If wine-searcher.com has its way, their claim and grip on wine market transparency will replace the joyful pleasures of physical wine browsing and shopping. Wine enthusiasts will be relegated to replaying memories of crouching dusty floors and scavenging Sam’s (Chicago wino history) original North Avenue location’s end bins for discoveries and deals. No longer will it be fashionable, as I was convinced it once was criss-crossing Long Island’s north and south shores, visiting eight wine shops on a rainy Saturday afternoon searching (oops, there’s that word) best prices and harder to find treasures along the way. Wine-searcher, a survivor of the dot.com rush and the hard work of an enterprising New Zealander inspired by internet valuations and his work establishing digital commerce for venerable Berry Bros. & Rudd London wine merchant, makes things far simpler as evidenced on the site:
Wine-Searcher is a search engine of price lists from 18,032 wine-stores (a total of 3,936,146 offers). The site also offers a wealth of information about wine. Whether you are a merchant, winery, connoisseur, or consumer, this website is essential for pricing and locating wines.
Wine-searcher can take a lot of credit for dosing wine retailing with price visibility, but they also own the street signs dotting a path to the elimination of relationship cultivation with smart, enterprising, passionate, local wine retailers and chatting up fellow winos in the aisles and check out lines of those hardworking merchants. In its place, wine-searcher often rewards the opportunistic, sly retailers who break the code and scam the system. In an excellent recent article in the LA Times food section authored by Patrick Comiskey called “Wine-searcher.com levels the wine industry playing field”, the site’s entire impact on digital and physical wine distribution, the competitors it spawned and challenged, is discussed in poignant and comprehensive fashion, and the lasting scar is brought to the forefront:
…wine-searcher.com’s accuracy is routinely questioned. A staff of 20 headquartered in New Zealand may not be sufficient to deter dubious price claims. Indeed, there are frequent complaints from wineries and shops alike about less-than-scrupulous retailers (many, it seems, with New Jersey ZIP Codes) who are believed to “game” the system, making offers of certain high-profile wines at suspiciously low, below-market prices. Then, when consumers inquire, they’re told the wine is sold out (if indeed there was ever any wine at all).
“They list wines they have never had and maybe never will, and then try and do a bait and switch,” says Peter Granoff, proprietor of the Oxbow Wine Merchant in Napa. “It is becoming a real problem for importers and wineries.”
Like everything else in our rapidly evolving digital communication era, tools that save time and create efficiencies displace long time rituals of richer and simpler times. I do appreciate the easy research and sourcing options search engines and online marketplaces offer wine enthusiasts. I often share wine-searcher links to wines reviewed on this site in case someone without access or contacts is moved to find some. But the visceral thrill of physical wine shopping and interaction becomes lost to consumers exclusively reliant on online shopping. The human interaction fueled by conversation, stories about sources and vineyards, relationship building between trade and consumer, and the art of digging through end bins are all at risk. Maybe this is where space is created for a few hundred bloggers to stimulate connection and conversation? Still, as a handful of retailers continue to abuse the online market system by taking advantage of innocent and naive online shoppers, the price for convenience is elevated exponentially. Is it all worth it?