Since I last surveyed online wine offerings, a fleet of start-ups have appeared. The most publicity-laden is www.virginwines.com (incidentally, for amusement, try logging on to www.virginwine.com, no "s" at the end). Virgin has taken over Orgasmicwine.com, one of this column's un-favourite wine sites, and is hoping to capitalise on the universal esteem in which the Virgin brand is held. You know, like Virgin trains.

Since I last surveyed online wine offerings, a fleet of start-ups have appeared. The most publicity-laden is www.virginwines.com (incidentally, for amusement, try logging on to www.virginwine.com, no "s" at the end). Virgin has taken over Orgasmicwine.com, one of this column's un-favourite wine sites, and is hoping to capitalise on the universal esteem in which the Virgin brand is held. You know, like Virgin trains.

Virginwines operates a two-tier system. Its own selection of 500 "recommended" wines comes with a money-back guarantee if you don't like them ("provided, of course, you have only drunk one bottle from a case"). They usually deliver within a week (not by Virgin train, one assumes), and if you find any at a lower price elsewhere, it will refund the difference.

The second tier is everything else: some 2,000 wines from other retailers. The list contains some great wines, but Virginwines warns: "If you buy a wine that we have not recommended we cannot promise that the quality will be as good and therefore cannot offer a refund if you don't like it." What's more, "We cannot guarantee a delivery time." I am not aware of any retailer in any field who operates a system of this kind.

Virginwines makes a big deal of its Wine Wizard, which asks questions about likes and dislikes, then goes on to recommend "styles" it thinks you'll enjoy. This is obviously aimed at people who don't know wine but know what they like - an important audience. My experiments suggest that it needs a little tweaking.

Virginwines has invested big bucks, and they're in for the long haul. But I am perplexed by their insistence (common in online wine-selling) that you have to buy by the unmixed case. This seems discordant with the needs of its target market. And I am doubly perplexed by tasting notes written in some weird notion of hipster speech. About the delicious Loosen Dr "L" Riesling 1999 (£5.99): "Shift your groove into a more mellow bag with this easy style of wine...." Sounds like Alan Partridge after someone has dropped a tab of acid into his G&T.

Like several of its webby competitors, Virginwines aims to supply an experience rather than a mere shopping trip. Maybe that's what we want. Time will tell. In the meantime, my money remains on companies using the web as an addition to a well-established retailing presence. Eg Waitrose (www.waitrose.com), which moves the UK's best supermarket wine list into cyberspace with straightforward clarity and lets you mix cases for a £1.20 surcharge. Delivery is free over £75. Eg again: Majestic Wine Warehouses (www. majestic.co.uk), which delivers for free and imposes no charge for mixed cases. And it offers some stonking deals, such as the well-made Penfolds Koonunga Hill Chardonnay 1999: down from £5.99 to £3.99 if you buy two. A steal.

A completely different approach is that of Languedoc Select (www.winesoc.co.uk), a specialist in this ever-more-up-and-coming region. List: small but solid. Delivery: free, and on the next working day. Check out its Château de Belles Eaux 1997, Cÿteaux de Languedoc (£5.95), a Syrah-dominated blend with fine berry richness, a sensible amount of oak influence, and good concentration. Maybe the future lies with small operations like this one, rather than wine giants who promise to be all things to all men and women. Have a look online, or ring (you luddy-duddy!) on 0116 221 9899.

Comments