargains. For instance, a Wine.com notation next to a $9.95 1997 Seaview Chardonnay from McLaren Vale in Australia says that it's very similar to a much pricier Kendall Jackson Vintner's Reserve.

SLOW SHIPPING. I have a few caveats about cyber wine shopping. Depending on where you live, the wine you order, and availability from local distributors, your delivery may be delayed. Michael Leavitt, president of Boston management consultancy Windlass Corp., stopped using Wine.com and other West Coast services because it took four weeks to get his orders. He switched to nearby WineBins. If you live in or near a big city, check out the site of a big wine retailer in your state, such as Zachys (www.zachys.com) in suburban Scarsdale, N.Y.

A final cautionary note: Many shoppers get excited by the variety on their screens and order more expensive wines than usual. It's easy to get carried away when you start reading up on delicious sounding wines online, says Virginia Bloom of Freeland, Wash. In November, she ended up buying a $50 1996 Amici Meritage, a blended red of which only 75 cases were produced, from Ambrosiawine.com. "I'd never do that at the store," she says. Then again, she loves the hard-to-find wines she's been able to obtain for the first time, courtesy of the Web.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.