Finding wine

Why isn’t there a free wine database on the web somewhere? It could start in

the US, but very easily expand worldwide.

The problem is that wine is the ultimate long-tail business – I would

say that more wine sales exist in the long tail than in virtually any other

business. Wine shops specialise in finding small wines from underappreciated

areas, and their customers are generally more than willing to buy wines they’ve

never heard of before, if they come with an enthusiastic recommendation from

the sales assistant.

But the total number of wines, of course, is many orders of magnitude greater

than the number of wines that any given retailer can even taste, let alone stock.

So if you’re looking for a specific bottle, the chances are that your local

wine shop doesn’t have it – and nor does the one down the street from

your local wine shop, or the one down the street from that one, either. And

wine stores aren’t like bookstores, happy to order something for you which they

don’t have in stock.

One of the problems I have with wine journalism in the US is that when someone

reviews a wine, it’s often all but impossible to actually find it. In the UK,

with its chain stores and supermarkets, the problem is much smaller. But in

New York, there’s actually a law banning any retailer from operating more than

one liquor outlet in the entire state. So if Whole Foods has a wine store in

Columbus Circle, for instance, it can’t have one on Houston Street. What this

means in practice is that everybody in New York, including wine journalists,

buys their wine from a different retailer, and the chances of my local retailer

stocking the same wine as the journalist’s local retailer are pretty slim.

Let’s say a wine gets a good review, then, and I want to buy a bottle –

or, more likely, I drink a great bottle of wine at a restaurant, and decide

to buy a couple of bottles for my personal cellar. How do I go about doing this?

I could look up the website of the winemaker, but even if it exists that’s going

to be of precious little use to me. I could try phoning up all the wine stores

in my neighborhood and asking if they stock it, but that could turn out to be

an exercise in frustration. There are many wines which are only sold by one

or two retailers in all of Manhattan.

Individual wine stores generally don’t have the resources to put their entire

inventory online. Some do, with varying degrees of success; the biggest, Sherry-Lehmann,

has a very annoying system where individual wines don’t have permalinks, so

you can’t send anybody a link to a wine you’ve found. In any case, it would

be borderline impossible to set up a system aggregating the information from

individual stores’ websites, since they’re all run on very different systems.

But there is another way. While there are thousands of wine stores and vastly

more different wines, there are only a handful of importers and distributors,

through whom all wine travels. These people (a) know exactly which stores their

wine is going to, and (b) have every incentive to make it as easy as possible

for people to find those stores.

The problem with, for instance,

is that it wants to be a retailer, as opposed to just a source of information.

That means that it gets caught up in all manner of red tape concerning inter-state

commerce, drinking-age laws, and the like. And it has no incentive to give out

information about wine it either doesn’t stock or can’t ship to your state.

What I would love to see instead is just a simple searchable website where

distributors can list their wines. When you find a wine you’re interested in,

you can click on it and find out whether any retailers near you stock it. Then

you can phone up that store, make sure they have it in stock, ask the price,

and decide whether you want to buy it. It’s not as simple as Amazon, say, where

you can just click on a book you want and have it sent to you and billed to

your credit card. But it would be a great step forward from the (lack of any)

system that exists at present.

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13 Responses to Finding wine

  1. Try . Started by some locals, I do believe this post was their business plan. I’ve not used it extensively, but they are looking to have ‘user generated content’ along with as much ratings info they can get. As a startup, I don’t know now able they are to aggregate the data you seek, but it seems like a solid start.

  2. Felix says:

    Nah, WineFetch is still an e-commerce site, based on the idea of ordering wine over the internet. I’m just looking for a distributor-created database, telling me where I can buy wine in person. And maybe creating pages for each wine so that I can link to them when I want to tell someone what I drank.

  3. WineFetch says:

    Felix – WineFetch is a wine portal, and I think we may get close to what you are seeking. We don’t consider ourselves an e-commerce site, as we don’t sell wine. Instead, we have a fairly comprehensive list of wine retailers nationwide (all of our stores have websites), and we list the inventory they have. This allows users to comparison shop by price or location. You are absolutely right – the tail is LONG, but we are trying every day to cover it more and more.

    In addition, users can keep track of bottles they enjoy for free in a personalized “My Cellar” product. This product allows you to rate bottles and add tasting notes. If you are a serious collector, you can use the tool to track your collection. We are always developing new products, so if you have technology you’d like to see, please send us an email.

