Brian Zucker helped pioneer the world of online wine shopping as an undergrad at U.C. Davis. In 1997, he still needed more credits to graduate (he was in his fifth year at Davis), and had noticed how popular the website was for the now defunct Virtual Vineyards, even though he thought that company's prices and selection weren't great. So he talked his AgEcon (Agricultural Economics) professor into giving him credit for designing a primitive online wine shop.
That school project became the basis for K&L Wine Merchant's industry leading online store of today. Zucker happens to be the son of one of the store's founders. "I knew I wanted to be in the business," he says, "but I wanted to carve out a distinctive niche within the company."
The Wall Street Journal's Dorothy Gaiter and John Brecher recently did a comprehensive piece on this subject, and rated their favorite sites. K&L topped the list--a real coup for the Bay Area. K&L's flagship store is in Redwood City, with major branches in San Francisco and Hollywood.
I don't shop for wine online, because I don't want to pay the shipping charges, which can be substantial. Zucker says there's "no shortage of people willing to try things we recommend and collectors looking for rare and highly rated wines for drinking or investment."
"Food and wine nuts with more eclectic tastes," are also model customers, according to Zucker.
"K&L succeeds," he says, "because it offers great prices." (It does.) But it also offers real-time inventory for its warehouse and all three stores. "With the core audience, that's the key. They know they'll get the product they want." Many other sites list wine that might be in inventory, or might have just sold out.
I went looking on K&L's site for California Cabernet Sauvignon, from 1989 (not a great vintage, but my daughter's birth year); I quickly found a dozen choices, including the last bottle of Duckhorn Howell Mountain Red for $90. Good price and could be delicious. The site tells you up front that the bottle is at K&L's Redwood City Store, so in fact, I could probably have had it at my door the next day. Zucker says that many customers from around Northern California order wine online and then pick it up at the San Francisco store to save shipping costs.
So how about something to drink tonight, now that spring is here and asparagus is sprouting in every produce aisle? Zucker recommends a 2007 Sancerre from Franck Millet ($17), imported by K&L. I tasted refreshing, delicious citrus in the mouth, and loved the lemongrass in the aromas. It should be great with hollandaise.
There's lots more online wine shopping possible out there, but the other Bay Area company worth browsing is Wine.com, —the leading Internet wine retailer, according to one rating service.
The company is working hard to "expand and enhance the community section," says Gwendolyn Osborn, Wine.com's director of content. "We're starting Twitter accounts, and we want to link that up for Facebook users and other social media so you'll be able to share reviews and tasting notes." The site already offers customer reviews to balance the point scores from the likes of Wine Spectator, and the powerful Robert Parker. Wine.com also features a fantastic Google mapping service, which shows the location of the winery and its neighbors. That feature is worth a visit, whether you're buying or not.
When you click on the wine you're looking for, both K&L and Wine.com suggest others you might like—a feature that's tougher to provide in a brick and mortar store. If you're looking for, say, a great Cornas from the Northern Rhone, the sites can quickly show you similar wines like Shiraz from Australia or Syrah from California or Washington state.
"The best customers," Osborn says, "are people who are open to trying new things and are willing to branch out from their favorites."
Osborn adds that one of her favorite wines right now is the hard-to-find 2006 A Donkey and Goat "The Recluse" Syrah ($34), made in Berkeley. Only one problem: it's sold out at Wine.com, proving how tricky it can be to keep track of inventory. That said, you can also shop for much of Wine.com's immense warehouse inventory at its new retail shop, on 4th Street in Berkeley.
Wine.com is easily your best choice if you're worried about shipping laws. Even with a U.S. Supreme Court decision a few years ago that set new rules for interstate shipping, it may be challenging to send a birthday wine to someone in Florida or other states. "We follow all the crazy shipping laws," Osborn explains, "and we have warehouses in Florida, for example. So if you're buying a wine for your friend, that wine would ship out of our warehouse there, saving you money and keeping carbon costs down. And it would arrive overnight."
Wine.com royally pissed off many competitors last year by running a sting to entrap them, then turning their names in to state authorities. "We want a fair playing field," says Osborn "If the states are going to enforce the laws for us, we want them to enforce them for others, or change them."
K&L was one of the wineries named in the complaint. And while K&L's Zucker admits they "have a difference of opinion about the legality of that particular shipment," he graciously adds the people at Wine.com are "good guys."
I've been building up a surplus of tasting notes since I last posted. The most interesting set come from a recent tasting I did with Napa Valley's Tom Eddy. He grows fabulous under-the-radar Cabernet Sauvignon on Diamond Mountain, and other hilly sites, and is on a rampage these days against "over-the-top wines—too ripe, too tannic, with not enough acid, and way too much alcohol."
Eddy invited some wine writers to what he called the "Take Back the Cab '09 Tour" at Cav Wine Bar and Kitchen in San Francisco, pitting his wines against other Napa Cabs from the much vaunted (and perhaps overrated) 1997 vintage, and from 2004.
The competition (I'm only listing the most striking disappointments) didn't show very well. The 1997 Beringer Home Vineyard ($123) offered great chocolate truffle in the nose, but seemed fumed out of the glass, and tasted out of balance. The 1997 Chateau Montelena Estate Cabernet ($165) was soft and lovely in the mouth, but showed volatile acidity and baby-diaper character in the nose.
Eddy's 1997 Napa Valley Cabernet was more restrained, but lovely, with cedar and tobacco leaf in the nose, and layers and layers of flavor in the mouth, with just enough tannin to go a few more years.
The 2004s were more fetching as a group. The 2004 Harlan Estate Cabernet Sauvignon ($518!) seemed pruny and hot, hot, hot, and not very interesting in the mouth. I liked the 2004 Vineyard 29 ($238) Cabernet Sauvignon, with its dill and rich mocha aromas, and long finish. But Eddy's 2004 Napa Valley Cabernet ($90, but not yet released) still stood out for its truth in varietal character—with cedar, black currant, coffee, and green leaves in the nose, and firm tannins and delicious fruit in the mouth.
It was a reminder to take wine ratings from Wine Spectator, Robert Parker, and others with a grain of salt. The moral: Trust your own palate.
By the way, if you're looking for any of these wines to buy, try these sites: wine-searcher.com or vinquire.com. You may notice Wine.com and K&L pop up a lot when you're searching for hard-to-find wines.