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 wine.com, 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.