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Best Cellars

Internet wine sellers offer a great selection of labels and vintages. But laws governing interstate wine shipments can put a cork in your festivities.
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Best of the Net

Internet wine sellers offer a great selection of labels and vintages. But laws governing interstate wine shipments can put a cork in your festivities

Imagine uncorking your favorite wine one night -- maybe a nicely aged 1990 California Cabernet Sauvignon or a terrific bargain Pinot Noir -- only to realize that you're down to your last bottle. No problem: glass in hand, you turn to the Internet and root through virtual cellars packed with thousands of bottles of wine.

At first blush, wine and the Web look like a natural match. But ordering wine online isn't quite as easy as ordering books or CDs. The number of suppliers is not the problem. Hundreds of Web sites peddle wine, including those of Internet retailers, wineries, and established brick-and-mortar wine merchants. But state laws governing the sale of wine across state lines make the process of finding a site that both suits your tastes and ships to your state a challenge indeed.

We asked three company leaders with varying degrees of wine expertise to test six wine-selling sites: those of three online retailers, two big brick-and-mortar retailers (one located on the East Coast, the other on the West Coast), and an online cooperative made up of some 50 California wineries. The panel evaluated the sites for quality and variety of merchandise, interactive features such as wine searches, and ease of use and technical performance. The reviewers purchased wine from a variety of growing regions, including California's Napa Valley, Washington State, Italy, and Chile.

Two of our panelists had in fact bought wine online previously, and all three panelists enjoyed the experience of reviewing wine-selling Internet sites, but they said they wouldn't be ditching their local wine store just yet. "A nice complement to wine stores -- not a replacement," says Shawn Kravetz, president of Esplanade Capital LLC in Boston and a wine enthusiast for more than a decade. In stores, "it's nice to see the bottles, clipped articles, and prices in front of you."

The main benefit of these Internet sites: the vast selection of wines available, particularly rare or high-end bottles. One site offered a case of 1865 sweet wine from France's famed Château d'Yquem for $208,550. For the more budget-conscious, a case of Bordeaux from the legendary 1961 vintage was available for about $4,000.

The enormous selection of wines online was both a blessing and a curse, according to our judges. Panelist Jim Roop, president of the James J. Roop Co. in Cleveland, complained that most sites did a poor job of allowing customers to narrow their search. Sometimes, he says, you wind up with a list of "400 different wines" instead of the "40 Merlots between $20 and $40 you're really trying to get to.'

And those state liquor-shipment laws were a hassle, preventing two of the panelists from buying bottles from some merchants. A labyrinth of state laws restricting who could sell liquor, and how, cropped up at the end of Prohibition, in 1933, when the details were resolved on a state-by-state rather than a federal level. "Every state is different,' says Richard Blau, a lawyer at Holland & Knight LLC in Tampa and an expert on the laws that govern the alcohol industry.

Many states prohibit wineries and retailers outside their borders from shipping wine directly to their own residents. However, a dozen states, including California, Colorado, Illinois, and Missouri, are more liberal than others in permitting wineries and retailers outside their lines to make direct shipments to the states' consumers. Those 12 states have struck so-called "reciprocal agreements," which basically say, "If I can ship to you, you can ship to me." Some Web sites have been known to fulfill orders in violation of state laws -- a move that can trigger legal action against the supplier and seizure of the wine. (For more information about pertinent state laws, visit www.wineinstitute.org.)

Our Massachusetts and Ohio panelists came up dry at both K&L Wine Merchants and Winetasting.com. Massachusetts and Ohio are among approximately 30 states that restrict or bar outright direct shipments from other states. To circumnavigate prohibitions, some online sellers make special arrangements with local wholesalers and retailers to supply wines that are already available in a particular state, or they get licensed as retailers in the state. But K&L and Winetasting.com didn't have either of those selling mechanisms in place for Massachusetts and Ohio and so declined to fulfill Internet orders there.

Delivery, too, can be an issue, since an adult must sign for the wine. And shipping costs of $13.95 a bottle, as was the case in several transactions, can make online shopping uneconomical. "For an expensive or rare wine, it might make sense. But why pay the shipping costs when I can pick up the same bottles at my local wine shop?' asks panelist Chris Dominguez, president of Stockpoint Inc. in San Francisco.

No clear-cut winner emerged from our survey, although retailer Wine .com got solid marks from two panelists for its "decent" to "great" selection and "reasonable" shipping charges. (Unfortunately, Wine.com was swallowed up by competitor eVineyard as we were going to press and was consequently cut from the rest of this article.)