  4. Felix says:

    My main problem with WineFetch is that if a wine isn’t sold by one of their stores, then as far as WineFetch is concerned it doesn’t exist. It’s extremely difficult to add a wine even to one’s own personal collection if it’s not on the WineFetch list, and once you’ve done that, it still doesn’t get into the WineFetch database.

    On top of that, individual wines don’t have good individual pages, where you can learn about them, see others’ tasting notes, etc. The best you can hope for is an agglomeration of many different vintages, pointing to many different websites.

    But most importantly, WineFetch exists only as a tool for driving traffic to e-tailers. Therefore, it will never let me know where I can pick up a bottle of wine in my neighborhood, unless (a) a local wine store has signed up with them, and (b) they happen to stock the wine I’m looking for.

  5. It’s an interesting idea Felix, but I can’t think of a similar tool for any industry. Chains can do this because they have a reasonably high expectation that providing in store data will lead to a sale. Or, worst case scenario, it won’t lead to competitor sales.

    Your idea would terrify, not encourage, retailers. I can think of five places to buy wine within a three block walk of your place; as you point out, the fact that none of them can hope to ever come close to inventorying enough product to satisfy a highly educated consumer such as yourself, now armed with a massive database, further reducing what little leverage they perceive having (typical retailing metrics: proximity to transit or groceries, figuring somewhat correctly that even if you can’t find what you are looking for, most times the consumer will buy a substitute product rather than tour the neighborhood).

    I know a teesny bit about the marketing end of wine, and it doesn’t strike me as any different from food or other types of distribution — the symbiotic and somewhat opaque nexus of discounting, returns, preferred placement and pricing all apply. Even as it may be in the best interest of a distributor to deliver the information about stores, their dependence on retailers to handle much of the marketing and to move product mean that, if anything, to get to what you want, you need to upend the distibuion model. If anything, persistence of the distributors is predicated on a certain amount of obfuscation.

    Selling wine strikes me as most analagous to selling diamonds: empowering the consumer seems like a nice ideal, but everything about the industry is predicated on preventing this. Two Buck Chuck is simply the CZ of wine — highly commodified and satisfying the segment of the population that is openly less concerned about virtuosity in their wine consumption.

  6. Felix says:

    Ah, my dear Miss R — as ever, if I understood you, I’m sure I’d disagree with you. But insofar as I follow what you’re saying:

    Your idea would terrify, not encourage, retailers.

    Far from it. As you say, there are any number of places to buy wine within easy walking distance of my apartment. They differentiate themselves from each other not on price but on selection. Beyond a couple of bottles of Red Bicycle, I suspect there’s precious little duplication of wines so they could compete on price at all — and insofar as there is duplication of wines, I doubt the cheaper outlet sells significantly more wine by being cheaper.

    The problem is there’s no way of publicising their selection. My database would solve that problem at no cost to themselves: any time I wanted a bottle of wine they stocked, they would come up top of my list. It’s win-win for both of us: what would they have to lose? Why would they be terrified? Remember, I’m not even saying that their prices should be on this database, only the fact that they stock the wine in question.

    Your point is that “a highly educated consumer such as myself” will prolly be dissatisfied by the selection at ALL of my neighborhood joints, and hie myself off to 90th and 3rd to pick up a couple of bottles of Clos del Rey and Vasse Felix. Two responses: firstly, if this increases comptetition between wine retailers, then so much the better for me, the consumer. Secondly, I’m more likely to wait until I find a wine that’s available locally, and then trust that retailer for more than that one wine. Put it this way: if someone in the East Village sold Clos del Rey and Vasse Felix, then I’d likely buy much more than just Clos del Rey and Vasse Felix from them.

    persistence of the distributors is predicated on a certain amount of obfuscation

    sorry, don’t get this at all. Persistence of the distributors is predicated on a certain amount of legislation, maybe you meant. The distributors are here to stay: their key mission is increasing consumption. You do that by making it easier for people to find what they’re looking for. Whether it’s Charles Shaw or a 1945 Petrus. Remember, it’s not hard to know where to go for either of those two wines.

