(This is an updated version of an article written in 2004 by
Brian and myself. Brian has just updated it.)
Wine Retailers have proliferated on the internet and
they are forever coming up with new techniques to entice customers to buy the
wines they offer. Many of them use straightforward techniques, but a few of the
advertising and sales techniques are straight out dishonest, some are mildly
deceptive or misleading and some just dodge and weave around full disclosure and
relevance to the wine offered.
It is a retailer’s job to sell wine but some of the tricks
they get up to are “interesting” to say the least. Buying wine at sensible
prices and knowing what to believe can be a veritable mine-field and this
article will help guide you through dangerous and potentially expensive
In case you are wondering why I bother with this sort of
stuff, well it's because I feel I'm being insulted by the merchants who play
these games, they are treating their customers like idiots who can't tell the
difference between the hype and reality. The scary thing is that since they
keep doing it, it must be working on a lot of people.
Many retailers use third-party reviews to sell wines. Naturally, most of them
find the best review possible to support their sales efforts. The most honest
retailers provide the tasting note in full, with correct attribution. Some may
‘selectively edit’ tasting notes and only use the best bits so be extremely wary
of one-liners. Naturally, if you are going to rely on a tasting note, it helps
if you have aligned your palate to the author of the note.
Example: Would these omitted words in
yellow change your mind on buying the particular
2005 Shiraz? "Quite a reserved nose,
red berries, pepper, cinnamon bark, spice, smoke and with time hints of orange
and dried apricot. The palate shows spicy fruits, peppercorns, red plums,
candied oranges and apricots with a dry and slightly grainy finish.
Full bodied and very young with firmish tannins that need
a year or two. Not one if you are averse to Viognier characteristics."
There have been a few instances reported lately of e-tailers
stealing a reviewers notes and claiming they were their own. When challenged
they then claiming the notes came from the producer. They have even been known
to invent fictitious points, and even attribute the note to a different vintage
of the wine. That's at the dishonest end of the scale. Others have selectively
edited notes to remove potentially negative comments, that's also deceptive
Example: From Sue Courtney's Wine of the Week
February 2008: "An Australian consumer wrote
to me asking if I wrote my own tasting notes after she saw an almost identical
tasting note for the same named wine but for a different vintage, in a Melbourne
retailer's email earlier in the week. She wanted further endorsement that the
wine was as good as they hyped and found my notes searching Google. But then she
deduced that my tasting note was the original as it had been written three years
before. I date all my tasting notes as it's a reference for me as well as for
anyone else who wants to know how long ago a wine was tasted.
The wine shop told her I must have plagiarised their notes, which of course I
hadn't. She copied all their emails to me and I was able to write to the wine
shop and say, "How can you write exactly the same words and then tell the
customer the notes are your own?" However they didn't use all my words, as they
omitted a negative comment I made about Brett (a yeast character that some
people don't like)."
A few retailers use their own tasting notes. If you buy from
them and taste the wine, you will soon know if you can trust their notes and
judgments. Some are more accurate then others. A small number of retailers may
use a panel whose members are either known or unknown to the purchaser. It is
important to understand how the panel is aligned to the retailer: are they truly
independent, are they employees or something in-between? And in the case of a
panel, are they the same tasters all the time or are you getting just one of
multiple possible opinions.
There are also retailers that use the winemakers tasting notes to advertise, not
that the winemaker may possibly be biased you understand.
Another trick is to use a tasting note for a prior vintage of
the same wine, and if that is disclosed (it isn't always) to claim the new
vintage is just as good or better. It may be, but I always check if I don't
already know and I often find evidence disagreeing with the claims.
One other beauty used by retailers is to use independent critics overall
comments about a winery to promote a selected wine. The overall winery comment
may have been made years previously and have no relationship to the quality of
the wine now being sold. In one recent case the comment applied to a range of
wines from a period some years before when it was under different ownership
before running into financial trouble, being sold and then re-sold. Other
claims such as "James Halliday four-star winery" without mentioning a year
sometimes turn out to be old data too, with the winery relegated down the
quality level in more recent issue.