In general our panelists tended to prefer sites that catered to their personal regional preferences, be it Bordeaux or Napa. Dominguez's number one choice was the Web site of K&L Wine Merchants, a brick-and-mortar retailer in Redwood City, Calif. The California-wine lover praised K&L's site for its ease of use and "excellent" choices. Roop's first pick was WineBins.com, an online seller. Roop, a Bordeaux enthusiast, liked the "absolutely huge range of product, particularly older French wines." Kravetz liked best the Web site of New York retailer Sherry-Lehmann. "Seems like a wine store instead of an Internet business," he says.

And there was no obvious loser either, although our panelists did find fault with some offerings. Dominguez dinged Sherry-Lehmann. The second time he visited its site, the pages failed to load. His wine took more than four weeks to arrive, and he thought the shipping costs from New York to California were high at $13.95 a bottle -- although the company agreed to waive those fees because of the shipping delay. Roop handed the booby prize to Winetasting.com, the online cooperative of California wineries. It didn't help that the Ohioan couldn't place an order with that site. "But most aggravating of all is that there is no pricing listed next to the wine," he says. A browser must click on a particular wine to see its price. Kravetz said WineBins.com was his least favorite, criticizing the "average selection" and the site's "impossible" loading time. "Maybe the wine ages while the page loads," he jokes.

Roger Fillion is a freelance writer living in Evergreen, Colo.


The Savvy Entrepreneur's Guide to Wine Online

eVineyard
What it's good for
Reasonable shipping fees. Good variety. Wine ratings.

Don't waste your time if
You're looking for a particular bottle. Although the site boasts more than 5,000 wines, one panelist complained of unsatisfactory selections among the California wine makers he was interested in.

What our CEOs had to say
"Enjoyed their variety, incorporation of Wine Spectator [magazine] ratings, and higher-end offerings, coupled with a very reasonable $4.95 blanket shipping charge for a bottle or a case," said one CEO. But another panelist stated: "Simple, decent, a bit entry-level."

What you should know
Offers Amazon.com-style recommendations by listing other wines purchased by shoppers who chose your wine.

K&L Wine Merchants
What it's good for
Rare U.S. and European wines. Ease of use. Tasting notes from own staff, Wine Spectator, and wine gurus like Robert Parker.

Don't waste your time if
You live in a state with restrictive alcohol-shipping laws. Internet orders are accepted from just 13 states.

What our CEOs had to say
"Will not deliver to my state. Too bad. I like their top-10 list and their site overall. Not fancy, but good."

What you should know
Web site for big California retailer in Redwood City. Site typically offers about 3,000 wines.

Sherry-Lehmann
What it's good for
Wines of all prices. Good descriptions. Free delivery for New York state residents who spend in excess of $95.

Don't waste your time if
You live outside New York state and don't want to pay steep shipping charges.

What our CEOs had to say
"A good selection of both high-end and low-end product. But you better buy only high end, because their shipping charges are through the roof, at $13.95 for one to three bottles and $55.80 for a case of 12."

What you should know
Will not ship to nine U.S. states. Oenophiles can buy wine futures -- lock in a price for a 1999 Bordeaux that won't arrive until June 2002.

WineBins.com
What it's good for
Less expensive California bottles to older Bordeaux dating back to the 1800s. Shipping fee for one case is a reasonable $9.50.

Don't waste your time if
You really dislike slow-loading pages -- which one panelist complained about -- and don't want to pay the same $9.50 shipping fee for just one bottle.

What our CEOs had to say
"Offers by far the widest range of product of the group," said one judge. But another criticized: "Searching by 'flavor' is good [only] for novices."

What you should know
Virtual retailer owned by Geerlings & Wade Inc., a direct marketer and Internet retailer of wines. Offers 1,000 wines. Serves 29 states.

Winetasting.com
What it's good for
California wines, especially hard-to-find product such as bottles available only from the wineries themselves. Examples: Cabernets from the 1980s or Merryvale's highly rated 1997 Profile, a red blend.

Don't waste your time if
You don't want California wines.

What our CEOs had to say
"Requires some effort to search. Limited selection. But very high quality. Kind of like shopping at a boutique instead of a wine emporium."

What you should know
Virtual cooperative made up of some 50 California wineries. Site is a hub from which you're transported to a winegrower's own site. Serves 20 states.

Our panelists
Chris Dominguez is president and cofounder of Stockpoint Inc., a San Francisco-based provider of online and wireless investment-analysis tools and financial information. A resident of northern California for the past dozen years, he regularly visits Napa Valley. Shawn Kravetz is president of Esplanade Capital LLC, a hedge-fund-management company in Boston. A wine enthusiast for more than a decade, he especially enjoys red Bordeaux. Jim Roop is president of the James J. Roop Co., a corporate-communications consulting firm in Cleveland. Roop is past chairman of the Cleveland Wine Auction, a benefit event, and a member of Commanderie de Bordeaux, an international society of Bordeaux lovers.


Please e-mail your comments to editors@inc.com.

Last updated: Jun 1, 2001




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