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Expert advice, hand-picked wines, interaction with fellow wine buyers and preferential prices are just some of the things you can expect with the new breed of online wine sellers, as Andrew Catchpole reports
I recall venturing into Berry Bros & Rudd in St James’s as a student, back in the days when there were no bottles to be seen, and being handed a wine list and a somewhat haughty stare. It was a sort of early virtual shopping experience, rather like buying a toaster in Argos, except for the more upmarket surrounds and pinstriped merchants gliding about this store whose history is more than 300 years old.
Roll on a couple of decades, and the virtual wine-buying experience is booming. Except this time, it’s internet driven, with online sales of wine shooting up at 25-30% a year, recession notwithstanding. In an intriguing twist, Berry’s was an early adopter: this stalwart of the trade launched an award-winning website way back when most merchants were still trying to work out how to turn a computer on. Today, if online pundits are to be believed, internet sales will match traditional bricks-and-mortar-based wine sales over the next couple of decades.
‘Within 10 years, I think it’s realistic to think that 50% of wine retail will be online,’ says Jeremy Howard, CEO at slurp.co.uk, which currently lists a palate-boggling 6,500 wines. ‘My background is as a banker and backer, but the more I became involved with this project, the more I realised the potential of what we were doing and how it could grow.’
You can sit at your desk over a lunchtime sarnie and order a next-day-delivery bottle of 1990 Krug for the partner whose birthday you almost forgot
Of course, traditional retailers have long engaged in online wine sales, from Tesco and its rivals, by way of independent merchants to individual wineries. But even more marked has been the growth of purely online merchants that offer either amazing breadth of choice or fill a highly specialist niche, both typically selling at good prices and with bags of background information about the origin, winemakers and wines. A given bottle can come in at between 10-20% cheaper (or more) without the cost of expensive retail outlets to staff, stock and run. So, if you are not a convert already, it’s high time to delve into the world of online wine.
Competitive prices and price comparisons aside, the overwhelming attraction of online wine shopping is its ease. You can sit at your desk over a lunchtime sarnie and order some Omar Khayyam Indian sparkling wine via Amazon for that Bollywood-themed party you’ve planned for the weekend, rustle up a next-day-delivery bottle of 1990 Krug from finewinesellers.co.uk for the partner whose birthday you almost forgot, and round it off with a mixed case of top Aussie wines from australianwinesonline.co.uk as recompense for The Ashes. All this achieved in a few minutes with the tap of a few keys.
But in terms of the online wine revolution, this is just the beginning. ‘People, especially in the US, where the tablet [personal computer] revolution is really kicking in, are increasingly looking up a wine as they dine at the table and ordering a case online for their later home consumption,’ says Howard.
Yes, most of Slurp’s orders do come through at lunchtime – but not from the established wine-buying generations. This is a wine world that encompasses Facebook and Twitter, appeals to media-savvy 25- to 40-year-olds, has company names like Virgin, Slurp and Naked Wines, and operates via apps, iPhones, tablets and websites that are funky and fun. In place of the snooty look over the half-moon glasses, these online retailers offer convenience at your convenience, and much more besides.
Virtual sommeliers are on hand to answer questions on anything from what to pair with a frogs’ leg soufflé to the pronunciation of Gewürztraminer, by way of advice on recent vintages of Bordeaux. Winemaker interviews are streamed at the click of a mouse, transporting the viewer to cellars and vineyards. Blogs, anecdotal snippets, real customer feedback and ratings of the wines, and, above all, good, accessible information on the wines themselves are all there to be browsed at leisure.
But can this virtual world really replace a vinophile’s love of browsing in a bottle shop, handling the bottles, perusing the labels and discussing the wines in some quirky, vinous Aladdin’s Cave?
Rowan Gormley, founder of Virgin Wines and now head honcho at Naked Wines, believes so. And much of
it comes down to the community online.
‘We have found that the two things customers love about Naked are being able to chat to the winemaker and being able to see what other customers think about a wine before they buy it,’ says Gormley. ‘Not only do you get preferential prices… but customers are much more inclined to interact with thousands of other UK wine drinkers than with members of staff.’
Get the most from online shopping
Naked Wines is an intriguingly off-beat set up, offering its signed-up customers access to the wines of a select number of carefully chosen winemakers. It’s a great example of how things are being
done differently online – not least because of the imaginative approach of entrepreneurial types
like Gormley and Howard, who have come to the wine game with fresh eyes.
