Like most U.S. business sectors, the wine business has been transformed by e-commerce. Even if restrictions on interstate shipping have limited that commerce to 38 states, the Internet as a wine marketplace is robust by any measure.
In the last four years, a single website, the search engine wine-searcher.com, has done more to transform that commercial landscape than any other, affecting every facet of the way the wine business is conducted, certainly in this country and increasingly on a global scale. For better or worse, it has leveled the playing field on getting, buying, pricing and selling wine. If you're a wine lover and you're not using this tool, it's time to start. And if you sell wine, on any level, you ignore it at your peril.
Wine-searcher.com is the brainchild of Martin Brown, 53, a New Zealander who, like many Kiwis, spent some of his early professional life abroad, landing in England, where he stayed for nearly 20 years (he moved back to New Zealand only five years ago). In London, after a brief stint with a tech firm, Brown helped to set up and maintain the e-commerce operations for one of Britain's largest, oldest and most reputable wine merchants, Berry Bros. & Rudd.
It was there that Brown observed just how difficult it was for BBR's marketers to compile and compare the price lists of its nearest competitors. "It was very time-consuming to locate where to purchase a wine or a specific older vintage," he says. "I could see how many people would be doing the same exercise and how much time everyone could save if there was a service like wine-searcher."
Brown, who considers himself more of a "glugger" than a connoisseur ("I'm happy with a cheerful rosé," he says), developed wine-searcher.com to address these needs. Every day, 20 full-time programmers (who worked from their homes until 2005) maintain the existing retailer base of more than 17,000, acquiring prices and inventory information for nearly 4 million offers worldwide.
Both the service and the listing are free; there are no commissions paid to wine-searcher.com if a consumer ends up purchasing a wine found through its site. Retailers who pay a fee to become sponsors — about $4,000 a year — will have their competitive offerings consistently listed among the top hits for a given wine.
Wine-searcher.com is a free service, but its free listings are limited to about 60 sources (and only sponsor shops are displayed). For about $30 a year, users can opt for a professional version of the site, for which all retailers are listed, making the number of potential places to buy a given wine virtually unlimited.
And for a wine collector, providing unlimited access to the world's most coveted wines is like providing catnip to cats: It is completely irresistible. The top 1,000 hits off wine-searcher's Web searches read like the most extraordinary collection of wines in the world — brands like Margaux, Dom Perignon, Opus One, Sassacaia, Penfold's Grange — offering strong evidence that the majority consumer base for this service is the connoisseur.
But wine-searcher.com is useful even for your average wine lover who's just had a memorable bottle out at a restaurant and wants to find it in or near his own ZIP Code. Best of all, the listings are displayed by price, so he'll have a shot at the best values in the area, the state or the country.
From the retail end, winesearcher.com drives an amazing amount of business. Eric Smith, the operations director at Woodland Hills Wine Co., estimates that as much as 25% of the new visitors to its website are steered there by wine-searcher.com listings. "For years it's been our single largest online referral source," he says, "and it continues to be."
In its simple, Google-like format and efficiency, wine-searcher.com has become the dominant player among several wine search engines; its traffic far exceeds that of snooth.com, cellartracker.com and winezap.com, and dwarfs individual retailers.
More important, the level of transparency it has brought to the American wine market is unprecedented — and consumers aren't the only ones taking advantage of this. Importers and distributors operating in California can consult wine-searcher.com to ensure that the deal they're getting on an obscure Valpolicella is comparable to that of importers in New Jersey, Minnesota or Florida — or anywhere. Wineries can scan prices on their wines across the country and know in an instant if a retailer is gouging their customers or eroding their price point by charging too little.
The transparency has made traditional under-the-table selloffs and closeout pricing virtually impossible for wineries; even preferential treatment to a favored market or retail buddy is likely to be sniffed out. Wine-searcher.com is the reason back-channel wine websites like Wines 'Til Sold Out and Cinderella Wine exist; these websites are designed to move stock of a wine before it can be tracked by wine-searcher.
Perhaps no one uses the site more than retailers themselves, who in its use have discovered newfound leverage against wholesalers, distributors and importers. Stores routinely use wine-searcher.com as an aid to pricing their wine in relation to their competitors — or at the very least, to see what the competition is up to.
And when a wine salesperson offers a wine to a retailer, the retailer can know instantly if it's a fair deal — or they can simply demand a markdown to meet the competitive pricing they find online. (Most often it's distributors and wineries — few of whom would talk on the record — finding themselves squeezed.)
Indeed, with a couple of clicks of the mouse, practically every corner of wine commerce is virtually exposed; wine-searcher.com has become a reference tool for nearly every transaction or potential transaction in wine commerce.
But there is considerable pressure, particularly among large, high-volume retailers, to price their merchandise so that their store's offerings land on the first page of every search — and the margins can be razor-thin. "You used to have to worry about what the guy across the street was doing," said one distributor who asked not to be identified. "Now, it's across the country."
"It'll turn your hair gray in seconds," says Jim Knight, import wine buyer at the Wine House in Los Angeles. "Everyone fights to be at the top of that list, even if it's just by pennies."
With stakes like these, it's not surprising that 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."
Adon Kumar, president of wine-searcher.com, says his users complain vociferously about the practice, and that wine-searcher.com moves in quickly to confront the merchant. "If we continue to get complaints, we will de-list the merchants from our site — if they're sponsors, we refund their sponsorships — and they're not allowed back for a minimum of six months." By the end of that period, he says, these merchants are often out of business. Kumar realizes that his site's integrity is only as good as the information supplied.
But Kumar seems used to ruffling feathers. "I have had retailers say to my face, 'You are a pain in the butt for me,'" he says. "And I can understand that if you are not competitive you might feel disadvantaged."
But for better or worse, wine-searcher.com is the new reality. "The people in the old school, who want to protect your prices," Kumar says, "your kimono is fully open."