Example: A James Halliday quote
quality of the Chais Clarendon range is exemplary."
referring to "previous vintages" and dating as far as I
can see from the winery profile on Winepros circa 2002 and vintage 1998 and
several owners of the brand ago, there is no entry for Normans or Chais
Clarendon in the 2008 Wine Companion. This was included in the blurb for a 2006
Many retailers use points to flog their fermented grape juice. Points in
themselves in many cases are meaningless. That is even more especially the case
if your palate is not aligned to the person awarding the points. For example,
just because a wine has got 95 Parker points is no guarantee that you will like
it. You may hate the style of wine, let alone the bottle. Parker as he is no
longer reviewing Australian wine. Some retailers will state the wine received xx
Parker points, when in reality the points were awarded by Dr. Jay Miller.
Whilst on the subject of points, one well known retailer uses their own purpose
built scoring system and as a result, the points awarded sometimes seem more
generous than those awarded by many other reviewers. To be fair, some wines are
rated lower than other reviewers as well. If you take any notice of point
scores, you need to calibrate the scorer's tastes against your own.
If a wine has been awarded many medals in major shows like Canberra (finished
and bottled wines only allowed, most entries have medals from other shows) the
chances are the wine will be pretty credible, but a couple of gold and silvers
from regional shows does not mean much.
It's a good idea to either ignore the glitzy stickers or have
a very close look at where they were won, or indeed if they even are show medal
awards. Sometimes the awards are from overseas competitions where you have no
idea of the quality of the judging or the wines judged against. Sometimes the
sticker are generic "winery/winemaker of the year" or similar awards and not
show results for the specific wine. Unless you are prepared to look at show
results, many of which are now available online, it's probably best not to take
a lot of notice of the medals in your buying decision.
Another advertisement seen recently (late 2007) mentioned a
Gold medal at the National Wine Show without mentioning the year. The wine had
(probably) won the medal in 2004, but definitely won only a bronze in the NWS in
2005, that distinction wasn't mentioned.
Note that something like "Top Gold at the National Wine Show"
only means the wine scored the top Gold medal score in it's class, possibly a
small or large volume commercial class rather than a premium class It does mean
it didn't win a Trophy and definitely wasn't the Top Gold in the whole show.
Recommended Retail Price and Normal Selling Price
You can see the same wine advertised by different merchants with widely varying
RRP listed as well as their normal (or special) selling price. An interesting
concept, but whose RRP is the retailer referring to in the advert? Is it the
producers, the wholesalers or whatever the market can stand? In days gone by,
bottle shops used to work on about 35% margin and the percentage mark up was
reasonably standard wherever you shopped (specials excluded.) In the 90’s that
all changed. I don’t think the two major grocery retailers gaining a
significant increase in market share around that time was coincidence. Vintage
Cellars seemed to lead the high price, high profit push and so their normal
selling price for “premium wines” matched the producer’s most optimistic RRP’s,
and was usually substantially higher than a number of independent stores.
If their RRP for wine X is $50 and they have a 20% off sale, their discounted
price would be $40. On the surface, to the casual shopper, that is a good deal.
However, if their competitors’ normal selling price is $35, it doesn’t look so
great. More and more stores are increasing their profit margins by jacking up
their prices. Just because a wine has 20% off, or is reduced by $9 does not mean
it is a good deal and cannot be found for less from other suppliers.
The more recent popular variants are:
ORP (Original Retail Price), meaning "maybe, somewhere, at some time, maybe
even restaurant price"; and
"Don't Pay" as a way around implying an RRP, often of historical source
and little current relevance. This is especially so where the wine may be
virtually exclusive to the particular retailer or auction house. It may also
ignore the fact that since that time the producer has reduced the price from,
say $45 to $30 some 12 months ago. And it certainly won't mention that the
Don't Pay price of $45.95 applied to the former heyday of the wine 5 or more
years ago and before the winery/brand was sold twice over.
