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 Supreme Court struck down 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 recently 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.
"Consumers are 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 screens.
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 wine lovers.