Would someone please remind me when e-tailing finally turned from the Next Big Thing to the Latest Damp Squib? It's been so long that I've forgotten. The wine business had its share of grandiose claims and eager jumpers-on-bandwagons, and now it all seems to have gone flatter than a three-week-old bottle of Cava. Forget about revolutions. This is a case of terminal retrenchment, with companies going bust or scaling down operations almost every month. Winebid.com, the on-line auction house, closed down its UK operations late last year. Tasteforwine.com, the joint on-line venture between Oddbins and Sainsbury's, has been merged into Sainsbury's general taste.co.uk website – in spite of having had an excellent range and keen prices.
Some of the most interesting survivors are the modest ones – though life is no bowl of cherries for them either. Among them are specialist retailers Thewinebarn.co.uk and winesoc.com, specialists in Germany and the Languedoc respectively. Whenever I talk to them, they express cautious optimism allied to a perceptible sense of pleasure at still being around. But life is incredibly difficult when you're a lone player in a field dominated by big companies with big-time financial clout. Majestic seems to get its banner on to any number of websites; I spotted it most recently at uk.multimap.com, purveyors of on-line maps. You find out how to get where you're going, then check the location of the nearest Majestic Wine Warehouse. What could be simpler and more useful?
For true heavyweight link-ups, however, you can't do better than Virginwines.com. It has done a deal with on-line book retailer Amazon.co.uk that makes it the behemoth's sole wine-trading partner, and it's an enviable position to be in. No wine-and-book matching suggestions are being made so far, but that can't be long off. "Readers who bought Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone also bought Garry Crittenden Mornington Estate Chardonnay 2000, £8.99." For a while, Virgin the Wine Merchants was even taking advantage of its links with Virgin the airplanes by offering a two-for-one ticket deal to anyone who spent £70 on wine. Even if that deal has been withdrawn, Virgin regularly offers others that are pretty impressive in their own way. Its preselected cases give sizeable savings, often on deeply desirable wine: check out the Gold Medal dozen in particular. Much more intriguingly, registered customers who recommend a friend are entered into a draw to win their weight in wine – one of the best excuses on earth to start eating chocolate cake for breakfast. I'd spend my calories on some of its interesting finds from South Africa – though the choice is, of course, yours.
My favourite on-line success story is that of wine-writer Jancis Robinson's website, www.jancisrobinson.com. The revered Ms Robinson actually charges money (shock horror) for access to her site's full content – a technique that the whole Internet commerce biz has always assumed no one would get away with. This site has proven them wrong. Subscription buys access to fuller, more current and more detailed writing (especially tasting notes) than you can get on the site's main pages, and at the time of writing it had attracted 240 subscribers paying £39 a year (under a month earlier, the figure had been 220). Worth £39? I would say yes, if you are seriously interested. A recent feature, "Current Chianti Classicos – worth all that money?", was as balanced and scrupulous an assessment as you could ask for. And Robinson possesses one of the finest wine palates on earth.
OK, so she can't book a flight for you. She can't even sell you a bottle of wine. No one's perfect. If you're really that keen to buy Bordeaux and Burgundy from the same people who sell you cars, a new house or a liver transplant, you'll have to wait. But in the fast-moving world of wine e-tailing, you may not have to wait long.Reuse content