The average consumer in the average Web store has no history with the host company. More likely than not, he or she may have been surfing along and landed there purely by chance. Few Web sites feature faces, voices or even names. The site server could be anywhere today and somewhere else tomorrow.

It's no wonder that most consumers stick with recognizable brands. Virtual Vineyards, an online wine merchant, battles the online credibility issue, establishing its brand in three ways. First, the site has a strong voice tied to a specific person. Most retail sites have links to reviews by outside experts, mailing lists, newsgroups, and the like. Virtual Vineyards, in Palo Alto, Calif., runs a clean line straight to company cofounder and master sommelier Peter Granoff. An acknowledged authority in his field, Granoff writes reviews and an advice column at the site.

Second, the company uses software that expresses and focuses that voice. Peter's Tasting Chart conveys a considerable amount of information. The fast-loading pages contribute an air of authority, and the consistently uniform layout reinforces the image of Virtual Vineyards as a useful source of knowledge.

Last, the site's inventory comprises wines from a range of producers. Because Virtual Vineyards isn't tied to the products of any single winery, its customers do have a channel for expressing complaints.