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DEPUTY FOOD EDITOR

With Web sites named Wine.com, Libation.com and WinOWorld.com, among others, how could the Internet not satisfy wine lovers? It seems ideal. Use a credit card, click away, and there’s no driving all over town to search out a favorite label or need for special connections to finagle a limited bottle. And many Web sites are packed with helpful information about the wines--tasting notes, ratings and even descriptions from the winemakers themselves.

“The Internet has democratized wine buying,” says Ursula Hermacinski of Winebid.com, which holds online auctions featuring hard-to-find wines and collectibles from private cellars.

But for all of its promise, buying wine online can get pretty complicated. And there’s a lot more to it than just dealing with slow Web sites or tough-to-navigate menus. Whether shopping a Web site launched by a retail store across town or buying from an investor-backed Internet-only wine source located halfway across the country, shoppers face an unusual set of hurdles.

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Before clicking the “buy” button, they may be asked:

* For a state of residence, often even before being shown inventory. Depending on the answer, a shopper may not be allowed to go any further.

* For a birth date. On some sites, shoppers may have to click a box confirming they’re 21 before being allowed to shop. The informational Web site for Gallo of Sonoma wines, which doesn’t even sell wine, boots users if they say they’re younger than 21.

* To read complicated shipping policies that say something like “the title of the wine you are buying passes to you in the state where it is sold.” They may include information that the “buyer is solely responsible for the shipping of the wine,” though the purchase includes shipping charges.

Prohibition’s Hangover

Though these may seem odd, they have been put in place by online retailers trying to comply with a confusing array of state laws regulating the shipping of wine. California is one of only 12 states that, under a reciprocity agreement, allows direct shipment of wine to consumers across state lines. In five states, direct shipping is actually a felony offense.

The laws have forced some online retailers to send wine along circuitous routes that can result in added costs and longer shipping times. A wine may come from a wholesaler in a shopper’s own state at the direction of an out-of-state Web site, or it may be shipped from out of state to a retailer who then delivers it. Whatever the method, chances are a shopper doesn’t know.

“How is a consumer supposed to understand? The consumer has to depend on the licensee [or the seller of the wine] that he is operating within the bounds of the law,” says Steve Gross, who handles state relations for the Wine Institute, a public policy advocate for wineries. “You can’t put the burden of the complicated regulatory system we have on consumers, that they have to know all the laws.”

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Each state sets its own liquor control laws, which support a three-tier system of distribution established after the repeal of Prohibition in 1933. Designed to discourage organized crime, the system sends wine from the producer to a wholesaler and then to a retailer before it ever gets to the consumer.

Internet sales, which are expected to account for 5% to 10% of retail wine sales by 2005, according to Salomon Smith Barney, can allow a winery or retailer to send wine directly to a consumer, bypassing the middleman.

“The Internet provides you information when you want it, the ability to learn more about wine, and can give access to wine normally not on shelves,” says David Dickerson, spokesman for the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America.

The trade organization supports Internet sales, he says, if done legally, within the three-tier system: “The consumer can be a huge winner in this process, once it is settled. But the caveat is that we have 50 sets of state laws, and that makes it difficult.”

Seven lawsuits involving the issue of direct shipping have been filed around the country in recent months. In a closely watched case in Indiana, an appellate court in September upheld the state’s right to ban interstate direct shipments of alcohol, a setback to those pushing for such sales.

The U.S. Senate is also considering a bill, the 21st Amendment Enforcement Act, introduced by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), which would allow state attorneys general to prosecute out-of-state companies for violating states’ direct shipping laws.

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Can You Get It?

Regardless, it’s not too difficult for shoppers to find a Web site that will ship no matter where they live. In fact, E-wineusa.com lists shipping charges for nonreciprocal states (in which direct shipping is not allowed or is limited).

Richard Chan, owner of the San Francisco-based site, says his shipping methods are “business confidential” but that he can ship wine to any state “through local channels.” But his shipping charges to nonreciprocal states are more expensive than to reciprocal states; two bottles sent to Indiana, for instance, would incur $50 in shipping charges, though sending two bottles to Illinois would cost $17.

Most of his orders come from outside of California and are for high-end wines, Chan says.

Orders on Libation.com, a site based in Arcata, Calif., that stocks more than 1,000 wines, average between $200 and $500 and often go out of state, says Curt Chrestman, who runs the site with partner Peter Hicks. Libation.com says it will ship directly to some of the states that other Web sites may tell shoppers are prohibited.

Chrestman says he uses the state-by-state shipping guidelines posted on the Wine Institute’s Web site to determine where he can ship. Though he did not say which shippers he uses, he says he’ll either work with a standard carrier or ship to a licensed alcohol wholesaler in the buyer’s state, who then ships it to the consumer. “Everybody does that,” he says.

“We’ve added four states in the last week and, in the last year, 10 to 15 states,” he says of his 3-year-old site.

The laws governing direct shipment are confusing. For instance, Libation.com will ship to Michigan, where, the Wine Institute’s site says, “direct importation of up to 288 ounces of wine less than 21% alcohol by volume from another state is permissible.”

