Tuesday, I got an email from a Houston wine blogger asking for my address because she wanted to send me a book via Amazon.com. Wednesday, the book arrived, much sooner than I expected. That, however, was indicative of my experience generally with Amazon.com - service fast, accurate and reliable, at least with respect to books.
But will the the scale, range and efficiency for which Amazon.com is famous - and successful - extend to the sale of wine? That experiment just got under way, right in time for gift giving during the year-end holidays. Yes, Amazon.com is now in the wine business, no doubt to the consternation of wine merchants who have seen what impact the company has had on book dealers.
I just went window shopping, or rather the online equivalent of window shopping. I visited Amazon.com in search of some bottles of wine I maybe could arrange to have shipped to people on my gift list. At first, I thought the website had taken me to the music selections. The labels looked like album covers, and were for wines like Zombie Zin Zinfandel, the Rolling Stones Forty Licks Merlot, and the Grateful Dead Steal Your Fire Red Wine Blend. At least, I think they were wines, though I've never heard of any of them.
As I got deeper into the page I wasn't terribly impressed by the selection. Oh, it's extensive, all right - 25,000 red wines, 12,000 whites, 2,000 sparkling wines. But in quickly scanning through a few pages of the choices I didn't see a whole lot of labels I couldn't find in the local Safeway. I did get pretty excited when I saw on the left side rail of the introductory page that Amazon.com had grouped several types of wine into categories like "chocolate" and "vegan." I'm aware that chocolate-flavored wines are growing in popularity, but I was amazed to see that the chocolate category on Amazon.com listed 47. When I clicked on the group, however, I soon realized that any wine anyone ever described as smelling or tasting of chocolate, a not-uncommon descriptor, was included in the options.
And because I have vegans in the family, I was encouraged to see that the "vegan" selection included five choices. On closer examination, however, not a single one of the five currently is available for ordering through Amazon.com. This reminded me of what could be either mismanagement or a deceptive ploy by some restaurants to inflate their wine lists with selections nowhere near the premises. Clearly, the company has some work to do before its merchandising of wine is up to the standard set by its marketing of books and other products.
I did find one wine that I was tempted to order for the Thanksgiving table, the Twisted Oak Winery 2009 Calaveras County Tempranillo, being sold by Amazon.com for $19.99. Shipping charges and tax would boost the price to $30.80 if I wanted it delivered within three to five busines days, $39.95 for delivery within two days, and $56.46 for overnight service. Twisted Oak is at Murphys in Calaveras County, about 100 miles from Sacramento, and even at today's gas prices I might be able to save myself a few cents by driving there to pick up a bottle in person. Besides, it's a delightfully scenic drive, and there are many other wineries in and about Murphys worth visiting. Nevertheless, I visited the Twisted Oak website to see if I could order a bottle of the wine direct from the winery. I could, but the shipping charge would be a whopping $18, nearly doubling the price of the wine to $38.38.
Next, I visited Wine.com, already well established in online sales, and Amazon.com's most serious competitor for the affection of people who buy wine through the Internet. I couldn't find the Twisted Oak there, but I did find a comparably priced tempranillo by Zuccardi in Argentina, a producer I've found to be remarkably consistent in the quality of its wines. The wine cost $19.99 through Wine.com, but standard shipping would have tagged on another $12.70, bringing the total to $32.69. Tempting, but I've always enjoyed the drive to and from Murphys and still am thinking the Twisted Oak could be the best deal.
This is Amazon.com's third effort to capitalize on online wine sales. Others also have tried and found the challenge daunting. I'm sure there are people who want or need to save themselves a trek to winery or store to pick up a wine they already know and enjoy, and who welcome the opportunity to simply log on to Amazon.com, find their favorite wine, and sit back until they have to sign for it at the front door in a couple of days. But I do question whether there will be enough of them to sustain this latest outreach by Amazon.com. Wall Street also must be having its doubts. The price of Amazon.com stock has dropped $10 a share since the company joined the wine trade about a weeek ago.