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 Recent Stories
   Virginia Winery Sues New York Over Ban On Internet Wine Sales
Wine Sellers Rush to Web, Hoping
To Bring Good Cheer to Consumers

By Doug Johnson   Associated Press
SPRINGFIELD, Mo. — Ron Junge can spot the amateur connoisseurs the minute they step foot into his fine wine stores.

The droves of dolcettos make them dizzy, the piles of pinot noir cause a panic, and stacks of semillons bring on a sweat.

Realizing that shopping for a high-end wine can be an intimidating experience, Junge now offers this alternative to his petrified patrons: Go home, relax and uncork a good Web site.

The owner of the Brown Derby International Wine Center has joined the growing number of wine merchants who offer their labels for sale online.

Junge plans to launch his World Wide Web site this weekend with about 300 varieties. If it goes well, he said, he will increase the number of wines to include his entire stock of 9,000 — some of which are housed in a cellar and not always available in his 18 stores across Missouri.

"Watching the ads during the Super Bowl game, anyone can see that e-commerce has taken over. Everything is dot-com this and dot-com that," Junge said. "In the 1970s, it was catalog sales. Now you can't get by without a Web site."

In the past year, the handful of wine sites on the Web has improved markedly, offering more varieties and new ways to get around the complex liquor laws that deal with interstate shipping. And new sites continue to enter the market, bringing innovative ways to compete and keep prices affordable.

A San Francisco-based site called wineshopper.com, which plans to launch in the second quarter of this year, has invested $10 million to offer Web customers a wine-locator database. The site hopes to become the Amazon.com of wines, only profitable.

"We will be the first to offer access to more than 90 percent of wines that are out there," said public relations manger Suzanne Gannon.

For retailers, the advantage of wine sites is virtual shelf space with the chance to tap into a whole new sector of consumers.

For customers, it's a chance to leisurely research and learn in the comfort and safety of their homes without the risk of sounding dumb in a wine store. It also gives the more educated wine lovers access to a much wider selection than they would find in their local store.

"One of our best customers lives in Turkey," says Laura Grams, a spokeswoman for the Palo Alto, Calif.-based site Wine.com. "He orders $2,000 and $3,000 worth of wine at a time. I guess the selections there aren't too good."

Wine.com got its start in 1995 and was one of the first sites to build a national distribution using wholesalers and retailers in individual states. The site has enjoyed the rush to embrace e-commerce — twice as many bottles were sold in December than in all of 1998, Grams said.

Wine.com also has a professional "wine team" led by two master sommeliers who hand-select all varieties, post reviews on the Web site and answer questions.

The increased competition has been good for online customers. The site eVinyard.com — where wines range from $7 for a garden-variety Chianti up to $1,249 for a 1959 Chateau Lafite Rothschild — now offers free shipping for orders over $25. And ambrosiawine.com gives out free shipping to first-time Internet shoppers.

Shipping also happens to be one of the biggest drawbacks to upstart wine sites. The laws surrounding the interstate shipping of wine and spirits — what amounts to 50 different laws for 50 different states — is enough to make your head spin.

Five states already outlaw interstate shipments and 23 others prohibit shipment by common carriers such as Federal Express or United Parcel Service.

For smaller operations like Junge's, that means limiting the number of orders. The larger sites get around the laws by getting local licenses, setting up shop in some states or cutting deals with local retailers. Wine.com boasts that it can ship to 45 states.

There is also concern over proposed federal legislation floating around Congress that would give state authorities the power to ask federal courts to block shipments of wine to states where it is outlawed.

Prominent Internet companies oppose the legislation as a threat to electronic commerce. But the bill's sponsor, Rep. Joe Scarborough, R-Fla., calls alcohol sales over the Internet "dangerous."

He cites dozens of cases across the country where television news crews have found teen-agers could buy beer and wine by phone or the Internet using their parents' credit cards.

But Grams believes the cost and time it takes for delivery would be deterrents to eager teen-age buyers.

"Just think of it, a group of kids going online and ordering a case of cabernet for their next kegger," Grams said. "It doesn't make a lot of sense."

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