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But, the site adds, “direct importation” has not been defined. Mark Smith, director of enforcement for the Michigan Liquor Control Commission, says it means being shipped in the trunk of a car driven by the resident of Michigan who bought it. Sales over the Internet from a nonlicensed retailer are illegal, he says.

We tried to send wine to Michigan using two different Web sites. One, Internetwines.com, took our order and credit card number and sent an immediate e-mail that it was being processed. But the next day we received an e-mail saying the company did not ship to Michigan. Our order using Libation.com went through and was delivered 10 days later.

Too Much or Not Enough?

The Internet has heightened the conflict between those who want states to maintain control of liquor laws, in part to discourage underage drinking, and those who think consumers should have access to any wines they want. Though catalog and phone sales to connoisseurs have been standard in the wine world for some time, the Internet is widening wine’s reach.

“If we have 10 cases of something, it’s not worth the trouble to put it into distribution,” says Greg Ralston, managing director for sales and marketing at Chateau Montelena Winery in the Napa Valley. “But I can put it on our site and make it available quite efficiently as a ‘library’ wine.” Recently, a 1992 Estate Cabernet was offered on the site for $105 a bottle.

Chateau Montelena is one of more than 40 wineries--most of them small to medium in size--that have banded together under the umbrella site Winetasting.com.

About 25% of the wines featured are not available elsewhere, says Lesley Berglund, president of the site, which hopes to have 100 wineries on board by the end of the year. An average sale is $350, she reports. When shoppers who live in restricted states try to buy from Winetasting.com, they are greeted with a pop-up window offering an apology and a link to Freethegrapes.com. That’s the site for Free the Grapes, a coalition of wineries and consumers fighting to end interstate shipping bans.

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At stake for many wine producers who want to sell on the Internet is an issue of control. While most support the three-tier distribution system in theory, in reality they can be at its mercy.

“More than any other medium, the Internet allows you to market your own brand,” Ralston says. “In the three-tier system . . . you hope to God your message gets through all the way to the consumer.”

Web retailers say the Internet does just that: It gets across plenty of information. Just like wine shop browsers, Internet shoppers are looking for guidance, says Jeff Prather, the senior wine merchant for Wine.com. “They’re not looking for snobbery, they’re not looking for something dogmatic or that this is good and this is not good. . . . Eventually the Internet will offer streaming video, where you can even hear what the winemaker has to say. . . .”

Its site includes tasting notes from wineries and from Peter Granoff, founder of Virtual Vineyards, which merged with WineShopper.com in August to become Wine.com.

A New System?

To expand its shipping reach, Wine.com acts as a marketing company, working with a licensed wholesale-retail partner who can deliver in 42 states. It has an inventory of 2,000 wines, though selection can vary up to 10% from one state to another.

The same is true for another Web-only store, Evineyard.com, which holds retail licenses in 25 states. That allows it to work within the three-tier system. Someone in Florida, for instance, will be shipped wine from within Florida. But because it relies on what wholesalers can supply in those states, Evineyard’s wine inventory may vary as much as 15% to 20% from one state to another.

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Californians choose from only 3,000 wines, though Evineyard counts 6,000 among its inventory and expects to increase that soon to 10,000, says Brett Lauter, the site’s vice president and chief marketing officer.

Evineyard, which ships orders of more than $25 at no cost, offers live customer service on its Web site. If a shopper can’t find what he’s after or needs some suggestions, he can talk real-time with someone like “Megan,” who first asks for a consumer’s state, then--assuming that the wine will be going to one to which Evineyard can ship--brings up descriptions of wines on the shopper’s screen. Megan might ask what characteristics a shopper prefers in a Chardonnay, for instance: “Do you like it dry? Oaky?”

The Internet has also allowed regional retailers and established stores to take their wares to more consumers and lets those consumers quickly compare prices.

Wally’s offers pretty much the same 7,000-bottle inventory on its 2 1/2-year old Web site that it does in its West L.A. store, says Lito Rosel, who manages the site. For just about a year, it has sold to Internet shoppers around the country.

Occasionally Wally’s fields requests from residents of states where it does not ship. “Sometimes we’ll help consumers look for retail stores in their state. We hate turning customers away, but we have no choice,” Rosel says.

The site helps Wally’s promote its “trophy wines,” including hard-to-find California cult Cabernets such as Screaming Eagle, which can sell for $2,000 a bottle, Rosel says.

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In late September, Oregon-based Brentwood Wine Co. held the first online auction of Germany’s Dr. Loosen wines, which used to be sold only at an auction limited to a small number of bidders. The company’s owner, Ernst Loosen, decided to open up the bidding by using Brentwood’s site, says David Parker, who has sold rare and collectible wines since 1998 on his site.

Forty-one bidders, both individuals and businesses, bid on more than 400 bottles with possibly record prices for the winery. “I think this went extremely well and bodes very well for getting limited wines out to all the world,” Parker says.

Still, the Internet probably will never replace a great wine store, not only because of shipping restrictions but also because only a wine store can offer a bottle for tonight’s dinner, recommended in person.

