CHRISTMAS FOOD SPECIAL: RICHARD EHRLICH'S GUIDE TO ON-LINE WINES AND SPIRITS

The New Festive Spirit: A Christmas food special
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The Independent Culture
IF YOU'RE DETERMINED to buy wine on-line this Christmas, there's never been a greater choice of places to do it. New wine-dispensing websites go on-line every week. Their owners must be rubbing their hands together eagerly, preparing for the arrival of bags of lucre. And who can deny the strength of the temptation, especially when festive gift-buying stretches resources of time? Sadly, however, some are stronger on marketing than on content. And the truth is that most people want to buy wine from someone they already know to be reliable.

So it's hard to see, for instance, who will rush on to the information superhighway to buy from Orgasmic Wines (www.orgasmicwines.com). I dislike this name in principle. Orgasms are a fine thing, two or three times a day, but in this context the word makes me turn puritanical. Especially because the site is distinctly anti-climactic. "Our aim is to make wine- drinking more fun," it says, but I did not have fun. The browsing section, where you search by a variety of criteria (price, style, vintage, etc), is vague and limited. Many wines aren't indexed under the style criteria. Some information is incorrect. The lovely Saintsbury Pinot Noir 1997, for example, would make a perfect companion for the Christmas turkey - but it's pounds 10.95 here, as opposed to pounds 9.99 at Fuller's. And it isn't made by the Carneros Creek winery, as the Orgasmatrons believe. Orgasmic potential: dubious.

By contrast, the Co-Op (www.grapeandgrain.co.uk) has created an excellent new website: fast, simple, mercifully free of multimedia bells and whistles. You can search by keywords or use a "Style Selector" to find the kind of wine you're looking for. A search for big, tannic, high-acidity reds turned up, inter alia, Hardy's Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon (pounds 10.99), Fetzer Valley Oaks Cabernet Sauvignon (pounds 6.49), and Valreas, Domaine De La Grande Bellane, Cotes du Rhone (pounds 5.99). Good wines all. The blemish is that vintages are not given, but presumably this can be remedied.

Other supermarkets don't do so well. Waitrose Direct (www.waitrose.co.uk) has an exceptional selection but the site is somewhat difficult to navigate. Shoppers searching Tesco's website (www.shop.tesco.co.uk) for wine will find Homepride White Wine Sauce and Bassetts Wine Gums but precious little to drink. Even some outstanding specialists don't do much more. The Australian Wine Club (www.australian- wine.co.uk) has a great half-price sample case (pounds 59.78), which would make an ideal Christmas present for anyone whose good opinion you are eager to win or retain. But you can buy the case (and their full range as well) by ringing 0800 716 893.

Of the independents, Berry Bros & Rudd (www.berry-bros.co.uk) remains outstanding. Their bountiful site is exemplary in almost every way, and for the holidays it features gifty ideas in addition to the normal range. I will gladly accept prezzies of their "Tokaji and Truffles" box (pounds 29.95) - Berrys' raisiny- luscious Tokaji Asz (4 puttonyos) in a 50cl bottle with 200g of Prestat Napoleon III Royal Tokaji Truffles packaged in a rope-handled pine box.

Another covetable on-line Christmas present is membership in the Scotch Malt Whisky Society (www.smws.co.uk), which costs pounds 30 for UK residents, or pounds 75 including a bottle of SMWS malt. Membership is renewable for pounds 20 a year, and your money buys access to a lip-smacking collection of unique bottlings at cask strength. The selection changes regularly and when the bottlings run out, they are gone forever. But having drunk a good few of them with a friend who's a member, I can attest to their quality.

Of the purely Web-based sites, one of the best is ChateauOnline.co.uk. Jean-Michel Deluc, ex-sommelier at the Ritz in Paris, has assembled over 800 wines from France and the rest of the world. There are good general sections on serving, storage, etc, with wines usefully subdivided (eg new discoveries, value for money) and a range that covers everything from Vinia Dealu Mare, a Romanian Cabernet Sauvignon (pounds 3.81) to Chateau Haut Brion 1970 in magnums (pounds 362.38). The wines with which I'm familiar are good. But fine-wine buyers should shop around - prices are not always the cheapest on the block. And with ChateauOnline, as with all on-line wine-dispensers, check for the final order date for Christmas delivery.

The most seductive on-line option is bidding for wine in an auction. This offers the thrill of the chase: come in from work, pour a drink, and log on to see whether your bid's been bettered. The leader here is QXL.com, where wines are offered both by individuals and by retailers such as Berry Bros. But with private sellers, caution should be exercised. Has the wine has been stored on top of the boiler? Caveat emptor, matey.

And some offerings are downright wacky. How about 300 bottles of 10-year- old Aberlour, for which the bidding was to begin at pounds 1,500. No one had bitten in all my visits. Ditto for a case of Dom Perignon 1990, where the seller sought an opening bid of pounds 1,200. Since you can still buy that great wine for pounds 75 a bottle, this is not the bargain of the millennium.

Despite the new launches, buying wine on-line is still in its infancy. Bibendum is beefing up its currently meagre site, Oddbins plans to go fully on line soon. Watch this Web-space. For now, however, a shop or the telephone remains the best way to buy wine. It may not be high-tech, but it's still, for most of us, the best way to get what we really want for Christmas.

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