Buyer beware, this auction house disclaimer gives the
selling clients open slather to quote whatever ORP they want:
"In certain circumstances, an item for sale on
the site may display the manufacturers Original Retail Price (ORP). All ORPs are
prices supplied by the manufacturer (or retailer) of the item at the time of the
items original sale, and therefore such ORPs may not be current at the time of
the online auction of the item. GraysOnline takes no responsibility for the
display of ORPs on any item it offers for sale at an online auction on its site,
and hereby advises all bidders to satisfy themselves as to the value of the item
This leads to this sort of listing: "PAUL CHAMBLAIN
`BLANC DE BLANCS` BRUT NV, VIN MOUSSEAUX, FRANCE. EUROPEAN ORP €40 PER BOTTLE;
EXPECT TO PAY $64 IN AUSTRALIA." appears on wine-searcher, mostly in USA, with a
minimum listed price of $7.97 AUD and a maximum of $11.40 AUD.
Or: 6 X 2003 SANDALFORD CABERNET SAUVIGNON, MARGARET
RIVER, WA. ORP $480 PER DOZEN. This one might be close to RRP, maybe, the JO
tasting note from 24/06/2005 indicates a $32 RRP. The current 2005 vintage has
an RRP of $36, but the 2003, 2004 and now 2005 sold widely for a retail price of
$300/case, $25pb or less.
And how Original is Original? I was cleaning out
some purchasing records and noted that I bought some Henry Martin Sparkling
Shiraz NV on Grays in August 2007 and the ORP was (fairly accurately as far as I
could tell) listed as $240. More recent listings have the ORP inflated to $420.
Or possibly straight bovine manure. There are some rather overworked and tired
phrases which crop up in retailers newsletters all the time. Top of the list is
“Limited Stock.” By definition, all vintage wine has limited stock, there is a
finite amount of it available, be it Jacobs Creek Chardonnay or Penfolds Grange.
Some wines are heavily allocated, difficult to obtain and sell out very quickly.
Most smart buyers are aware of these wines and as a result, the “limited stock”
hard sell is not required. Some wines are not allocated and are available till
the producer has cleared the warehouse of the last vintage. In some cases that
takes longer than a full year yet retailers have been known to advertise these
wines as “limited stock.”
The next contender is “best ever vintage” or any one of a number of variations
on the theme. Time and time again, in retailers news letters this overworked
phrase crops up to the point that it is now almost meaningless in most cases.
Whilst on the subject of “best” it would be remiss of me not to mention the
newest chestnut “biggest and best newsletter” a claim which is now being made
with regular monotony by some retailers, especially those that publish weekly
via the internet.
Another beauty are those that make claims like “the best selection of wines at
the best prices on the net” where this is clearly not the case and they are just
“me too suppliers”.
These can take a number of forms here are some worth mentioning. The first is
the prerelease special offer buy. Some retailers, from time to time, will be the
first cab off the rank and will offer a “special price” to customers who
preorder wine before it is released. Buyers need to be careful with this one. In
some cases, it is genuine and the resulting price paid may be attractive but in
others, it is a ploy to corner the market and gain a jump on the competition. It
is possible that the wine will be less expensive through other retailers when it
is generally available.
The second form is Customer Rewards which are offered by some retailers. These
can take many forms. Some of these rewards can be good and are genuine. Some
others are a ploy. As an example, lets assume you buy from retailer V and ‘clock
up’ 1 point for every $ you spend. When you have spent $500 you are entitled to
a free $25 bottle of wine. That looks like a 5% saving so it’s a good deal
right? It may be provided the $500 that you spent to get the $25 free bottle was
spent wisely, but if, by shopping around, you could have bought that same
quantity of wine for $380, then the free $25 bottle was expensive.
Another ploy is to make the customer feel special by “allowing them to purchase
limited stock wine” because they have made a purchase from them in the past.
This is a great ploy because it is taking the “limited stock” rhetoric to a new
level and because the customer is made to feel they are getting preferential
treatment, the retailer may wind up selling more wine. In many cases, the
“limited stock” wine is reasonably freely available from other suppliers and
sometimes even for less.
Yet another is the "buy on get one free", usually cases
rather than bottles, sometimes the second case is of the same wine, sometimes a
(cheaper) different one and they usually average the total price to get a
low-looking per bottle price. Where the second wine is different I seldom want
it, it often seems to be a way to get rid of junk with a reasonable wine. If it
is the same wine, you have to be able to cope with the two cases, maybe of a
wine you don't know a lot about and I won't buy this sort of deal unless the
merchant has a good refund policy.