‘The wine business is a bit like celebrity chefs. When you eat at a Gordon Ramsay restaurant, you don’t get the great man cooking for you… but you do pay for the name. So our idea was to hire the people who actually do the cooking. Give them the finest ingredients and sell them on to you without the huge celeb-chef price tag,’ runs Naked’s introductory blurb.
The best online retailers – and this includes many independent merchants that have long-established businesses via wine shops – have websites that are informative, interactive, easy to navigate and fun. It’s all about replacing or complementing the human element of wine shopping with an online community feel – something that can be especially welcome to customers who find the prospect of discussing unpronounceable names and baffling vintages on a shop floor rather intimidating.
‘You also get more wine for your money,’ says Louise Truswell of Virgin Wines. ‘We don’t have the overheads of many shop-based merchants and as a majority of our wines are exclusive to us we can also buy from small producers who don’t have big marketing budgets to sell their wines.’
Recent research on behalf of the Wine & Sprit Education Trust revealed that many wine buyers are concerned that they will end up paying more online – especially once delivery charges are added in – than if they walk into a shop and carry out their own wine. But this simply doesn’t hold up when you compare prices online, not least through sites such as everywine.co.uk, where around 36,000 wines are available for comparison and purchase.
Moreover, as Paul MacGregor from Fine Wine Sellers points out, shopping online can be very flexible, with fast delivery, the benefit of mixed bottle purchases and even a personalised service if required. Fine Wine Sellers grew out of a small wine club; it has broadened its selection over the past four years and now offers more than 1,200 wines (including a wide range of Champagnes) to subscribers, with monthly wine case offers and pre-selected mixed cases, too.
‘People are cash rich and time poor, and a lot of people are frightened about wine; we can help on both counts while also offering good prices,’ says MacGregor. ‘But while offering a long list,
which we aim to grow to 2,500 wines next year, we can also deliver one bottle the next day which, if it’s a bottle
of luxury Champagne, puts the £4.99 delivery charge in perspective.’
The online revolution is doing away with the need for bricks and mortar, cutting costs without cutting corners, packing in wit, wisdom and information
If the ease, flexibility and keen pricing of shopping for wine online are not enough of an enticement, then the ability of online merchants to find and offer small parcels of hard-to-get wines surely wins the day. Specialist merchants such as SA Wines Online and Australian Wines Online not only offer a broad selection of great wines from, respectively, South Africa and Australia, but also source limited releases, hard-to-find vintages and other gems that simply don’t normally make it to these shores. In addition, they offer a real insider feel and view on the wines, the people and the places.
Then there are micro-specialists like the chaps at Sommelier Cellar, a newcomer at the forefront of a fresh wave of pared-down merchants echoing a US model, where limited stocks of only a few wines at a time are offered to members at great prices.
The sommeliers in question include high-profile Andrea Briccarello and Matt Wilkin, plus respected wine journalist Chris Losh (we have to declare an interest, as the latter edits our sister publication Imbibe). They buy wines either from other merchants and agents that have surplus or direct, but always on quality first. They then recommend these wines to members and the wines go on sale for a limited period at up to 30% discount or cheaper than anyone else.
‘We aim to have about 10 to 15 wines on sale at any one time,’ says CEO Edoardo Manitto, an ex-management consultant. ‘Because choosing wines can be daunting, we found this model where the wines are chosen by experts on your behalf, giving insider information on great deals and individual wines.’
The Sommelier Cellar idea isn’t far away from Ahmed Pochee’s vision when he began selling odd bin ends at great prices back in the 1960s through his Oddbins stores. Except that the online revolution is doing away with the need for bricks and mortar, cutting costs without cutting corners, packing in wit, wisdom and information, all the while allowing you to buy and receive wine in your own comfort zone.
The good, the great and the hard to find from Down Under
36,000 wines for price comparison and purchase
Fine fizz, well-priced wine and next-day delivery on 1,200+ wines
Exclusive wines from Naked’s partnering producers
An unrivalled selection of the best of South Africa
Quality online smorgasbord with more than 6,500 wines, spirits and beers
Hand-picked bin ends from those in the know
User-friendly retailer with a down-to-earth approach
This feature was published in the summer 2011 issue of Square Meal Lifestyle.