  7. No, obfuscation. You overestimate the intelligence of markets, retailers, distibutors and consumers.

    I don’t disagree that wine is undergoing, or should undergo, a massive change in retail strategy (due to legal changes and a bigger effort by new producers to brand wine in a way similar to other consumer goods targeting the wallpaper* set), but as it stands, I still don’t see how providing retailer specific information (privleging one retail account over another) to mosly uneducated consumers (who buy primarily based on price, label appearance and retailer recommendation) will help sell more bottles in the aggregate. One account will sell through a highly rated vintage, those who don’t have it will be pissed, and lots of mediocre wine will sit, unsold.

    There is more bad wine then good (factoring in value), so how is it in the interest of distributors to provide better information on the minority? They want to sell all their wine, not just the good stuff. Educated consumers like yourself might be frustrated at the lack of intelligent information distribution, but they also know that you will go all the way uptown for that bottle, but, if, in the meantimee, then can move ten other bottles to your neighbors without upsetting the apple cart, well, status quo must be working for someone.

  8. Felix says:

    Consumers are reduced to buying on price because they know nothing about the wines they’re being offered. If they could find wines they knew about, they’d spend more. If I love a bottle of wine I had in a restaurant for $35, I’d happily pay $15 for it retail. But I’d be much less likely to pay $15 for a wine I knew nothing about. Instead, I might buy a bottle for $10. So essentially wine sales go up by 50% if I can find what I’m looking for.

    If mediocre wine doesn’t sell, that’s a good thing. If distributors start competing on the quality of their selections, that, too, is a good thing. Remember, if a retailer sells high-end bottles to the likes of me, that in no way stops him selling lower-end bottles to someone else: the current system doesn’t need to be jettisoned in order for this new system to work in parallel with it.

  9. Good Steve says:

    Thanks miss representation for the winefetch suggestion. I’ve checked it out, uploaded my cellar, track my tasting notes, and really enjoy it. But to speak to the topic at hand…. (and my apologies for entering the convo late)

    Felix, you can’t use the distributor sales information b/c distributors don’t know the current stock of a wine shop. I think you’d be more frustrated if you learn that 10 wine shops were sold a particular bottle, and only after contacting each one individually do you learn that everyone is sold out. Seems like WineFetch cuts out the guessing b/c they show you the current stock of the wine shops, not what was sold to them.

    I think WineFetch does actually solve Felix’s issue; its a shopping comparison site like Yahoo Shopping or Froogle. I live in Manhattan, and by your comments Felix it seems like you do too. I order from probably a dozen stores around the metro area, and I usually don’t buy from my local bodega b/c more often than not, the prices are higher. Take a look at Morrell’s right now for Brunello. You show me a local bodega selling the Siro Pacenti Brunello 2001 for $60 and I’d be amazed. Sites like winefetch same me time and usually money.

    Mediocre DOES SELL! That’s the problem – too many Americans are fixed on Yellow Tail and Gallo b/c the price is CHEAP! Also, some of the wines you speak of come with smaller production and therefore are harder to find or command higher prices. There are ton more Cali Cab’s in California than in NY, but there are more French and Italian wines in NY than in California. Sherry Lehmann probably has the best french collection in America, while HiTimes in LA probably has a better Cali Cab section. This is b/c of relationships with importers and distributors, and not equality of trade. One of my favorite wines is Rafanelli, and I know for fact that their wine rarely can be found outside the Sonoma area, but Winefetch shows me who’s got it and who can ship it to me.

    My last point is about “distributors are here to stay”. In case you don’t know, Costco just won a huge case against the state of WA to bypass the WA state distributors. I do think distributors are here to stay, but not in the context you might think.

    We’re not going to change the wine industry in this conversation so might as well use the tools that people have created to help us game the system in a sea of wine prices. I’m excited to see what new sites like winefetch will bring to an otherwise unique industry.

  10. Felix says:


    Current stock. I’m not too worried on this front. If a retailer sells out of a wine, they’re likely to order more, if they can. Yes, winefetch might be better than my system for extremely hard-to-find rarities or wines which have since been replaced by the next vintage along. But I think it would be perfectly adequate for 99% of wine buys.

    $60 brunello. As it happens, I have an just a couple of blocks away. But we’re in agreement that specific local shops are very unlikely to stock any given specific wine. (That was my point too, remember?) I’m not convinced that Morrell’s is significantly cheaper than anybody else, though — the point is that your local shop doesn’t sell the Siro Pacenti 2001, not that it sells it for much more than $60. There may or may not be a problem with rip-off prices, where the same wine can cost anywhere from $20 to $45 depending on where you buy it. I don’t know; that’s not the problem I was trying to solve.