In stock or not
There are some key phrases and modes of operation that you should watch out for:
"Full case / 6-pack buy only" - this often means they order
in when you do, so you may have to wait a while for delivery. This is not the
case in all circumstances, eg Wine Empire is mostly full case sales, but all
wines should be in stock. If in doubt and you need the wine in a hurry, phone
or email to check.
Some merchants keep some wines in stock, but order in a fair
proportion of wines they list when orders are taken, often identified by a
version of the "full case" requirement. There is nothing really wrong with that
as long as the price is good and you are not in a hurry, it reduces their
overheads. But you should be wary of those that charge your card immediately
and are slow to deliver. Sixty Darling St / Winepool used to be notorious for
this and so I used to ask them to charge my card just before shipping. I
haven't bought there for a long time so don't know if they still ship with
significant delays or have improved their supply chain, if not their web site.
Other merchants usually charge your card when the wine is ready for dispatch.
It doesn't happen as much these days, but there are still occasional instances
of pricing errors, due to picking the wrong wine for the producer when entering
prices, dividing by 12 instead of 6, not picking up a price increase on change
of vintage etc. If you order a wine in this situation, the merchant may be
quite legitimately able to cancel the transaction, so don't be too upset if you
don't get the wine at the cheap price. Many advertisements, web site T&C,
emails etc include the E&OE or it's equivalent, meaning "Errors and Omissions
Excepted", retaining the right to cancel the transaction if they have made an
honest mistake. Sometimes the merchant honours the deal, sometimes they will
negotiate a win-win deal, sometimes they will outright lie about availability
etc. In one recent case the distributor made the mistake and made up the
difference in price to the retailer, so some lucky buyers got a bargain.
I've never seen an instance of deliberate mis-pricing, but I
have seen and heard of cases where the amount of stock available at the
loss-leader price was miniscule, which may amount to the same thing.
Terms and Conditions
It is sometimes interesting to read the fine print on auction and e-tail wine
sites. If you read some of the pages of legalese you might think you are
agreeing to waive various statutory rights, but many of these cannot be waived
under the trade Practices legislation. Personally if I see a long set of mostly
incomprehensible legal verbiage on a merchant's site I tend to avoid them, not
matter what other assurances they may give.
I found this lot on one relatively new site I looked at:
Satisfaction Guarantee - X X offers
a 100% satisfaction guarantee on all purchases and service.
We believe ourselves to be leaders in the Wine Industry, and offer the highest
level of quality and reliability in customer service, products and advice. It is
our commitment to always keep our customers totally satisfied at every level.
If, for what ever reason, you are
not 100% totally satisfied with our products or service, we would sincerely like
to hear from you, and welcome your concerns, comments and feedback, even your
X X is committed to meeting the needs of all our
customers, and will do our very best to resolve the matter in a highly
professional and friendly manner, indeed we value your feedback. It is through
such openness and professionalism that we have succeeded in helping our
customers over the years.
Returns Policy - This section will be updatd (sic) soon.
Shipping Policy - X X
does not have a returns policy, however it is exceptional if your goods are
faulty or corked. ...
And from another site (that often doesn't list vintages on wines):
ZZ cannot accept
liability for any inconvenience or loss in the event that an incorrect vintage
or product which has been shipped. (This contravenes the TPA)
GUARANTEE - ZZ makes every effort to ensure the best condition of goods
REFUND - Choose products wisely as ZZ does not refund money for products which
are incorrectly selected.
To finish on a positive note, from a couple of other sites:
Refunds / Returns
YYY guarantees the wines we sell and recommend. If a wine you have purchased is
faulty or you are not happy with the quality of the product we will provide you
with a refund or a replacement. The same applies if you receive the incorrect
AAA are so confident in our products
that we offer an unconditional 100% money back guarantee on all of our wines.
It's simple, if you dont like the wine you don't pay for it. We will ensure you
receive a total refund no questions asked. (This is fortunate, because this
merchant plays a lot of the advertising games mentioned above.)
Note that some sites seem to be trying to restrict their
liability to all sorts of things, usually via unintelligible legalese. If you
must shop at these sites, be aware that some statutory rights cannot be
over-ridden even by implicit acceptance of convoluted terms and conditions.
