Beware the cybersommelier

Wine companies are busy setting up their stalls on the Net. So where are the best sites?
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Indy Lifestyle Online

New century, new medium. Suddenly, everyone I know seems to be setting up a website or talking e-commerce and cyberspace. A Luddite by nature (ie: lazy), I thought that it was probably time to embrace the electronic age and try a home-shopping day in, checking out some of the more interesting Internet sites, from supermarkets to specialist wine merchants.

New century, new medium. Suddenly, everyone I know seems to be setting up a website or talking e-commerce and cyberspace. A Luddite by nature (ie: lazy), I thought that it was probably time to embrace the electronic age and try a home-shopping day in, checking out some of the more interesting Internet sites, from supermarkets to specialist wine merchants.

Bone up on your geography by accessing First Quench's (Thresher, Wine Rack, Bottoms Up and Victoria Wine) virtual off-licence enjoyment.co.uk, where Serge, the cartoon sommelier, helpfully switches flags when you search for the country of your choice. The site is easy to use, with delivery in up to five working days at £4.99 for up to five cases, but Serge's knowledge is suspect and his wine descriptions lapse into pretension, as in "partial malolactic fermentation enhances depth and roundness".

In contrast to this, Waitrose's waitrose.com tiny split screen was already giving me a headache when I was told I'd have to register my name and password to access simple features like asking a question. Having to scroll sideways and back just to read the information left me with a hangover and I hadn't even had a drink.

With their expertise on providing quality information, advice, and delivery, selling wine on the Net should come more easily to the established mail- order wine specialists. Bordeaux Direct bordeauxdirect.co.uk went online in November, promising delivery (which is free) within a week of any of its range of 1,500 wines. Browsing allows you to find a wine by country, region, price range, grape variety, or as a match for food. Background detail and tasting notes are helpful, with the odd blip, like finding Jamieson's Run Cabernet Sauvignon when you narrow your choice to Australian merlot.

You might think Berry Bros & Rudd a surprising entrant to online shopping berry-bros.co.uk but the traditional facade conceals a modern, dynamic mail-order business. The site is easy to use, listing 1,300 wines and providing easy access to advice and delivery (next day £12.50, free if you spend £250; standard delivery within five days at £7.50 or free if more than £100 spent).

Country merchant, Lay & Wheeler's site layandwheeler.co.uk is more old-fashioned, but gives simple access to over 1,000 wines, with delivery £6.95 per dozen on orders of less than £150.

Alongside established retailers, a new group of web-specific wine companies is starting to challenge the old order. Many buy against orders, so will they survive if there's little or no stock behind them? Time will tell.

Typical of the new breed is Orgasmic Wines orgasmic wines.com, whose site promises to take "the pretentious twaddle" out of wine-buying. Delivery, promised within seven days, is £5.50, and the system is easy and fun to use. Not because it promises "a case of orgasms", which I found a shade forward, but because the wine browser is designed for easy access with intelligent and logical links, for instance from Bordeaux to Chilean cabernet sauvignon. I was irritated, though, at finding three Francis Ford Coppola wines spelt alternately Francis Ford Copolla, Francis Ford Coppella and Francis Ford Coppolla, not to mention a handful of wines with incomplete names and two Adnams champagnes listed under English wines. Winescape winescape.co.uk focuses on quality producers such as Pousse d'Or in Burgundy and Jim Barry in Australia, but the site's promised "masses of background and tasting notes" failed to materialise. Wineorama wineorama.com meanwhile, promises "faster, easier, better", but offers just 50 wines.

Overseas companies are also set to take advantage of the Net. In France, Chateau Online's base chateauonline.co.uk, has a cybersommelier by the name of Jean-Michel Deluc, and offers easy access to 800 wines, with delivery in five days at a flat rate of £6.

Occasionally, tasting notes suffer from culture shock, as in "flavours of stoned fruits". The same caveat ("marked 85/100 by the notorious Wine Spectator") also applies to the producer-orientated Chateau Net chateaunet.com, which promises delivery within five days at £11.99.

For a fledgling anorak like myself, e-commerce clearly has potential as a convenient way to shop. Designers, though, seem unsympathetic to users' demands. Sites that try to pack too much in, expect you to wait forever or to scroll endlessly are self-defeating. We need better information and advice and more exciting graphics. It's good to know, though, that my options have expanded even if, for now, I shall continue to risk the personal touch.

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