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Ordering wine online sounds great. But what's it really like on the World Wine Web?

October 04, 2000|JENNIFER LOWE | DEPUTY FOOD EDITOR

With Web sites named Wine.com, Libation.com and WinOWorld.com, among others, how could the Internet not satisfy wine lovers? It seems ideal. Use a credit card, click away, and there's no driving all over town to search out a favorite label or need for special connections to finagle a limited bottle. And many Web sites are packed with helpful information about the wines--tasting notes, ratings and even descriptions from the winemakers themselves.

"The Internet has democratized wine buying," says Ursula Hermacinski of Winebid.com, which holds online auctions featuring hard-to-find wines and collectibles from private cellars.

But for all of its promise, buying wine online can get pretty complicated. And there's a lot more to it than just dealing with slow Web sites or tough-to-navigate menus. Whether shopping a Web site launched by a retail store across town or buying from an investor-backed Internet-only wine source located halfway across the country, shoppers face an unusual set of hurdles.

Before clicking the "buy" button, they may be asked:

* For a state of residence, often even before being shown inventory. Depending on the answer, a shopper may not be allowed to go any further.

* For a birth date. On some sites, shoppers may have to click a box confirming they're 21 before being allowed to shop. The informational Web site for Gallo of Sonoma wines, which doesn't even sell wine, boots users if they say they're younger than 21.

* To read complicated shipping policies that say something like "the title of the wine you are buying passes to you in the state where it is sold." They may include information that the "buyer is solely responsible for the shipping of the wine," though the purchase includes shipping charges.

Prohibition's Hangover

Though these may seem odd, they have been put in place by online retailers trying to comply with a confusing array of state laws regulating the shipping of wine. California is one of only 12 states that, under a reciprocity agreement, allows direct shipment of wine to consumers across state lines. In five states, direct shipping is actually a felony offense.

The laws have forced some online retailers to send wine along circuitous routes that can result in added costs and longer shipping times. A wine may come from a wholesaler in a shopper's own state at the direction of an out-of-state Web site, or it may be shipped from out of state to a retailer who then delivers it. Whatever the method, chances are a shopper doesn't know.

"How is a consumer supposed to understand? The consumer has to depend on the licensee [or the seller of the wine] that he is operating within the bounds of the law," says Steve Gross, who handles state relations for the Wine Institute, a public policy advocate for wineries. "You can't put the burden of the complicated regulatory system we have on consumers, that they have to know all the laws."

Each state sets its own liquor control laws, which support a three-tier system of distribution established after the repeal of Prohibition in 1933. Designed to discourage organized crime, the system sends wine from the producer to a wholesaler and then to a retailer before it ever gets to the consumer.

Internet sales, which are expected to account for 5% to 10% of retail wine sales by 2005, according to Salomon Smith Barney, can allow a winery or retailer to send wine directly to a consumer, bypassing the middleman.

"The Internet provides you information when you want it, the ability to learn more about wine, and can give access to wine normally not on shelves," says David Dickerson, spokesman for the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America.

The trade organization supports Internet sales, he says, if done legally, within the three-tier system: "The consumer can be a huge winner in this process, once it is settled. But the caveat is that we have 50 sets of state laws, and that makes it difficult."

Seven lawsuits involving the issue of direct shipping have been filed around the country in recent months. In a closely watched case in Indiana, an appellate court in September upheld the state's right to ban interstate direct shipments of alcohol, a setback to those pushing for such sales.

The U.S. Senate is also considering a bill, the 21st Amendment Enforcement Act, introduced by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), which would allow state attorneys general to prosecute out-of-state companies for violating states' direct shipping laws.

Can You Get It?

Regardless, it's not too difficult for shoppers to find a Web site that will ship no matter where they live. In fact, E-wineusa.com lists shipping charges for nonreciprocal states (in which direct shipping is not allowed or is limited).

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