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PERSONAL TECHNOLOGY | CYBERSPACE

Wine Online an Imperfect Convenience

October 12, 1998|P.J. HUFFSTUTTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Shopping for the perfect bottle of wine can be impossible, particularly if you're looking for a particular vintage or a hidden gem.

So, like any smart shopper hunting for a great deal, wine fans are turning to the World Wide Web for discounts on their favorite labels.

And why not? Like novels or gourmet cheese or flowers, wine is a commodity that can be bought sight unseen.

In theory, it makes sense that such technology could change the commercial wine industry's traditional system of distribution--from winery to wholesaler to retailer to consumer. Shoppers can bypass the middleman and grab bottles normally not available in their communities.

Ideally, this process should work. But in practice, it often comes up short.

Winebid.com (http://www.winebid.com) holds monthly auctions with a variety of regions, vintages and price ranges. Deals are readily had, even if the available stock is fickle. A recent visit to the site highlighted several California wines priced at more than $50 but selling for less than $40. Some of the pricier goodies included a 1969 bottle of Dom Perignon with a bid of $170 and a 1982 Lafite-Rothschild Bordeaux for $380.

Virtual Vineyards (http://www.virtualvin.com) is one of the oldest and largest online wine retailers. Written in an unpretentious tone, the site is packed with a bounty of information ranging from advice on matching food to wine, to helpful tips on understanding wine lingo.

And then there's Harvest Watch 98 (http://www.winetoday.com/harvestwatch98), which follows staffers at Silverado Vineyards in Napa Valley through the winemaking process. Viewers can post questions to the winemaker and bid on barrels of wine as they ferment.

"We're challenging the notion of retail geography," said Tom Wark, a spokesman for Winebid.com. "We're the same as any other online retailer, whether it's LL Bean or Amazon.com."

Not quite. Unlike Gap hawking khakis, wineries have a limited supply of their product. Gap can back-order a size 6 of its low-slung cargo pants in light brown. Amazon.com can be out of a rare work on Egyptian cartographers yet be able to restock its virtual shelves.

But when Bonny Doon's 1997 Big House Red--an inexpensive California blend named after Soledad Prison--is sold out, it's gone forever. Such limited supply drives up wine prices at auction Web sites and in informal sales held in Usenet newsgroups alt.food.wine and alt.bacchus.

And unlike other online retailers--where geography doesn't matter--cyber-vineyards face both state and federal regulations that limit where they can deliver their products.

Want to send a friend in Florida a congratulatory bottle of champagne from an online winery in California? That could be tough because it would be a felony for the winery to deliver the bottle directly to your friend. The wine shop would have to deliver the bottle to a location outside the state or contact a local distributor to complete the transaction.

Critics of Internet-based wine sellers support such restrictions, often rallying behind the image of teens being able to buy liquor illegally on the Net.

But online wine sellers say the debate is about protecting profits, not children. Vendors claim critics are more concerned about distant online merchants taking away local business and that state taxes won't be paid.

Enter the Free the Grapes coalition (http://www.freethegrapes.org), a joint venture of five industry groups that represent hundreds of wineries in 43 states. The group, formed last spring, hopes to provide controls and regulations for the online wine-selling industry.

"Like it or not, we're dealing with the sale of alcoholic beverages--and that means we have tighter governmental controls than CD or book retailers," said Jack Bittner, a spokesman for Silverado Vineyards. "Ideally, this kind of distribution will help smaller producers reach more consumers. But we have a long ways to go to make everything work seamlessly."

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Please send Internet site suggestions to cutting.edge@latimes.com.

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