Why it's fine to buy wine online

Date:23-11-2013 08:58:37 read:6

Why it's fine to buy wine online

Buying wine on the internet saves time and money – plus, there are bargains and discoveries that never reach the shops

Convenience shopping: buying wine online is quick and easy – and you can do it from anywhere at any time  Photo: Alamy

Do you buy wine online? Yes? No? Are you sure? Richard Halstead of Wine Intelligence has been trying to figure out how many of us use the internet to feed our bibulous habits and found that we don't even seem to know ourselves.

"The answers we were getting from our surveys suggested that 18 per cent of people use the internet to buy wine," he says. "Then we changed the question to ask: have you ever bought wine as part of your online grocery order, and suddenly that bumped up to 25 per cent."

His findings suggest there is still a mental stumbling block when it comes to online wine shopping. A reluctance, or inability, to commit a chunk of the household budget all in one go – £90 on a case feels harder to justify, or to disappear, than £6 here, £9 there – is one reason not to do it.

Reasons in favour? More than I can count.

A couple of friends recently ordered their first case from The Wine Society. Not because I suggested it, obviously. I've been suggesting it for years. Because they'd just had a baby, had no time, were increasingly desperate for palatable drink and were really fed up with paying £10 from a dismal selection at their local convenience store (convenience stores routinely charge £1 more for the same bottle, by the way).

"The bottles The Wine Society sent only cost £6 or £7 each and are So. Much. Better," they told me, almost weeping with gratitude. Well yes, though it's not just the specialists who give you a good deal online.

Tesco hides many of its best wines – and, often, also its best offers (recently there was an extra 15 per cent off all Finest wines when you bought two cases or more) – on its Wine By the Case website. It lists 1,400 wines online, twice the number sold in store.

"The complex logistics of getting wines into our thousands of shops mean that we move like an oil tanker when it comes to putting bottles on a shelf," says Nick Juby, who runs Tesco wine online. "But we can – and do – get things online within a week if we pick up an interesting parcel or a small quantity of fine wine."

Current ''interesting parcels'' include 10 cases of Abrau Durso Cuvee Alexander 11, a Russian sparkling chardonnay/pinot blanc/riesling/pinot noir blend from the Black Sea coast, with which Tesco hopes to lure homesick oligarchs.

Morrisons also has a glittering wine website, listing far more wines than it carries in store. Asda, too, has just piled into the slightly-more-upmarket-supermarket-offering-online game, signalling that the big retailers are taking this very seriously (Halstead estimates that Tesco already has roughly a 25 per cent share of the online market, well ahead of its closest online competitor Direct Wines, owners of Laithwaites, among others).

But for me the real thrill of online wine shopping is the chance to escape the giants. It's all about stories, immediacy, connection, a chance to root around making new discoveries or, more to the point, getting in touch with people who've made them for you, buying the wine you want when you want and having it delivered all with sublime ease.

One online micro-trend gathering momentum is for producers to sell direct to customers. Think of the likes of Gavin Quinney, whom I wrote about over the summer when swathes of his crop were smashed by bad weather, and who is now having a "hail sale" (Bauduc) to try to get back on his feet.

This appeals to the 21st-century hunger to feel involved, something that has been cleverly commercialised by Rowan Gormley over at Naked Wines. I've criticised Naked in the past – but in a marketing sense you've got to hand it to a man who has CEOs of other companies slamming the desk and shouting: "Why have they got all these new customers?"

Gormley understood early on that buying wine online needed to feel interactive and involved, and he went for it, saddling up the crowdsourcing zeitgeist and charging along on it. You don't buy wine from Naked. You join it and become an ''angel", ''funding'' independent winemakers, voting on which wines should be sold, spending vouchers from ''one of our lovely partners'' and ''earning wholesale prices". The Naked ''marketplace'' scheme where a pallet of a producer's wine is bought only if enough people pile in has been copied and tweaked by Tesco which now runs ''co-buys'', finite parcels of wine put up for sale with the price going down as more people join in.

Feeling part of a club, even if it's not actually a club, is very appealing to online shoppers. Take Swig, an independent merchant started by the very lovely and wildly hairy Robin. I love Swig, which I think is doing for wine what Mr & Mrs Smith do for hotels, picking out gorgeous bottles (in the £12-15 range) and putting them under your nose.

"A lot of people who come to us are friends of friends," says Robin. "They'll be in their office, and a colleague will see them open an email from us or maybe they'll go to a friend's for dinner, try a Swig wine and be given one of the postcards we put in the boxes saying you should join Swig, even if the membership is free, and the word gets around."

Buying wine online is so quick, too. You can do it in the middle of a sleepless night, from the train, the office, the ski lift: a deal here, a plum bottle there. Plus, you don't have to carry it all to the car, or home on the bus afterwards.

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