On the other hand, “How many people can one wine merchant see every day, whereas 10,000 people a day can read what I wrote on the Internet,” says Prather of Wine.com.

“I can spread the gospel of the grape faster than they can.”

*

Penny Love of The Times’ library contributed to this story.

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Shipping News

Wine packing boxes can be interesting. eVineyards.com sends its wines in boxes decorated with a blotchy purple stain that looks like spilled wine, right. Type on the box says “Wine anyone?” It’s pretty clear what’s in the box.

But other online retailers ship bottles in plain brown boxes with return labels listing a wholesaler’s name and address or even just the initials of the retailer, giving little or no clue what’s inside, far right.

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*

Here are addresses of Web sites listed in our story:

https://www.brentwoodwine.com

https://www.evineyard.com

https://www.e-wineusa.com

https://www.gallosonoma.com

https://www.libation.com

https://www.wallywine.com

https://www.wine.com

https://www.winebid.com

https://winetasting.com

*

And for organizations:

Free the Grapes: https://www.freethegrapes.org

The Wine Institute: https://wineinstitute.org

Wholesalers and Spirits Wholesalers of America Inc.: https://www.wswa.org

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A Virtual Toast

To find out how well these wine sites worked, we ordered a fairly commonly available bottle of premium wine, the ’98 Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay “Vintner’s Reserve.” We shopped Evineyard.com and Wine.com, which are Web-only retailers; Kendall-Jackson’s own Web site; and the site for the Wine House, a retail store in West L.A.

It’s interesting to note that online stores change inventory and prices regularly, just as other stores do. In the two weeks from when we bought our wine and the day we finished this story, the Vintner’s Reserve had become available at one site that had not previously carried it and its cost had risen $2 at another.

Evineyard.com: We typed “Kendall-Jackson” into the “quick search” window but were presented with just one choice, a ’98 Bonterra Chardonnay. We’re still not sure why. We then spoke “live” with Megan of the customer service desk, telling her we liked Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay and asking for a recommendation. Before answering, she asked what state we live in, then eventually suggested two other Chardonnays, a ’98 Edna Valley Chardonnay and a ’97 Buehler Chardonnay “Russian River Valley.”

We continued searching. Finally, after scrolling through a long list of Chardonnays, we found three by Kendall-Jackson. Talk about confusing.

We bought the ’98 Chardonnay “Vintner’s Reserve” for $11.99, then scanned the list of wines under a “3 for $21” promotion. We added a ’97 Concha y Toro “Marques de Casa,” a ’98 Gallo of Sonoma Merlot and a ’98 Chateau Souverain Chardonnay “Sonoma County.” Two of these we’re familiar with; one seemed a good deal.

After we received three identical e-mail confirmations, our wines arrived four days later; we paid $32.99 for four bottles. No sales tax and no shipping charges.

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https://www.evineyard.com

Wine.com: Our first search for “Kendall-Jackson” brought us nothing here either. When we typed it without the hyphen, the site showed us a half-bottle of the Vintner’s Reserve for $7.95, among other Kendall-Jackson wines. We decided instead on a ’98 Calina Chardonnay--one of K-J’s Chilean wineries--and were given a page asking where this would be shipped.

We should have identified our state before shopping, because once we clicked on “California” when preparing to check out, we noticed that the list of Kendall-Jackson wines first available to us had shrunk by three. This site is one on which not all inventory is available in all states. Still, there were no full bottles of “Vintner’s Reserve.”

We also looked at the “bangs for the buck” category, which featured a number of wines under the Virtual Vineyards label, Wine.com’s former name.

After an e-mail confirmation, our wine arrived six days later; we paid $16.80 for the single bottle (including 85 cents tax and $4.95 shipping). Included with our wine were a description and tasting notes, which appeared to be the same that we read online.

https://www.wine.com

Winetasting.com: Through this site, we linked directly to Kendall-Jackson’s online store, which had the “Vintner’s Reserve” for $11. Site members get 15% off, but to get it you have to join its wine club and have two bottles shipped each month.

We added a bottle of the ’98 Pinot Noir “Vintner’s Reserve” for $11 (seemed like a good price) and checked out. When asked for billing information, we had a choice of 50 states. But on the “ship to” window, we were given only 13 states.

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After an e-mail confirmation, our wine arrived in seven days without a packing slip; we paid $37.60 for two bottles, which included $14 in shipping and $1.60 in tax.

https://www.winetasting.com

https://www.storekj.com

The Wine House: We found the ’98 Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay “Vintner’s Reserve,” but there were no tasting notes or descriptions, as there were at some of the other sites. We were invited to be the first to review the wine and have our opinion posted. The site also had the ’97 Kendall-Jackson Pinot Noir “Vintner’s Reserve” for $15.99 but not the ‘98, which we had found on Kendall-Jackson’s site. We added a ’97 Rex Hill Pinot Noir “Kings Ridge” for $12.99.

We could have picked up our wine at the West L.A. store, but we had it shipped. After an e-mail confirmation, it arrived one day later; we paid $33.98 for the two bottles, which included $9.10 in shipping and handling and $1.90 in tax.

https://www.thewinehouse.com

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