Wine online

Drink - Victoria Moore discovers a new netty way of buying booze

We know what Richard Branson thinks about bank accounts (you should only have one), air hostesses (they ought to be pretty) and what to put in the fridge (vodka and cola - Virgin, of course). Now we also know what he thinks about wine. Or, to be more precise, we know what he thinks we think about wine, because he's just rebranded the popular mail order/internet company Orgasmic Wines to capitalise on the Virgin trade name.

His company,, faces stiff competition. The net is awash with purveyors of fine wine and cheap plonk, from to, and that's before you even start on the likes of Oddbins and Victoria Wine and independent wine producers, many of whom have a web presence. The key to selling, as with all things netty, lies in the presentation of information. So what information does Branson think we require?

Traditionally, people have picked wine by country, and high-street off-licences reflect this trend by arranging their shelves accordingly. Those with more knowledge might narrow things down further by isolating a region, then still further (by this stage, people are usually showing off) by hunting out a particular producer. But some time a decade or so ago, wine became too mass market and its consumers insufficiently educated to cope with this, and we all began to make our wine selections according to the following esoteric criteria: 1) Red or white; 2) Less than £2.50; 3) Gosh this is a nice label - I've never seen one with a sunflower on it . . . I'll have that.

There's an off-licence on Westbourne Grove where wine-buying runs to a still more arcane system. Because west London is populated by muggers (apparently), all alcohol is kept behind glass and metal bars. Your personal method of selection is irrelevant, because your choice is always put through a scrambler that depends on which bottle the blind shopkeeper decides to pick up when you point towards the one you want. There is some element of gambling, and patience, involved in the purchase, because you do have the option to continue the charade of the shopkeeper picking up more and more bottles in the hope that they may be better than the last.

But enough of that. In the early Nineties, wine consumption was on the up. Seeing a gap, along came that great beast, the corporate marketeer, to bring us brands we could trust, and we began clinging for dear life to labels we knew - Ernest & Julio Gallo, Penfolds, Georges du Boeuf. Smart restaurants recognised that choice would only bewilder, and slimmed down their lists to offer one option at each price point. In the unlikely event that the customer happened to have acquired a piece of knowledge - say, that they didn't like "Chilean Merlot" - they'd simply be deflected up or down the wine list a notch.

Then we became snobs. It wasn't enough just to drink wine, we had to waft buzzwords around. Enter the varietal. Suddenly it was all Chardonnay this and Merlot that. Really clever people might cluster information together and have an idea that a chardonnay from Australia might be different to one from France. This is about the point at which Branson leaps into the fermentation vat. Hold tight, because is even more patronising than I have been thus far in this column. "Ever stood in a supermarket staring at a shelf marked Burgundy or Bordeaux full of bottles with pictures of a castle on the front, wondering which one is for you?" it asks. Its solution to the "which wine" question is simple. "We have come up with 13 wine STYLES based on what is important to you." So the latest thing is the "style", then. And according to Virgin's research, it would seem that we gravitate towards "Sancerre style", "Oaky Aussie Chardonnay style", "Glugging Reds", and "Huge Reds", among others. Just think. All those hours of prime-time TV with Jilly and Oz telling us about lychees, violets and petrol noses, and this is all we can do. And I hate to say it, but might just have got it right. It's really easy to find a wine you'll like on the site, whether you want "Something Familiar" or "Something Completely Different". So order from it now, before doing so becomes the last word in naff.

This article first appeared in the 17 July 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Special Report - Lost souls in the city in the sky