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Amazon's Wine Shop is Perfect -- for Amazon Shoppers

Wine lovers may or may not find that special bottle of wine on Amazon.com, but online shoppers will still find plenty to choose from.

No longer do you need to slip into the liquor store and skulk out with a brown paper bag hiding your bottle of wine. Okay, you don't do that anymore.

Now you can do it online with the new Amazon Wine site, just launched last week. But based on a layman's trials, it's not necessarily the wave of the future.

The first issue a potential purchaser might have is trying to find it with intuition -- that's the search engine I often use instead of Google. So I typed "wine.amazon.com" and came up with an error page. Even on the Amazon home page it's not promoted, at least not yet. You have to do a bit of clicking around, and that alone is evidence it's still in a launch phase --  a BETA, as Amazon readily admits.

Page title is "Amazon Wine: Grocery & Gourmet Food" - and that's where you'll find it on the pull-down menu, in the Grocery & Gourmet Food section.

The site looks robust enough now, with over a thousand wines from "Napa Valley, Washington State and more" and shipping to 12 states. Prices range from "$10 crowd pleasers  to $100 reserve offerings," according to a press outreach from Amazon.

"The new store offers easy-to-use tools to help customers discover the perfect wine, including customized filters to narrow a search by region, winery, professional rating, tasting note, grape variety, vintage, customer rating and price."

For wine country residents - and wine-makers - the advent of the Amazon store is far from earthshaking news. The online retailer tried to sell wine before, but ran into the dense thickets of shipping compliance, the bane of all wineries hereabouts - making sure liquor laws in the receiving state are followed, a briar patch of regulations that's only slowly getting easier.

At launch, according to Amazon, shipping will be available to California, Connecticut, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Nevada, North Carolina, Oregon, Washington, Wyoming and the District of Columbia - "with more coming soon," they add optimistically. 

Martin Ray Winery, in Santa Rosa near the Laguna, is among the first few Sonoma wineries that decided to jump on the Amazon wagon.

"Amazon is a new thing we thought we should try," said Sue Straight, Vice President of Direct Sales.

"It's the audience that they make available to us," said Straight, who has her own wine blog and has been in Healdsburg-area wine business for two decades. "Personally, I'm a huge Amazon shopper. It's just a one-stop shop."

Of the handful of other local wineries that are working directly with Amazon are Coppola's Rosso & Blanco, Roadhouse Winery, Mendocino's Brutocoa, Windsor Vineyards and Gracianna.

You can use the filter tools in the left column to drill down through "US Winery Location" to state, county and even appellation - the Alexander Valley filter brings up 24 reds and five whites, from Murphy Goode's "The Fume" for $10.99 to the 1990 (that's not a typo) Silver Oak AV Cabernet for a bargain $190.55.

The trick is that Amazon Wine contracts with the wine suppliers to fulfill that order, and many, if not most others. In some cases it's the winery itself, like Martin Ray, in most cases it's a retail store - that 1990 Silver Oak cab comes from Mid-Valley Wines & Liquor, in Newburgh NY. Frankly, it makes little sense for a Sonoma County resident to buy an Alexander Valley cab, even a 1990 Silver Oak, from a liquor store in New York.

Amazon gets a percentage of the sale, in that they're driving customers to the point of purchase. Wineries that sell direct through Amazon pay a referral fee and a percentate to the online retail giant, as well as paying a monthly subscription rate.

Many local winemakers, especially the smaller ones, remain skeptical. "I would think Amazon would be looking for wineries with a larger production," said Maggie Skewis, who with her husband Hank produce in the neighborhood of 1000 cases a year for Skewis Wines. Martin Ray, with their second label Angeline, produces 125,000 cases.

"This isn't my first rodeo," said Tim Portalupi of Healdsburg, whose own eponymous wine shop is next door to the Raven on North Street. A long-time working farmer, vineyard manager and winemaker, Portalupi has seen wine sales gimmicks come and go, and doesn't give Amazon much chance in the long game.

As well as compliance, he pointed to pricing for the small winery owner, who may not have enough production capacity to fulfill an order of a couple hundred cases for inventory of a national distributor.

But Straight at Martin Ray was undeterred. "We're not dumping," she said of the nine wines they have listed with Amazon. "These are all current releases. And they take all the bottle shots, for consistency."

Amazon also requires participating wineries to fill out an Excel spreadsheet with all information about the wine, including tasting notes, food pairings, grape varietals and percentages, alcohol levels, even type of bottle (glass or box) and closure (cork or screwtop).

Portalupi cited InVino.com and Lot18.com as two wine portals that are doing pretty well with the concept, but is skeptical that Amazon will find much left-over market share among wine aficionados.

But Amazon isn't aimed at aficionados -- it's aimed at people who do their shopping online, whether for books or CDs or DVDs or running shoes or blenders or hand tools or refrigerators -- and yes, wine refrigerators.  It's the shopping experience, and Amazon's much-lauded cross-marketing to any given user, that Amazon is expanding through its wine portal.

It's an update of that old justification, "I may not know much about wine, but I know how to shop on Amazon."

What do you think of Amazon selling wine? Tell us in the comments.

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Lee November 16, 2012 at 08:22 PM
The naysayers will be proven wrong, and Amazon, over time, will replace standard 3-tiered distribution for smaller wineries and brewers.

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