    And I also wasn’t trying to solve the problem of the vast quantity of mediocre wine that gets sold — again, IF that’s a problem.

    Think about it this way: if I’m blogging about a book, I link to that book’s page on Amazon. If I’m blogging about a wine, I have nowhere to link to. Winefetch isn’t a portal in that sense. And it excludes all wine shops which don’t have websites.

    I’m not saying that Winefetch is a bad site, or that I’ll never use it. I’m just saying it’s not exactly what I’m looking for.

  11. Good Steve says:

    My apologies if I miss interpretted. I guess I’m not sure what you are looking for? In your original post, you discuss how you read a wine review, or have a wine at dinner, but then you don’t know where to find that wine. Sites like winefetch take 90% of the leg work out of your search and if they don’t have it, you can go the extra 10% at your local stores that don’t have sites. I see winefetch like froogle or Y! shopping, they are simply search engines to help you find someone selling a product. Maybe if winefetch took your credit card info and farmed out the purchase that might satisfy your need?

    In regards to blogging about a wine, you could link to the price comparison page of winefetch (much like other sites do for Froogle). For example, you could link to the page (fyi I specifically mentioned this wine b/c its rated WS 97 and its $20 cheaper at morrells then at most other stores). This page doesn’t have wine reviews, only a community rating, but you should send them a message about it. I emailed them about food pairings b/c I really liked their cheese pairings section and they responded fairly quickly.

    And in terms of them excluding wine shops without websites, well… this is an online world. Would you create an offline blog? Of course not, because I could never have read it :) You mentioned that you’d link to Amazon if you were blogging about a book. Why not your local book store who doesn’t have a website (stupid point but same concept) or The Shakespeare Book company? One reason might be b/c if you link to amazon and the person buys the book, you make a referral fee. Why would you not link to Yahoo Shopping who offers everything Amazon does and more, except offline prices of course?

    I completely hear what you’re saying and like I said in my last post, I think a site like winefetch is a great start. So let’s help them, shape them, into what we the consumer is looking for. I doubt they can do anything about offline prices, but they’re probably open to suggestions for online content.

    FYI – I use wine comparison sites to buy even highly distributed wines like Heitz Cabernet (not just hard to find wines), b/c I want the best price. I used to use wine-searcher, but they charge and don’t have as many tools as winefetch. So, if I sound like a convert – I am :)

  12. Felix says:

    In New York, as I say, retailers are restricted to having only one outlet in the whole state. Most wine stores are small storefront affairs. I simply don’t think it’s reasonable to expect them to set up a complex online inventory-management system. Some big retailers like Sherry-Lehmann and Morrell’s can and do, of course. And if you’re looking for specific deals on expensive wines, I can see how winefetch would be very useful. I think I’m a step down from you, though. I’m not looking for $60 wines, and in fact I’m not looking to save money on a wine I would buy anyway. I’m looking for a local retailer who can sell me a wine I want to buy because otherwise I wouldn’t buy it at all.

    There are advantages to buying locally rather than online. If I find a local retailer who has two or three wines I really like, then that means I’ve basically found my local wine shop of choice. I can then get much more personalised recommendations, given that the owner will have tasted and chosen those wines himself, and have a much better idea of my tastes.

    Wine stores can be quite intimidating. You walk into one, and it’s full of bottles of wine you know nothing about. The temptation to just grab the cheapest bottle and leave is strong, because if you buy a more expensive bottle you have much more to lose. Things are immeasurably easier if you know at least one bottle in the store that you like: that’s a safe buy, and the sales assistant is much more likely to be able to steer you right on similar wines.

    We’re still a long way from a system where winefetch could recommend bottles based on your own ratings, of course, but it’s not inconceivable if it manages to aggregate everybody’s ratings. If you like this New Zealand pinot you’ll also like that French burgundy — it could be amazing.

  13. Marie says:

    I agree with the comments above.

    “Consumers are reduced to buying on price because they know nothing about the wines they’re being offered. If they could find wines they knew about, they’d spend more.”

    I have to say that it is very difficult and relying on price is not enough. I tried it’s kinda nice . The wines are choosen by the people and it’s not expensive (free shipping).

    I hope for a database myself !

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