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September 16, 2012

GRAPE SENSE: Expand your palate without leaving your living room

The Internet has revolutionized the wine industry just as many other businesses. In the last decade or so, wineries have improved their websites, embraced blogging, Facebook and even new platforms such as Twitter and Pinterest.

Around the time of the 2007-08 economic downturn, wine flash sales sites exploded onto the scene often offering premium wines at heavily discounted prices. Many of the sites have come and gone but some have become very successful. Earlier this year, Forbes reported Lot 18 hauling in an average of $2 million a month in revenue.

One of my personal favorites is Wine Till Sold Out or wtso.com. These flash companies approach wineries and buy inventory that was over-produced, or not moving quickly enough to meet the demands of the winery’s cash flow expectations.

The upside to such sites is consumers have the ability to buy much better wine at discounts consistently around 30 to 40 percent and often up to 50 to 60 percent.

But there is another Internet wine site that has gotten lots of press and is causing a buzz by bringing sampling to your living room. Tasting Room.com sells six-pack samplers of wine in 50ml or 1.7-ounce bottles. While that sounds like a dribble, it is enough wine for two or three tastes to determine if you like the taste of the wine.

Then you can buy a full bottle from the site at near regular prices. The novelty here is you can taste before you buy much like a tasting room. The six packs are packaged by the wine type or region or by celebrity endorsement. The six packs range from $19.95 to just over $30. You can sample wines by grape, region, celebrity picks, a single winery and more.

Tasting Room.com was the brain child of Tim Bucher. He started developing a system to sell the 50ml bottles for trade and press samples. He was never interested in the discounted flash site approach.  He told Wines & Vines he had no interest in selling normal-sized bottles for less, calling that “a race to the bottom.”

He developed a proprietary system to transfer

wine from the traditional 750ml bottle to the smaller sample bottles.

The company got its start in 2009 and has been remarkably successful, so much so it added higher end wines to the lineup earlier this year. They created a Wines by the Glass program that offers 100ml bottles with wines from Silver Oak, Duckhorn, Patz & Hall, Williams Selyem, Hess, Coppola and others.

Wines are sold individually in the Wines by the Glass format or in boxes of four single servings. So, in other words you can buy wines from this Internet site three different ways — in samples, by the glass or in full-size bottles. The business model is different because they are not selling discounted wine but instead a chance to taste before you buy.

My personal experience was with a six-pack sampler — the Michael Chiarello (celebrity chef) Holiday Pinots selection. The six wines were all from California. The labels were Domaine Carneros, Fess Parker, Papapietro Perry, Patz & Hall, Laetitia and Lucas & Lewellen. I was able to taste the six wines for less than any single bottle would have cost. The six wines I sampled ranged from $23.99 to $53.99. They were well preserved and tasted great.

The real beauty of a site such as this is a chance to expand your palate. To taste the six wines above you’d have to travel to California or shell out more than $225 to buy the six 750ml bottles.

Howard W. Hewitt, Crawfordsville, writes Grape Sense every other week for 18 Midwestern newspapers. Reach Howard at: hewitt

howard@gmail.com.

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