Telephoning is old-hat. Telegrams look so impersonal. Flowers by wire are obvious. When you really want to celebrate long-distance, it seems so clever to send a bottle of wine.
And you can. But when you realize the price of such a gesture, you may need a stiff drink.
Two wines-by-wire companies have been nationally publicized this year: Nationwide Gift Liquor Service, Inc. (800-528-6148), and newer, 3-year-old Tele-Wine (800-223-2660). Nationwide has one local distributor, Burka's Wine and Liquor Store, where manager Ricky Huddelson says he has never had any problems with the arrangement; Nationwide calls in the order, and Burka's writes itself a check from a stack of Nationwide's blank checks (wine cannot be sold on credit in Washington), then wraps and delivers the wine, ordinarily the next day. The gift-giver can send Nationwide a check or money order, or charge to a major credit card. In most cases, Nationwide promises next-day delivery, but deliveries to small towns may take two to four days. There is no minimum order, though a simple bottle of 1980 Drouhin Beaujolais Villages, which Burka's sells for $6 (plus $5 gift wrap and delivery), costs $17 through Nationwide. A $6 macon costs $19, and a four-bottle gift package of Bolla wines, which retails for $15, winds up costing $34 to the Nationwide customer.
If those markups seem high, look at the pricing practices of Tele-Wine. There is a minimum order of $35; for that you can buy a domestic champagne (Korbel, Domaine Chandon or Schramsberg), said the receptionist on the telephone, or two bottles of "fine French wine." We ordered the latter on Feb. 19; on March 12, the delivery was made -- two bottles of 1979 Bourgogne Grand Ordinaire, which the wine shop -- Continental Liquors -- confirmed as costing $6 each retail. Continental's Ed Tauber explained that he had received the order March 12 and delivered it the same day; this was only the second transaction he had handled for Tele-Wine, which was willing to spend $18 for the wine, wrapping and delivery on this order. When he heard that the customer had been charged $35, Tauber exploded, "You're kidding!"
Tele-Wine heard of the flap over price and delivery date and called the recipient, explaining that the company has "a network of 17,000 stores all over U.S. and Europe, and this costs money," according to vice president Arnold Ogof. The company cannot promise same-day delivery, because it must pay the retailer with a bank check; Ogof admitted, "There was a little financial problem here where we were late in paying," referring to a complaint voiced by one retailer who no longer deals with Tele-Wine. But, adds Ogof, "We've gotten some write-ups from the very finest magazines."
Actually, there is a cheaper and similarly efficient method of sending wine as a gift in another city. Instead of calling a toll-free 800 number and paying $15 or so for someone to take charge from there, you can call a wine shop in another city yourself, thus only pay extra for the long-distance call, plus the wine merchant's wrapping and delivery fee. Any wine shop you deal with locally can suggest counterparts in other cities. If you are sending wine via a city that prohibits consumers from buying wine with a credit card, you can send a check or money order by Federal Express and, just like the wines-by-wire companies, thereby get next-day delivery.