Mystery boxes and Zoom tastings: A guide to buying wine online

Ireland’s specialist online wine shops used the lockdown as an opportunity to innovate

 

Selling wine online is not a new phenomenon. Several Irish companies have been offering a service for decades now. Along with mail order, it always seemed the perfect way for anyone without a decent wine shop nearby to get hold of some interesting bottles.

Yet I remember the late Paddy Keogh, founder of the pioneering mail order and online wine company Wines Direct, telling me that 80 per cent of his retail business came from south Co Dublin – an area not short of good wine shops. Until the Covid-19 crisis, there was a reluctance among many Irish consumers to buy wine online. That has certainly changed, but will we return to our old ways now that restrictions have eased?

There are obvious advantages to buying wine online. It is a bulky, heavy product and most wine shops have limited parking facilities. While supermarkets may have parking, their range can be limited and most people don’t have the time to stand and browse.

Shopping online allows you to surf at length, cross checking various sources for tasting notes and background, as well as comparing prices. It is also a great way to discover new and exciting wines. Many consumers find buying wine an intimidating experience and this allows them to avoid pushy salespeople, although most of the online companies are only too happy to chat on the phone or by email. 

More established online companies such as WinesDirect.ie and Wineonline.ie also have a retail outlet of some kind. Once simply wine shops, Mitchell & Son, Curious Wines, the Corkscrew, Greenacres and JNwine have all developed significant online operations. All of these companies have a great offering and are worth looking at. Many wine shops and off-licences are currently rushing to upgrade their websites; we can expect to see a whole new level of competition in coming weeks. 

Wine ordered from abroad is subject to Irish import duties, unless you accompany the goods. The Wine Society, a non-profit UK co-operative, offers delivery to Ireland (paying the duty and VAT), or collection from their warehouse in Newry, thereby avoiding Irish taxes. Both services are suspended at time of writing due to Covid-19, but are worth considering in the future. They have a well-sourced comprehensive list, including many own-label wines. You need to become a member first.

French company Millésima.ie is best known for fine wine and en primeur sales online with an emphasis on Bordeaux, although other regions of France and other countries are covered too. 

The four Irish companies I include below are all new to online sales, and some new to the wine business. All work exclusively online, in very different ways. Given that advising customers is part of their service, I asked each to choose a wine that best represents their company. 

Rory Craig set up his online site Station to Station Wine in January 2018. Prior to that, he had spent nine years working with a leading wine retailer in Melbourne. Until this year, most of his business came through offers sent by email and a small but growing number of online sales. “That exploded in the last few months,” he says.

Rory Craig of Stationtostationwine.ie
Rory Craig of Station to Station Wine

His website is modern and witty, with great artwork and a great range of offbeat wines. “Don’t be afraid, it’s only wine is our motto; it’s a little bit of fun. So far we are getting great feedback. People start by buying a pack of six bottles, and then experiment with other packs and mix in a few of their favourite wines.

“I was lucky. Earlier this year, I knew that I needed some more affordable wines and had them all ready to go when lockdown started. Since the initial surge, volumes have been dropping slightly, but value has been steadily increasing.” He now offers 45 different six-packs and a constantly evolving range of wines.

Now that restrictions are lifted, he doesn’t see all of his new customers staying with him, but a lot of them will. “I’d be very confident that we have set ourselves apart from the crowd in our approach and content. We position ourselves as a quality retailer. We have no in-store experience, but with lower overheads, we can be slightly cheaper. I try to get as much feedback as possible, including what customers hated, as well as what they liked.”

Jérémy Delannoy spent 12 years as a gendarme in Paris before catching the wine bug and completing a degree in winemaking. He then fell for an Irish woman and ended up moving to Dublin. He now runs SIYPS (Sommelier In Your Pockets), a bespoke service with wines selected from six of our top importers. SIYPS also imports some niche wines directly. Many of the wines are not available anywhere else other than a few restaurants. The list is exclusively European and includes many real gems. 

Jérémy Delannoy of SIYPS
Jérémy Delannoy of SIYPS

“I don’t really have mass produced wines,” says Delannoy. “Most of my sales are for wines between €20-€30 a bottle, although I do have less expensive wines. With Covid-19, I certainly saw an increase in volume, and also an increase in price of about €4 a bottle. People want the wines they enjoyed in restaurants.

“New customers come by word of mouth really. Orders generally come by email, and sometimes we talk, too. I do most of the deliveries myself in Dublin, which people really like. We can have a chat, which is great for repeat business.”

