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Fine Wine in the Digital Space

Unlike other luxury goods, selling fine wine online is a challenge. After all, one cannot return a bottle of Dom Perignon after “trying it on”. Can the wine industry overcome its operational difficulties and finally capitalize on the promise of e-commerce?

While it has been simple for many luxury goods makers to sell their wares in the digital marketplace, vintners and wine merchants face special challenges unique to their item.

Every year, thousands of bottles enter the market, and many of those bottles will stay on sale for three to 10 years. The longer a wine stays on the market, the higher the price becomes and the more difficult to sell.

It is impossible to do a wine tasting online. Unlike a sweater that does not fit, an opened bottle cannot be returned. Because of this, the sale of fine wine has stayed mostly in the realm of auction houses and private brokers.

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But, like a good cabernet, the wine industry is aging slowly but surely into the digital age.

Wine brokers themselves depend on the Internet to stay on top of prices. Easy-to-use search engines have turned wine pricing and comparison shopping from a mysterious art to a transparent process. Even private collectors can use these sites to research prices and tasting notes.

One famous online retailer spent more than a decade trying to start an online wine market in the United States before abandoning the effort. With the economic downturn and the tricky American wine market making it hard to sell bottles the old fashioned way, more merchants are trying their luck.

Famed auction house Christie’s first offered online bidding in 2006. By 2011, online bids made up 29 percent of all bids. In September, Christie’s launched its first online-only fine wine auction.

When the final gavel fell two weeks later, sales had totaled almost $820,000. The auction featured vintages from Château Lafite, Mouton-Rothschild, Petrus, and Margaux. Christie’s plans more of such events in the future.

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Some traditional wine sellers are stretching themselves into the Internet with excellent results. They bring with them educated and trained employees who regularly taste their wares to grade the aging of wines, suggest drinking windows and make recommendations for buyers looking to make investments.

In addition to just selling wine, a few companies have built complete online communities that are equal parts marketplace and social network. They strive to bring the convivial atmosphere of a wine tasting to the Internet.

Members can peruse catalogs of hard-to-find wines or buy and sell to each other. Some of these sites even offer online wine cellar management programs that can be accessed from anywhere via smartphone, as well as application to help you share cellar activity and tasting notes over Facebook and Twitter.

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For those who crave the excitement of an auction, a few auction sites dedicated to wine have been established. There, it is possible for sharp-eyed buyers to find incredible deals or get caught up in the frenzy as the cork pops on an auction for a Chateau Haut Brion 1982.

When buying a wine online, remember caveat emptor. Since it is impossible to inspect a bottle, label or merchant’s cellars, the true identity of a wine and its storage conditions are a matter of trust. Carefully read a seller’s reviews and ask around for references before making your final offer.

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