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
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
"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
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
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
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
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."