Sniffing the net for virtual wine

The world wide web (www) and Internet bristle with wine references. From the comfort of home wine lovers can now flit from Australia to the USA to the UK in just a few seconds. In the time it takes to refill a wine glass, we can jump from an LA liquor store, to Nicks of Melbourne, to London’s Tesco, to Cellarmaster at Bondi and over to InterWine Australia in downtown Sydney.

Some authors appear more in touch with technology than the subject; some offer real information and entertainment; others offer simple hard sell; some provide good information and hard sell. Most are of limited interest.

Yet there’s enough out there to say that the internet will eventually become a valuable source of information and services for wine drinkers, as well as providing direct access to wines through on-line ordering. The basis is already there and growing exponentially.

And if you think net browsers are just computer nerds or the great unwashed, think again. A recent Commercenet/Nielsen Internet demographic survey revealed that “17 % (37 million) of total persons aged 16 and above in the US and Canada have access to the Internet… on average www users are upscale (25% have income over $US80,000, professional (50% are professional managerial), and educated (64% have at least college degrees).”

If Australia mirrors US and Canadian demographics, then we can conclude that the majority of net surfers (sniffers?) are wine drinkers. Not only that, but feedback from one wine information service suggests Aussie netsniffers visit the www on the boss’s account!

Anne Hanson and Ian Salisbury of InterWine Australia (www.wineonline.com.au), a new and ambitious web wine site, tell me that almost all of their several thousand visitors to date logged on during working hours. Friday night and weekends, the peak for so many other sites, sees InterWine deserted.

I haven’t spoken to any other www wine-page operators, but took the odd few minutes out here and there over the past few weeks on several “virtual’ visits.

One US enthusiast even invited me to offer alternative views to local guru Robert M. Parker but who could be bothered? Nicks Wine Merchants, Melbourne calls his web service ‘Vintage Direct’ and offers a good range of wine and gourmet food items for sale.

Nicks an old hand at wine — and familiar to many readers — at least offers what to me seem accurate appraisals of the wines on offer.

Tesco, the very large UK chain, penalised me for being a Macintosh user! The special free, downloadable software required to shop on-line with them was available only in pc versions.

Cellarmaster, the Bondi-based wine direct marketers, offer a small site. But they’re not mucking around with information. They offer wine for sale and you can order it at the press of a button — they collect your e-mailed order and ring you for credit card details.

The owners of InterWine Australia harbour ambitions beyond making a sale. They see themselves as an information hub for Australian wine and wineries. But they don’t plan on doing it for nothing and are asking visitors to subscribe at $55 a year.

You can visit the site free and get a taste for their offerings. But to get the full range of information and services you’ll have to cough up. Several people have done so already. But I’ll wait until more of the dreams become a reality.

At the moment you can visit the site and read wine area descriptions (shallow and uninformative) and view regional maps (not detailed enough to be of much use).

Individual wineries are described generally inadequately, but having faxes and phone numbers on line is very useful as virtually all-Australian wineries are covered.

You can view 1600 full colour labels and read wine reviews by Huon Hooke and Mark Shield (extracted from their Penguin guide).

In the future the intention is to have far more information on wineries and wine, an e-zine (on-line magazine), wine courses, tastings (both virtual and real) for subscribers and wine tours. They will shortly be offering links to other wine writers, Langton’s Wine Auctions and, hopefully, e-mail access to numerous Australian wineries.

You can see the drift — advertising on the www is more immediate and more interactive than conventional means. InterWine and others will bring independent information and opinions to us along with producer marketing and sales material and allow all parties direct access to one another. And that’s using old-fashioned slow old modems and telephone lines. Imagine what the near future holds with arrival of broadband!

Luckily, it’s all just a means to the very happy end of re-filling our glass

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