Check out this ACCC booklet on
Warranties and Refunds. More ACCC information
here. (Thanks to Matt D for sending me this info).
The sites I buy from and recommend have a minimum of terms
and conditions and have established reputations. Before ordering from a newish
merchant, just check out their terms and conditions for "nasties":
Are the terms understandable or in convoluted legalese?
When does title pass? On clearance of payment or on
delivery? If the former, is insurance included/optional or is there a
guarantee of replacement for damaged/lost goods?
Refund/return policy: Can you live with the provisions
or be prepared to challenge attempts at illegal restrictions on dealing with
faulty goods or wrong wines delivered or the wine you ordered is no longer
Privacy and Personal Information
Most wine sites have a Privacy statement these days, but
sometimes there are conflicting messages. For example, when you register on one
site there is this comforting message: "Your email and personal details will not
be shared with 3rd parties." But down in the Terms and Condition is this
provision for them to do just what they say they won't, and you are agreeing to
it when you register.
T. The Owner and/or people
authorised by it may collect and process the information:
(a) which you may give when accessing the Website, such as your name,
address, e‐mail address and other personal information about you; and
(b) regarding the way in which you use the Website including, without
limitation, information acquired through the use of “cookies” programmed
during the accessing of the Website.
U. The Owner may authorise others to offer you goods and services using the
information acquired through (a) and (b) above.
V. You give your full and unrestricted consent to the collection and use of
the information referred to in (T.) and (U.) above.
First and foremost, if you do not want to pay more than you have to, know
prices. Technology makes it easy. You can have a look at
The Red Bigot Buyers Guide which provides
daily updates with best buy prices on a range of red wine or you can search for
any wine you want using the free version of
Wine Searcher or
Wine Robot. If you
are really serious, buy a subscription to the Pro version of wine-searcher, it
covers many more merchants than Wine Robot. TORB's
lists wineries with good wines at fair prices.
Spot specials are a good way of saving money but there is another one that has
nothing to do with shelf prices. One of the best methods is to build a personal
relationship with a small retailer/e-tailer (who appreciates the business) that
can get you the majority of what you want to buy and will give you a realistic
discount on everything because of your loyalty. That personal relationship is
better than any customer reward program.
Know what you want to buy, preferably in advance. That may sound difficult, but
it is not as hard as it may seem. Most serious wine buyers know many of the
producers they like, the styles they like and the regions they prefer. They also
know the reviewers whose palates they trust and know how to interpret their
tasting notes. Use that knowledge and ignore the flatulent rhetoric and
overworked, overused, hackneyed and emotional, blowsy retailer sell jobs by
sticking to the more factual information.
There is so much good wine around that its like taking a bus, if you miss one,
there will be another that is just as good arriving in five minutes. It's the
same with "deals"; they are like armpits, every bastard has a couple but some
smell better than others!
first, i think you've done a great job writing (rewriting) this article. it's
useful, informative, accurate, and in some respects entertaining.
here's hoping it might also guilt some of the culprits into behaving, optimistic
as it may seem.
second, regarding "in stock or not" there are several suppliers (some VERY big,
others small and desperate for the business) that will supply single bottles
only, accept orders of less than a full case and hold them until a delivery
minimum or case has been reached. it's not a common practise, but there's
certainly enough of them doing it to warrant a mention. the only way to really
be 100% sure is by phoning ahead of placing an order.
keep up the good work
Have scanned your latest update on the above topic. Pretty busy at the moment. I
didn’t see you cover credit card security.
A while back I bought a case of Chalkhill Shiraz from website
are a bit like us, though they charge the winery $500 a year + GST just for the
privilege of listing their wines with them whereas we offer
Squashedgrape as a
no sale no cost structure. Anyway, I did buy this case and I left it a week
before contacting them about it as it wasn’t charged to my credit card, got no
confirmation from them or anything. As per the attached messages the wine took
near on 3 weeks to get delivered after they admitted that A) they themselves
don’t process the credit cards and B) there was a glitch in transferring my card
details to the winery. Then on receipt of the wines I tried a few bottles and
found one corked. They took no responsibility and suggested I contact the
supplier directly even though I’d purchased the wine from their website. When I
contacted Chalk Hill on e-mail I got ZERO response. Now it was a cheap case at
around $70 as a cancelled export order but I was really annoyed as it is sites
like these that can put e-buyers off all together.
