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Wine-searcher.com levels the wine industry playing field

The New Zealand-based website has made pricing transparent for consumers, retailers, distributors and wineries.

August 12, 2010|By Patrick Comiskey, Special to the Los Angeles Times

Perhaps no one uses the site more than retailers themselves, who in its use have discovered newfound leverage against wholesalers, distributors and importers. Stores routinely use wine-searcher.com as an aid to pricing their wine in relation to their competitors — or at the very least, to see what the competition is up to.

And when a wine salesperson offers a wine to a retailer, the retailer can know instantly if it's a fair deal — or they can simply demand a markdown to meet the competitive pricing they find online. (Most often it's distributors and wineries — few of whom would talk on the record — finding themselves squeezed.)

Indeed, with a couple of clicks of the mouse, practically every corner of wine commerce is virtually exposed; wine-searcher.com has become a reference tool for nearly every transaction or potential transaction in wine commerce.

But there is considerable pressure, particularly among large, high-volume retailers, to price their merchandise so that their store's offerings land on the first page of every search — and the margins can be razor-thin. "You used to have to worry about what the guy across the street was doing," said one distributor who asked not to be identified. "Now, it's across the country."

"It'll turn your hair gray in seconds," says Jim Knight, import wine buyer at the Wine House in Los Angeles. "Everyone fights to be at the top of that list, even if it's just by pennies."

With stakes like these, it's not surprising that wine-searcher.com's accuracy is routinely questioned. A staff of 20 headquartered in New Zealand may not be sufficient to deter dubious price claims. Indeed, there are frequent complaints from wineries and shops alike about less-than-scrupulous retailers (many, it seems, with New Jersey ZIP Codes) who are believed to "game" the system, making offers of certain high-profile wines at suspiciously low, below-market prices. Then, when consumers inquire, they're told the wine is sold out (if indeed there was ever any wine at all).

"They list wines they have never had and maybe never will, and then try and do a bait and switch," says Peter Granoff, proprietor of the Oxbow Wine Merchant in Napa. "It is becoming a real problem for importers and wineries."

Adon Kumar, president of wine-searcher.com, says his users complain vociferously about the practice, and that wine-searcher.com moves in quickly to confront the merchant. "If we continue to get complaints, we will de-list the merchants from our site — if they're sponsors, we refund their sponsorships — and they're not allowed back for a minimum of six months." By the end of that period, he says, these merchants are often out of business. Kumar realizes that his site's integrity is only as good as the information supplied.

But Kumar seems used to ruffling feathers. "I have had retailers say to my face, 'You are a pain in the butt for me,'" he says. "And I can understand that if you are not competitive you might feel disadvantaged."

But for better or worse, wine-searcher.com is the new reality. "The people in the old school, who want to protect your prices," Kumar says, "your kimono is fully open."

food@latimes.com

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