One of the best applications of the internet as far as I am professionally concerned is the emergence of wine-specific search engines. You key in the name of a wine and can sometimes find hundreds of different retailers of it worldwide ranked according to the price they charge.
This is not only useful, it can be revelatory. The difference in prices, particularly for keenly sought-after wines, is salutory. Individual wines routinely cost twice as much at the most expensive retailer than at the cheapest and sometimes the variation can be even more. Ch Mouton-Rothschild 1996, for example, is on sale at the equivalent of less than £90/$150 a bottle from Swiss broker Sanamex (who admittedly will not sell by the single bottle) but costs very nearly £300/$500 from Enoteca Costantini in Rome. And even within one country, the United States, prices vary from $150 to more than $450 for this particular wine.
This sort of information is readily available from WineSearcher, to my mind by far the easiest and most effective of the wine search engines. (In fact I feel embarrassed by the force of my enthusiasm for this outfit with which I have no commercial affiliation but which I am constantly praising.)
You simply type in as much of the wine name as you can be bothered to, or as seems appropriate, fill in boxes for vintage, country (you can leave the setting at All countries for the most revealing results) and currency, and within a trice every known offer of this wine is listed below with merchant, location and price. You can narrow your search by specifying a price range, a bottle size, whether or not you are interested in buying by the case, and you can also choose to exclude auction prices which tend to be distorted. Forget buying theatre tickets at 3am. This is the true magic of information technology for me.
There are other, similar wine search engines but none as global or effective. WineSearcher, set up by New Zealander Martin Brown who has worked in IT for London wine merchants Berry Bros & Rudd, claims to offer details of more than 800,000 wine offers at 1200 stores around the world. WineAccess and WineAlert have just 45,000 and 60,000 wine listings respectively, and those exclusively from stores in the US.
One result of online commerce noted in other areas has been that price variability between different companies has tended to narrow. The theory is that once overpricing is so transparent, it tends to disappear. But it would seem that wine prices are relatively elastic. For the four years that WineSearcher has been operating, price ranges have stayed almost identical. Standard deviation is still around 25 per cent with, for a wine whose average price is £/$100 say, most retailers asking between £/$75 and 125 but a third of them asking between £/$50 and 150.
This is in line with the findings of Jim Budd, Britain's one-man wine fraud investigator. Even some of the most seasoned and acute businessmen tend to retract their commercial antennae when it comes to splashing out on fine wine. He has uncovered hundreds of instances in which sophisticated would-be investors failed to undertake the most basic comparative research before lashing out on fine wine 'investments' at ridiculously inflated prices. Perhaps this is because wine is seen as a luxury, or perhaps it is simply that wine expertise is such an arcane sport that anyone with sufficient confidence can delude the unwary.
International comparisons show that on average fine wine prices in the US are higher, for the same wines, than in Europe. There are always deals - arguably more deals in New York than anywhere in the world - but America's cumbersome three-tier distribution system for all things alcoholic has an inflationary effect on wine prices.
This phenomenon is particularly marked for the most reputable vintages. Winesearcher surveyed prices of all first growth red bordeaux between 1982 and 2002 and compared prices between the US and Europe. In vintages with a reputation such as 1990, 1982 and especially 1986 and 1995, average prices in the US are quite considerably higher than in Europe. Wine prices start at more or less the same level globally when initially offered but American prices tend to pull away from European ones with time.
One heartening finding for Americans however is that although fine wine prices in the US still tend to be higher than those prevailing in Europe, there are signs of gradual convergence - despite the dollar's fall against the euro, as can be seen on the graph, which compares the average price in each of the three previous years in the USA and Europe for First Growth red bordeaux (shown in US dollars).
Perhaps the work of these search engines is helping to expose those who routinely overprice. Of course these websites are only as good as the sources of their information. A few retailers have had to be removed because they were blatantly feeding in inaccurate information. But in most cases it is easy to contact individual merchants directly, and WineSearcher usefully dates every price.
If you are looking for a particular wine, it really is worth checking out relative prices and availability beforehand.