His mystery boxes, put together by some of the country’s finest sommeliers, have been hugely popular. “After lockdown, people will probably use us less, but there is a shift towards buying online.”

Ronan Farrell and Richie Byrne of Wine Lab
Ronan Farrell and Richie Byrne of Wine Lab

Wine Lab is a company that, until recently, specialised in selling wine on tap to restaurants and wine bars. Change was rapid. “On Friday, March 13th we cancelled an office move and laid everyone off, including directors,” says co-owner Ronan Farrell. “Our online sales have grown so rapidly that everyone is now back in work. It has kept the lights on, and it will definitely be a bona fide part of our business in the future. We are expanding our range to offer a variety of interesting and exclusive wines.”

However, Wine Lab will never post a full browsable list. “It will always be a curated pick based on customer preferences and comments,” says Farrell. Wine Lab are not afraid to innovate and have some interesting ways to sell wine. Their sole offering at the time of writing is five mystery boxes, ranging from €55 for Everyday Heroes to €150 for Top of the Rock, with only vague hints as to what they might contain.

The mystery box came about almost by accident. “Before lockdown, friends were calling me saying ‘we need wine’,” says Farrell. “Our first question was ‘what’s your budget?’.” And so they designed mystery boxes where price is the only information given. There are no tick boxes for grape or country, like in every other online list.

“Almost all the feedback has been positive. This is a very traditional industry that is still very much talking down to the consumer; it should be a conversation and not a lecture.

“The best-selling wines are the €90 a case (or €15 a bottle), because our consumers realise that the relative value is great. It is the esoteric wines that people enjoy most – wines from young winemakers making low-intervention wines.” Expect a US six-pack shortly from this company that will include some mouth-watering west coast wines. 

They have also started a First Look Club, with a subscription box that will include one wine they do not yet import. “We have a live Zoom conversation with the consumer and the winemaker and the wine. We will let them decide if we buy and have some fun at the same time.”

Avril Kirrane and Johnny McMorrough of Boutique Wines
Avril Kirrane and Johnny McMorrough of Boutique Wines

By the time you read this, Boutique Wines will have a new website up and running. Owner Johnny McMorrough says they will also launch an entire portfolio of wines online. Until recently, Boutique Wines were best known as a supplier to 150 restaurants and gastropubs, but they too had to change rapidly. 

“Initially, we were trying to gauge price points and guess people’s favourite wines, but their scope was far broader than we thought,” McMorrough says. People trust us and like to come back and say ‘my budget is X and I don’t like Y, so surprise me’.”

Courier services were initially under huge pressure and unreliable, but this has got a lot better. “Our business is countrywide, although the people of Kerry, Cork and Galway seem to have a great grá for us. A lot of people where we live started buying to support us then afterwards told us they will never go back to the supermarkets.”

McMorrough’s wife, Avril Kirrane, a restaurant manager for 20 years, is also involved in the business. “People love the online sommelier thing; it’s a very personal service. My forte is helping people choose. They tell me their tastes and we take it from there,” she says.

TOP PICKS FROM ONLINE RETAILERS

Syrah 2018, Les Épices, Domaine Les Yeuses IGP Pays d’Oc
13.5%, €15.95

Dark savoury fruits with an attractive spicy edge, plenty of body and a very good smooth finish.Try it with grilled lamb smothered in herbs.
From: Boutique Wines, boutiquewines.ie

Albariño Rias Baixas 2019 Morra o Conto 
12.5%, €18.50

Mouth-watering racy fresh pears and apples with a distinctly briny mineral tang. Perfect with grilled white fish, like hake or sea bass.  
From: Station to Station Wine,stationtostationwine.ie.

Premier Rolle 2019, Domaine des Amiel, Vin de France (Biodynamic)
13%, part of the Mystics Box (€100 for six bottles)

 

A very seductive medium-bodied wine with herbal aromas, beautifully textured peaches and citrus peel. Drink it by itself or with grilled white fish. 
From: Wine Lab, winelab.ie.

Bourgogne Blanc ‘Les Perrières’ 2017, Domaine Simon Bize, (Organic)
12.5%, €36

A long-term favourite of mine, a single-vineyard Chardonnay from a great producer. Exquisite wine, with white flower and hedgerow aromas, crisp lemon zest and juicy peach fruits. Drink it with grilled black sole on the bone, accompanied by lashings of melted butter.
From: SIYPS, siyps.com.

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