Buying wine over the Internet is a fairly perverse hobby if you live near Cambridge. East Anglia is full of wine merchants: not rebranded versions of Victoria Wine, but small firms, often new, where the person selling the stuff has tasted it and may well have had a hand in choosing it. On the other hand, at a wine merchant's like that, you have to be more or less sober, and turn up during shopping hours, whereas the great guilty pleasure of web shopping is doing it at silly times with a bottle in front of you and someone you love making suggestions over your shoulder.
The first time I tried buying wine this way, I came to the following conclusion: more research is needed. One of the best of the East Anglian wine merchants is Lay and Wheeler, in Colchester, which is a long drive across rotten roads, so one Christmas I decided to test it out. It has a curious website. It is quick and it works, but not quite the way one would expect it to. I suppose it is just as informative as the catalogue, but paper allows you to conceal thinness of content in a way that we have not yet learnt to do so well with a website. Still, the tasting notes for each wine are in plain English and accurate. The delivery was cheap and fairly prompt. The wine varied from good to delicious. The real problem only appeared when I examined the tasting notes I had made: it turned out that, of the ten wines I had ordered, each without exception had been nicer than all the cheaper competition and less nice than the more expensive ones. Somehow it takes all the fun out of wine buying to know that there are no unexpected bargains, and the more expensive wine on the list will always taste better. Perhaps there is something to be said for the vertiginous uncertainty of restaurant wine lists.
The trouble is that the sort of wine merchant where you can afford to make silly mistakes is really only found in France. Wine merchants have been a long time coming online. I don't know why. It seems one of the truly obvious examples of Internet commerce for the shops that you find in villages such as Gigondas to put up a shop front on the web and deliver by mail order. It may not make much sense for individual producers: there is just too much work involved in a proper website. But in a single European market, they can sell to almost anywhere in Europe and still achieve a competitive price.
That was the reasoning that led me to www.la-cle-de-la-cave, a site which is, admittedly, run by a supermarket chain, but a French one: Promodes. Its prices seem aimed at the French market but include delivery. If the normal rule that any wine bought in France costs about half what its equivalent would over here, I may have found a bargain. But these are still pioneering days. The site has been around for at least nine months: on 30 January, I ordered a mixed case of Rhone wines for about £60. I'd guess this was a fairly rare experience for them: the reference number on my order was 965, which certainly doesn't refer to the number of customers that day, unless the French all buy their wine before 9.30 on a Sunday morning.
Perhaps I really am the 965th customer ever. The supplier certainly seems a little out of practice at dealing with live orders from England: I had an e-mail in French confirming the order the day after I placed it and telling me that delivery would take ten days. Nine days later, no wine, but another e-mail, this time in English, saying that one of my choices was out of stock, and would I like another vintage? The delivery finally turned up this morning, five days after that. Was it any good? I have no idea. There was a note in the case telling me to rest the wine in a cellar for at least a week before opening. Somehow this last delay strikes me as a hopeful sign. I want to buy from people who know how to treat wine more than those who know how to sell it.