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Where, oh where, to find that wine?

It was a lucky find. I spied a promising $8 bottle of French red tucked away on the shelf at my local food co-op, took it home and really enjoyed it. Curious, I looked online; it got decent reviews and was flagged as a great value. So I immediately ran back and bought several more before they vanished.Say what you like: Wine shopping can really stink. Not that I don’t like to spend hours scourin
/ Source: msnbc.com

It was a lucky find. I spied a promising $8 bottle of French red tucked away on the shelf at my local food co-op, took it home and really enjoyed it. Curious, I looked online; it got decent reviews and was flagged as a great value. So I immediately ran back and bought several more before they vanished.

Say what you like: Wine shopping can really stink. Not that I don’t like to spend hours scouring the shelves of local shops, looking for new and interesting vintages. But if I find a bottle I really like, and it’s not so popular that the local supermarket is selling it by the case, I’m often out of luck next time I want it. When I do find it, there can be wide gaps in prices.

Recently, though, several wine search engines have gained traction among oenophiles. Just as sites like Dealtime.com compare items across multiple vendors, these wine sites allow users to hunt specific labels and vintages across hundreds or thousands of wine sellers. Consider them metacrawlers for wine. Rather than be at the mercy of whatever is in stock down the street, you can now find your favorite bottles — or ones you’d like to try — and learn who can sell them to you.

To evaluate three of these services, I searched a broad range of regions and prices — from Tasmania’s Ninth Island pinot noir at $15 to 1991 bottles of California’s exclusive Opus One for more than $200. On the low end, I included the French red I’d been hunting, a 2001 Domaine de la Brune from Languedoc.

Wineaccess.com

This site, not to be confused with Canada’s Wine Access magazine, claims a database of 45,000 wines and seems focused on wine vendors who belong to its network. That doesn’t seem to be a big drawback. Some two dozen retailers could ship to my Seattle neighborhood, and other addresses in major U.S. cities often had a dozen or more stores listed. It also lists stores that sell the wine but cannot ship it. While it requires you to sign up, membership is free.

Its wine listings look not unlike those at Amazon.com — including vintage details, an average price, professional and reader reviews and collective filtering that suggests other bottles bought by shoppers who selected your wine.

If you select the “buy” button, it gives you lists of sellers that can ship to you and those that simply stock it. Even if you can’t buy from a shop, the listings provide an excellent price range. A 2001 Columbia Crest Grand Estates Columbia Valley chardonnay could be purchased online from at least five stores, depending what ZIP code was entered, with prices from $8.99 to $11.99.

Not every wine brings a cascade of results. Only one merchant carried the French bottle I’d liked so much. Its price was a bit high at $12.14, and I couldn’t locate it on the merchant’s site. But most searches brought back solid results.

Wine-searcher.com

These folks claim to have over 830,000 prices to search from over 1,200 stores worldwide. The site is free, though free searches sometimes omit stores that aren’t site sponsors. A “pro” membership, for $24.95 a year, gives complete access to every listing and also provides a more detailed search engine.

A really fun feature of the site, run out of New Zealand and Britain, is its worldwide list of shops — which recently brought it praise from the Financial Times for being a boon to global wine buyers. Wine prices in Danish shops may not be useful to you, but they can be interesting.

It usually returns extensive results, though not always. (It also found only one merchant for the Domaine de la Brune.) But results often link directly to sellers’ internal pages, an easy jump from search to purchase.

Results, if comprehensive, can also be a tad imprecise. A search for the 1998 Chateau de Beaucastel Chateauneuf du Pape returned both the red I wanted and a white Beaucastel; also, it includes wine auctions, so the bottle listed may already have been snagged by a bidder — though you can ask it to exclude auctions.

It’s also worth keeping an eye on bottle sizes. My hunt for Deutz NV champagne listed not only the standard 750 ml bottle, but also 375 ml sizes and even a 3 liter jeroboam.

Winealert.com

The site claims a database of over 25,000 wines. Free membership only provides access to 2,000, though search returns will show you which additional wines you could check with its paid “gold” service, at $29.95 a year.

The free service, which requires you to log in, wasn’t that useful. Even when I looked up a popular label, most offerings were behind its paid-only wall. For example, a search for the Beaucastel returned dozens of listings, but the 1998 vintage I wanted was paid-only. (The 1999 and 2000 vintages were available.) Though it often returned a long list of options, only one or two were usually available to view for free.

When it can return free results, it shows a tidy list of stores, with prices and links to contact information. The Columbia Crest chardonnay was listed at more than a half-dozen stores, with prices from $6.99 to $12.99. Online availability wasn’t mentioned.

One other caveat: It requires you to narrow your search by region, which can take extra time and has glaring gaps in geography — such as Canada and South America. It was impossible, for example, to search for wines from Canada’s Mission Hill or even Chile’s massive Concha y Toro label.

User's choice?

Of the three, WineAccess.com is generally easiest to use, in part because it asks you to narrow in on a specific label and vintage before it checks availability; you know just what you’re looking for before you go price-hunting. Its details page proved continually useful, especially the blurbs from expert reviewers.

Wine-searcher.com’s results were the most interesting to browse, even if they’re fuzzier than the others. What it lacks in targeted search it makes up for in its variety of purchase options. Not for everyone, but lots of fun for wine geeks.

All three sites can prove useful in finding pricier bottles — especially Wine-searcher. For example, a search for a bottle of 1995 Chateau Figeac turned up excellent results at all three, priced around $99. And the searches can reveal vast price variations; bottles of the Opus One ranged from $195 to $350.

Needless to say, their utility varies depending where you live. Residents in states with more lenient wine shipping regulations will find many more options to buy.

In any case, all three make comparison shopping for wine a comparatively painless task. Whether it beats time spent at your local wine shop is something you’ll have to decide.