The Net uncorked

This time the dot.com boffins have struck gold and taken all the angst out of buying wine, says Anthony Rose, Glenfiddich Wine Writer of the Year
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Seen the movie, caught the plane, bought the CD and got the the insurance, now sit back, why don't you, and enjoy a refreshing glass of Virgin.dot.com wine.

Seen the movie, caught the plane, bought the CD and got the the insurance, now sit back, why don't you, and enjoy a refreshing glass of Virgin.dot.com wine.

Yesterday, Virgin launched Virginwines.com, joining a thicket of new wine websites poised to change the face of wine-buying in the UK, among them madaboutwine.com; its.wine.com; everywine.com; uvine.com; and Rouge-blanc.com. If the list isn't long enough, another new e-commerce company about to launch here, Wine Planet, aims to put the e-com cat among the cyberpigeons by becoming the number-one internet wine retailer in this country.

Suddenly the wine netscape is changing. Only six months ago, wine on the internet was barely out of short trousers. Most sites are little more than wine companies finding a way of getting their mail order catalogues online. But the major new start-ups don't come from a wine trade background. From the trade's point of view, it puts them at a disadvantage because they lack an established clientele and a track record of delivery. For the likes of Virgin.com and Wine Planet, carrying no wine trade baggage is a plus. They're out to titillate.

Virginwines.com is a multi-million pound investment with the advantage of a million customers across the Virgin group and loyalty to the Virgin brand. The man behind it, Rowan Gormley, believes that the wine trade is ripe for a shake-up. "We aim to have specialist wines at supermarket prices and with Virgin service. We don't think of ourselves as a dot.com business."

Rowan Gormley is convinced that while there's a huge number of wines available and plenty of consumers anxious to try them, there's not enough to connect the two. Virgin's first objective is to have a vast database of 20,000 wines for customers looking for something specific. Within this, a core range of 500-odd wines will carry the Virgin seal of approval.

"We want to help people find new wines they're going to love and we aim to take the guesswork out of the equation," says Gormley.

The other major point of difference is to "personalise" the range. Enter the wine wizard. You tell Virgin your likes and dislikes and they are used to draw a map of your preferences and fill in the gaps.

Personal service is the aim of Wine Planet, which makes up in track record what it lacks in a brand the size of Virgin. With 23,000 members in Australia, Wine Planet (wineplanet.com.au) is on its way. Since starting in 1996, a 25 per cent stake by Fosters to the tune of A$50m (£21m) has enabled it to bring its ambitious plans overseas. Now, on the fourth version of its site, it offers 6,500 products (there will be 7,500 in the UK), emphasising content and "objective" information.

Unlike Virgin, Wine Planet's man- at-the-helm, Rob Walters, is not ashamed to admit that the approach is "webcentric". In fact, he's proud of it, because what Wine Planet is developing is an approachable site for wine consumers daunted by what Walters calls "the shopping experience". This is the challenge. Wine lends itself to e-commerce because it's an "information-rich" product. Customers hungry for knowledge can learn about wines in fun-size chunks. Then slake their thirst by buying the wines they like.

There will be an area with your personal order history and buying patterns. Plot the wines and styles you like and get a recommendation to match your personal taste. There will be news and reviews, a bulletin board and a wine TV and video archive. "Our aim is to get into the mind of the consumer and deliver. It's a wine-buyer's wet dream."

As Amazon.com showed, "end-to-end, order-to-delivery customer experience", aka customer service, is the crunch area. Wine Planet aims to have its own vans in key areas with a guarantee of next-day delivery, free on orders of £75 upwards. Prices will equal the best in the UK market with a price guarantee. Virgin also has a price guarantee with delivery at £4.99, but for a minimum of a case, on which the initial aim is to deliver within a week.

It's too early to predict how successful these two or any other wine sites will be. What is clear is that the wine e-com model most likely to succeed is the one that will, quiet literally, make your dreams come true.

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