As we’re all now getting used to shopping on the internet, one of the biggest advantages has been in the world of wine. No longer are you restricted to what is available at your local wine shop – if you were lucky enough to have one – and no longer are you at the mercy of an inefficient small business who needs to charge you too much to pay his running costs.

Now there are sleek efficient internet wine retailers, cutting out the unnecessary costs importing direct and operating from warehouses rather than expensive high street shops. The customer is now able to take advantage of these major savings as well as having an endless choice of wines, usually delivered UK wide on a next day basis. It has revolutionised the world of wine buying and many UK wine enthusiasts are enjoying the benefits and trading up to better quality wines at better value prices.

There are some draw backs though. Many websites look very impressive but when you dig a little deeper you see that they are not what they appear. Like www.simplywinesdirect.co.uk who claim to be a global company, stocking 15,000 wines and buying them direct from the wineries. In fact they are a convenience store in Reading, stocking very little wine, not importing anything directly from wineries – rather they take your order and then try to source the wine in the UK, often from the same place you could source it yourself. And of course a great many of the wines they list they cannot even get –  so why put the customer through all the hassle of ordering then waiting for weeks before telling them their order isn’t coming? But if that is how they choose to operate their business that is their choice – there is a fine line between outright lies and misleading advertising but many companies do get away with it.

But there is something far worse taking hold in the UK. Due to the punitive tax on alcohol in the UK, British consumers are now being targeted by firms on the continent via glossy websites and even paid advertising through Google and Amazon.

You may Google a wine and see in the shopping tab that it is cheaper through a company like www.weinbaule.de in Germany. How is that possible? And on their website they will proudly lie to you and tell you that it is all legal and above board – it is not! They are not paying the UK excise duty (currently £2 plus VAT on still wine, £2.50 plus VAT on sparkling or wines over 15% abv). When they export this wine to the British customer they should be declaring this to HM Revenue & Customs and paying these taxes, but they do not. Instead they send it in plain packaging via a carrier such as DHL or UPS. If the vehicle is stopped and inspected the goods may be seized, and the British customer will then be liable to pay these taxes to have their wine released from Customs. But Michael Baulman (owner of Weinbaule) is quite happy to take this chance with your money/wine – after all British Customs aren’t going to chase him in Germany (he hopes!).

Under current UK law you are entitled to bring into the UK any reasonable quantity of wines provided that:

You physically accompany the goods – i.e. you cannot do it by mail order/internet/courier

The wine must be for your own consumption – i.e. not for resale or use in a restaurant/pub etc

There are other companies as well as Weinbaule doing this. Uvinum for example who up till last week were advertising 1 litre of Smirnoff for £10.50 delivered into the UK. There is UK excise duty of over £10 per litre plus VAT meaning the tax alone even if the vodka was free would be over £12.

Interestingly there is now a big flag stating “not available in UK” this week! Clearly HMRC are clamping down on this.

UK excise duty fraud on alcohol costs the Treasury over 1 billion pounds per year! Of course we’d all like to save money, but I also think there is a growing resentment in the UK for companies who practice tax avoidance/evasion.

The customer should be able to make his own informed choice according to his own conscience – buy legally from a British company paying UK taxes and employing British workers, or buy illegally from a foreign business, waiting a week for your order and hoping that it doesn’t get impounded at Customs.

How can you tell if the company you are ordering from is genuine and above board?

Well there are a great many websites advertising wines they don’t have – you would be surprised! And many pretending to be things they are not. Keeping yourself safe when ordering online isn’t straight forward but there are some things you can do to protect yourself.

Firstly check out the address of the company you are ordering from. You can then view it on Google street view and check it is a legitimate business.

Secondly, check that the website says it has the wines in stock and offers next day delivery. There is a host of courier companies operating in the UK all offering next day delivery, so if stated delivery time is more than one or two days be cautious – odds are that this company doesn’t have the wine and are going to try and buy it in to order! If the wine is in stock it only takes a few minutes to pick and pack an order – there is no feasible excuse for it to take days let alone weeks!

(A word of caution though. I recently placed an order with Foods4u for 6 bottles of wine, and they stated it would take another 48 hours to retrieve them from bond – then they fobbed me off with some fairy story about how some of the wines I ordered were on a container delayed at Customs due to the Bank Holiday. And when the wine did finally turn up, I received just 4 bottles not 6, and that was exactly one month to the day I placed the order! So believing their delivery terms didn’t help me on that occassion).

Thirdly phone them up and speak to them– you can usually get a feel if you’re talking to a genuine business, particularly if you ask questions about the wines. You wouldn’t believe how many wine websites are run by people who know nothing about wine and are just buying and selling it like any other commodity. There are a lot of “Arthur Daley” types out there jumping on the internet wine retail band wagon looking to make a quick buck.

Fourthly, If you’re in any doubt as to whether or not they are a legitimate UK Company you can check out their company accounts for free at http://companycheck.co.uk/ to make sure they are a genuinely trading company and not just posing as a company to impress (as in the case of Simply Wines Direct Ltd!).

There are great benefits to be had from internet wine shopping. It has opened up a whole new world of wine to the UK consumer, and brought real value for money to the market place. A few bad apples like the ones mentioned shouldn’t be allowed to spoil it for the rest of us.