The corked wine I say oh well it was cheap enough but the credit card thing was
a worry who knows who had access to my details and what they do with them once
processed. With our site like many others the merchant doesn’t even see the
details. I think this is something that should be raised as part of your buyer
From Red Bigot:
Matthew, as an e-tailer yourself, I would have thought a quick look at this site
would be enough to say “stay away”.
I chose to leave out credit card security as it is common to most internet
purchases and is a whole topic in itself. I might do a separate article on that
when I get a chance.
BTW, the legalese on your own site could use some simplification and
clarification re the procedure for dealing with faulty wines, do people contact
you or the winery that actually fulfils the order?
From Tyson J
thanks for an informative newsletter - long may your pen persevere !
A comment on web sellers or even retailers who maintain a web site :
There is nothing more annoying than searching in say Google for product " X "
and then have a hit come up and Vendors ( who pay for the privilege ) on the far
right of the page advising that they have product " X "
So you physically go to the retailer and ask for it only to find that they do
not stock it all and in fact never have but will get it in for you BUT with a
minimum quantity that you must buy i.e. 6/12 with the usual excuse being " oh it
is at our warehouse but it will be here tomorrow for you "
Then the retailer rings the winery / wholesaler / agent and demands " X " the
next day so as to appear to have had the stock all the time and all hell breaks
loose if they can't get it if it has sold out for instance or there has been a
This is particularly ( though not restricted to ) upsetting to wineries who are
as proud as can be to see a leading outlet showing their wine so they go rushing
in to see it.............but it ain't there !!
And yes I do know the retailer I am talking about .........................
From Red Bigot:
Tyson, Google paid listings are obviously unreliable, they return listings for
some generic interpretation of your search, probably as broad as ‘WINE’. The “in
Stock or Not” section covers this issue, if a merchant lies to me about this,
it’s “good-bye, I’ll get it elsewhere”.
If searching for wines, the best tool is
wine-searcher.com, but you have to subscribe to get full results.
From Ryan M:
an update on the comments i made a few weeks ago;
referring to this comment - "second, regarding "in stock or not" there are
several suppliers (some VERY big, others small and desperate for the business)
that will supply single bottles only, accept orders of less than a full case and
hold them until a delivery minimum or case has been reached. it's not a common
practise, but there's certainly enough of them doing it to warrant a mention.
the only way to really be 100% sure is by phoning ahead of placing an order. "
the following suppliers will provide single bottles - on varying terms - some
will hold a single until a minimum is reached, others will send you a single +
freight etc etc..
s. smith & son
nelson wine co
red + white
rutherglen wine and spirit company
a quick flick through the portfolios on the website will show you how
wide-spread the in stock or not issue is.
Just had a read of your article “The Games They Play 2008”. Look, full credit
for pointing a few reality checks out to consumers, we should all be aware of
what’s going on.
I have to say I can’t see how a genuine consumer review on a wine can be
anything but good. It’s someone’s own personal taste experience, and in my mind,
anything that demystifies wine and gives others the courage/inspiration to try
something new is all good.
Now I’m obviously one of the boys from
www.qwoff.com.au, and I’d
like to say to Matt, our own member squashedgrape, whom we welcomed with
open arms, but who then proceeded to contact all of our winery partners to get
their business, that we actually agree with him re. his experience.
One of the downsides to acting as a third party in a sale is that we have no
control over the payment processing, or the delivery, so if one of our winery
partners is slow to deliver, or out of stock, or doesn’t process a payment, then
we don’t know about it unless our member or the winery tells us. And that
reflects badly on us, as was Matt’s experience. So that’s something we’re
changing. Keep you posted.
We’re about no bullshit with wine, which is why I liked your article. And we,
like everyone out there, are still learning about what our members want, and
what all the punters out there want, so Matt and anyone who’s had a bad
experience, please, let us know, so we can make the changes, and make qwoff a