September 17, 2010 10:20 pm

Wine-hunting on the web

Wine-searcher.com was born in the late 1990s and now lists more than 4m wines available from around the globe

As wine-loving FT readers no doubt know all too well, it is one thing to identify a good wine but quite another to track it down. The internet has brought huge benefits in this respect, initially thanks to the diligent coding work of New Zealander Martin Brown, who helped set up Berry Bros’ online retail operation in London and in the late 1990s saw a gap in the market for a global price comparison search engine. Thus was born Wine-searcher.com, which lists more than 4m wines available from about 18,500 wine retailers around the globe. Wine-searcher’s strength is in listing dozens, sometimes hundreds, of wine offers in ascending price order, allowing complete transparency of pricing.

The rudimentary search box allows you to choose your currency, which country or continent you are interested in, whether you want global results, whether you are interested in retailers who will deliver worldwide, whether to include auction prices, and many more bells and whistles if you choose to pay for the premium Pro Version at $29.95 a year. (In the interests of disclosure, I should point out that my own website refers visitors seeking specific bottles to Wine-searcher, for which I receive a small referral fee, amounting to about $120 per month.)

The company, still owned by Brown but managed by Adon Kumar in Auckland with 20 full-time staff, depends on adverts, subscriptions and sponsorships for its income but does not charge for listings and takes no commission on transactions.

British wine lovers can now see precisely how much more they pay, thanks to duties and UK margins, for their European wines than those who live in, say, France and Spain. They can also marvel, in many cases, at the wide price variations between different merchants – although the picture can be clouded by the fact that Wine-searcher lists the prices as cited online by the retailer, which may or may not include duty and VAT.

For many online retailers, Wine-searcher is their prime source of new business. And some, to the frustration of their competitors, try to lure customers with what look like exceptionally low prices for what they then claim is no longer in stock. Part of Wine-searcher’s daily routine is dealing with complaints, and offending retailers may be struck off the site for six months. Retailers, whether online or bricks and mortar, can check Wine-searcher when pricing their wines, and can check, for example, that their suppliers are offering them a fair deal. Wine-searcher may be the friend of the wine lover but it is no friend to the importer and distributor. Yet it is increasingly popular, with more than 10m visits last year, of which more than half were new visitors.

. . .

It is no wonder then that Wine-searcher has attracted the sincerest form of flattery. Canadian programmer Eric McGee started Globalwinestocks.com in 2005 – primarily for the wine trade – but is now about to launch a new, free, version for consumers. He claims to trump Wine-searcher, with 6m wine listings and more than 20,000 retailers worldwide. His data-gathering system at one point required a staff of 26 but now that the groundwork has been done, he has reduced that number to three.

None of the other sites is anything like as comprehensive as either of these, although most are free, and some look much more polished. Perhaps the most attractive, user-friendly competitor is Vinopedia.com, set up by Dutch wine lovers Jeroen Starrenburg and Jasper Hammink, who quit their jobs in IT to build a site that locates prices and stockists of 1.6m different wines (the current tally) but also incorporates individual wine ratings (from American wine magazine Wine Spectator). One particularly useful feature is that they identify wines whose prices have dropped most significantly recently and showcase them on their home page.

Vinopedia’s retailers are only in North America and Europe, whereas Wine-searcher and Globalwinestocks are steadily infiltrating Asia and are already well-established in the rest of the world.

Snooth.com claims to be “the world’s largest wine site, with over 1m monthly users”, but to the outsider this site represents a triumph of SEO (search engine optimisation) over content. Snooth may feature prominently in Google searches but for accurate information on prices and availability, it would not be my first choice. Set up in 2006 by ex-wine trader Philip James, it claims to have more than 1m wines and more than 11,000 merchants around the world but I found too many inaccuracies and confusions in the wines I randomly looked up to inspire confidence. There is a real attempt to make the site conform to social media norms with its forum, Facebook-like elements and, supposedly, lots of background information. But too often clicking on: “Learn more about this wine’s winery” results in the message: “We don’t have much information about this winery”. Prices are in dollars only.

Snooth is not the only site trying to capitalise on the growing number of young American wine drinkers. Winezap.com and Classicwines.com are both active in this arena and trying hard, but the presentation of search results leaves much to be desired. Winefetch.com is slightly more international in its outlook, has a much clearer layout and includes the “ship to which state” option that is so useful in the heavily proscribed US wine market. But the order of results seems random and not easy to change. Two early entrants into this field, Winealert.com and Wineaccess.com formed exclusive alliances with the American wine critics Robert Parker and Stephen Tanzer respectively some time ago, although increasingly Wineaccess is itself selecting and selling special parcels of wine which must rob it of some independence.

And then there are the search engines focused exclusively on investment grade wines such as Liv-ex.com, a resource for which you have to pay at least £49.95 a year. Wineprices.com, part of Vinfolio.com and based on Globalwinestocks.com’s database, is free but very much sketchier.

Truly, price-conscious wine buyers have never had it so good.

Jancis Robinson’s website was last week named Wine Website of the Year in the Louis Roederer International Wine Writers Awards, see www.jancisrobinson.com.

More columns at www.ft.com/robinson

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