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The price of wine

Jamie Goode takes a look at the impact of e-commerce on the price of fine wine, and discovers some surprising discrepancies.

There's no getting away from it, fine wine is expensive. But some fine wines are notably more expensive than others. In these days of trophy wines, cult California Cabernets and the super-expensive 'garagistes' from Bordeaux, there is a lot of debate about exactly what constitutes a fair price for a wine. And of the many potential answers, probably the most robust response is that in a free-market system, a wine is worth exactly what someone is willing to pay for it.

Surprisingly, though, even with a free market and easy access to wine prices on the internet, there remain some interesting discrepancies in pricing. I discovered this as I set out, armed with my laptop, modem and notebook, to see what effect the profusion of wine retailers on the web is having on the cost of wine. (Please note: all prices taken from the relevant websites on 1st August 2000.)

First stop was the website of the biggest merchant of them all, Farr Vintners (www.farr-vintners.com). To access the wine prices on their site, you need to e-mail them to get a password, which in my case took three days to arrive. If you have 500 or more to spend on fine wine (there is a strictly enforced minimum order), this is a fun place to do it, and the prices here are extremely keen. Take the 1996 clarets: Cheval blanc is 895 per case, Talbot is 230, Cos d'Estournel is 495, Gruaud Larose is 265 and Lafite is 1900. Of the 1977 Ports, Taylor is 660, Graham is 500.

It is surprising to see that ultra traditional Berry Brothers are at the vanguard of wine e-commerce. Their site (www.bbr.co.uk) is one of the best, and certainly the easiest to navigate. The prices range from reasonable to slightly high, but the advantage here is that you can buy by the bottle over a huge range. 1996 Gruaud Larose is 44.45 per bottle, 1996 Cheval Blanc is 135 per bottle, 1996 Lafite is 225 per bottle, 1996 Talbot is 28.95 per bottle, 1996 Cos d'Estournel is 62.95 per bottle. For the Ports, Graham 1977 is 75 per bottle and Taylor 1977 is 88 per bottle.

Bibendum have spent quite a while developing their site (www.bibendum-wine.co.uk), and it has paid off: it's nicely laid out, although it's still reasonably tricky to find the wines you want. Prices are good here. 1996 Lafite is 1714 per case ex VAT, 1994 Cheval Blanc is 708.44, and 1997 Grahams is listed as both 367 and 348.

Seckford wines (www.seckfordwines.co.uk) are a broking firm that have gone for the internet in a big way. On the front page of their snazzy site you are greeted by the cheery grin of Richard Harvey-Jones, and the promise that the stock list is updated every two hours: I wish more retailers had this attitude. Prices look good. Lafite 1996 is 160 per bottle, 1996 Le Pin is 375 per bottle and 1996 Cheval Blanc is 950 in bond. 1977 Dow vintage port is 400 per case.

Now to the online-only ventures. The brainchild of Mark Bedini and Bud Cuchet, Fine and Rare Wines (www.frw.co.uk) is a great idea: they don't actually own the stock, but act as true brokers, publishing prices of wines that are potentially available. If you are interested, you get in touch and they get back to you with a firm offer price if the wines are there. Prices are OK. For the 1996 clarets we have been tracking, Cheval Blanc is 1067 per case, Cos is 517, Gruaud Larose is 299 and Lafite is 1750. 1977 Graham is 565, 1977 Dow is 445.

Bedini and Cuchet are also behind two other online operations, Amivin ('the world's online wine merchant'; www.amivin.com) and www.madaboutwine.com. Both concentrate on selling mass market wine, but also have extensive fine wine sections. Amivin has an interesting pricing strategy: it appears to take the normal retail price of a wine and simply double it! Let's look at the prices for 1996 claret. Cheval blanc is listed twice as 215.57 and 274.31 per bottle. Forts de Latour is a staggering 68.39 a bottle, and Montrose is 69.72. 1977 Graham is 86.95 a bottle; 1977 Taylor is listed as 111.63 and 79.90. My favourite price, however, is the 72.11 they are asking for a bottle of Rosemount's 1992 Balmoral Shiraz. 'Madaboutwine' also has a similar concept of mark-ups. Of the 1996 clarets, Talbot is 38.99 per bottle, Les Forts de Latour is 59.99, Montrose is 95.86, Lafite is 215 and Le Pin a staggering 799.99. Phew! It is clearly not always cheaper to shop on the internet.

Possibly the most interesting wine e-commerce site I visited in my short tour -- and one that really makes full use of the capabilities of the internet -- is www.wine-searcher.com. It is a London-based site that enables you to search the lists of some 387 merchants to find that sought after bottle, or to compare prices. In operation, it works really well, the only limitation being the number of merchants signed up (while 387 is impressive, it is by no means comprehensive). It is a superb idea and it deserves to succeed.