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Savoring the possibilities
By CHRIS SHERMAN Times Food and Wine Critic
© St. Petersburg Times, published June 29, 2000
Maybe there isn't a server (yet) that will pour a glass of 1997 barbera at your terminal, but the Internet is perfect for other activities some wine fans love, seeking out the most obscure bottles -- and chatting about them.
If the Internet is an online department store, its wine department has an inventory as large as its book section, and much larger than any single wine shop.
Because of Florida law, wine lovers here can't do what shoppers around the United States do: order their favorites online from the dozens of discount stores and wine e-tailers around the nation or even from the wineries in the Napa or the Bekaa valleys.
Online wine buyers elsewhere say the Internet is 24/7 convenient, has the rarest wines and is more informative and less intimidating than conventional shopping. Traditionalists say they can buy wine quicker, without paying for shipping, and with the pleasure of friendly chat and a sample pour at their local in-person store.
But if your part of cyberspace falls within the boundaries of the state of Florida, the debate doesn't matter much. Online shopping for wine here falls under the same limitations as old-fashioned catalog-and-800-number buying of wine: Wine can't be shipped directly to a customer from a retailer not licensed in Florida.
On the drop-down list of states in the address portion of the Web site for Zachys.com, another big New York store, only 30 states exist, "FL" not among them.
Which means a common FAQ at many sites is "Why can't you ship to my state?"
The answer, recounted with varying degrees of outrage, is the three-tier system imposed on alcohol sales after Prohibition ended. To prevent big brewers, distillers and vintners from pushing around small retailers, governments required that there be an intermediate level. Producers, including wineries, would have to sell to a wholesaler, distributor or importer, but not directly to the retailer or the consumer.
Exact rules vary according to state. California, for instance, has long allowed wineries and retailers to run mail-order businesses. Other states, including Florida, got tougher, citing lost taxes or the need to prevent underage consumers from buying alcohol.
The heaviest lobbying came from in-state distributors who didn't want to lose their middleman role in the process.
Well before current e-mania, the state of Florida in 1995 sued several out-of-state firms to stop, charging they avoided state taxes and regulation. That halted much of the shipping and scared off others. In 1997, a bill to legalize the direct shipping was killed, and in its place a stiffer law was passed making it a felony.
A few online shippers simply ignore state laws and contend that the purchaser takes title to the wine in California, but the best route is to buy from the few online retailers who do meet Florida requirements and obey state laws.
Locally, B-21 is a 50-year-old Tarpon Springs liquor store that is a fully licensed retail store with one of the largest wine inventories in the state and a busy mail-order and delivery business. Through B-21.com, it now has a full catalog of wine it can sell and ship to Floridians legally on the Internet. Its elaborate Web site is complete with reviews of thousands of wines, staff picks and reports from their buying trips to Italy, France and Spain.
Two national outfits have also set up facilities and operations in Florida, fulfilling all the state's tax and licensing requirements so that they can ship to Florida residents legally. Geerlings & Wade, which started out as a mail-order merchant and now sells on geerwade.com and winebins.com, maintains licenses and facilities in all states where it operates, including a warehouse in Tampa, which also does walk-in retail business for limited hours (12402 Racetrack Road, Tampa; 9 to 3 p.m. Monday to Friday).
Another big wine e-tailer, drinks.com, which sells beer and liquor as well as wine, is also playing by the three-tier rules, setting up warehouses in each of the three markets it has entered so far -- California, Illinois and Florida (Pompano Beach) -- and following the laws in each state.
Still others, such as wine.com, obtain permission (from an in-state distributor) to sell some of its labels in each state. An Internet visitor who fills out Florida as a destination on the home page will see on succeeding pages that each wine is marked either "Add to cart" or "Not available in FL."
Even if Floridians can't buy as much wine on the Internet, all the online retailers listed here and a vast number of other wine sites have put together a wine library with more reference material than a wine buff could read in a lifetime. Internet bulletin boards, chat rooms and Web sites of amateur and professional wine lovers create a wine community bigger than any wine tasting festival.
On wine.com, for instance, every wine is rated on founder Peter Granoff's original tasting spectrum for sweetness, body, acidity, tannins, oakiness and other factors. The oldest place for wine information and discussion may be wine-lovers-page.com, run by Robin Garr, the straight-talking Kentucky wine journalist who once was a wine host on CompuServe.
Winespectator.com, online site of the magazine, is one of the most comprehensive sites for researching for beginners and connoisseurs. Search the magazine's years of tasting notes by grape, region, winery or rating; track vintages in Spain or the Southern Rhone, look up wine terms, join debates on favorite wines -- and big disappointments. Wine Spectator has auctions for its subscribers, but anyone can join the buying, selling and trading in cult wines on its bulletin boards. (Two '96 Harlan Estate cabernets for one 1997 Bryant Family?)
On many Web sites, chat focuses on wine and food pairings. Pecan pie? Sauternes, sherry or tawny port, say the kibitzers at wine.com. Food for a 1973 Meursault from the birth year of a vegetarian partner? Chardonnay that old is undrinkable, declares one spoilsport on winespectator.com, while a more generous respondent suggests puff pastry filled with sauteed vegetables and topped with Hollandaise.
Taking advantage of the Web's global reach, surfers can browse the resources and taste opinions around the world at decanter.com, the British wine magazine, or explore Burgundy with Yak Shaya, a Tel Aviv software maker and Burgundy lover, with a personal Web site at yakshaya.com.
Perhaps the best use of the Internet is simply to transport yourself around the world to a favorite winery, the great majority of which have Web sites with extensive information (besides the online sales Floridians cannot enjoy).
You can play a virtual version of petanque, the old French bowling game, at www.clicquot.com, the Champagne maker; follow the month-by-month life cycle of a single vine in Block 1-B at Chateau Montelena in Napa Valley at montelena.com; meet Max Schubert, the father of Australia's great Grange Hermitage, and other winemakers at Penfolds.com; or explore the surprising array of cabernets from Lebanon at chateaumusar.com or lebanon.com/chateau-kefraya.
You won't necessarily subvert your neighborhood brick-and-mortar wine merchant. Many of them use the Internet for the same reasons, says Michael Roberts of Vintage Wine Cellars in Tampa and Lakeland.
Although the store itself does not yet have a Web site, Roberts says it uses computer power extensively, to keep in touch with favorite wineries overseas, to e-mail customers about tastings and special sales and to look up the latest news and reviews.
For now, he's not worried that online shopping will close the local wine shop; it makes customers more savvy, but they still do most of their shopping in person where they can talk to people they know and buy wine without waiting several days for a delivery truck.
"Some of our customers will buy something unusual online and then come in and talk to us about it.
That's one of the good things about your local wine shop," Roberts said, "Everything else is so high-tech. We're not."
Here are wine Web sites worth checking out:
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