From the April 2000 issue of Startups

Much like a fine wine, it takes time-sometimes years-for a business to reach a certain level of perfection. Since 1992, Patricia Cole, 48, has been overseeing Winelady.com (http://www.winelady.com), a Web site dedicated to wine lovers, and evolving it into what it's become today-a full-fledged e-commerce site.

At first, Winelady.com, which targeted female wine drinkers, only offered a list of wineries where wine connoisseurs could easily find the wines of their choice. But, as with most things, wine developed into a "lifestyle" product, and Cole shifted her site's content to reflect this new trend. Cole currently offers gift products and collectibles as well as vacation packages and wine classes on her site. Based in Napa, California-the heart of the U.S. wine country-Winelady.com has become a one-stop shop for anything having to do with wine. Here's a look at just how this wine lady found a niche within a niche and transformed it into a successful homebased e-commerce site:

HomeOffice: When did you develop Winelady.com and how did you get the idea?

Patricia Cole: I used to consult with businesses; I set up their accounting systems. I got into the winery niche and ended up working for a winery. That job ended right when the Internet began to expand in 1997. Sites such as Wine.com and Virtualvineyards.com were starting up, and we were all trying to find a different niche. My site started out [in 1992] as just a listing of [Web sites for] wineries all over the world. Since 1997, it has developed into an e-commerce site.

HomeOffice: What do you offer on your site?

Cole: One of the things we want to promote on our site is the personalization. You go to [some wine sites], fill out a form, and they've got a hundred different possible employees working on your order. You get personal attention with me. I live in Napa County and can get just about anything in Napa that anybody needs.

We still have a list of more than 3,000 wineries. I'm also part of the affiliate program for The Wine Messenger, Wine.com, Prime Wine and Sendwine.com. People can find any wine they want [by accessing these sites through Winelady.com]. Customers can click on Prime Wine, for example, and buy all their wines there because they're licensed. Because there are only certain states you can ship to and it's very expensive to get a license, I worked out an affiliate program with these four companies.

We also have a vacation section that features a variety of Napa Valley cruises. I'm also working on a tour that offers wine tours of French cities. I'm developing that part of the site to include events in the Napa Valley as well as other wine regions of the United States.

I plan to spend more time developing the gift boutique. I've already devoted a lot of time to adding more products. People have either written me [about them] or I've searched the Web and found [the items]. We have handpainted glasses, crafts-the types of things you won't find in a store. Since I'm working directly with these manufacturers, the prices are usually lower at my site.

HomeOffice: What is the main difference between your site and other wine sites?

Cole: Number one, if you go to a wine site to buy wine, you just go in, fill out a form and say "Send me this wine"-it's just another order. [On my site,] you can write to me directly and I'll find you the wine at the best prices. If you're in a state where wine can't be shipped over state lines, then we'll try to find a retailer in your state that sells the wine you want.

HomeOffice: What was the most difficult part of starting this business?

Cole: Promotion. It's always a challenge. I really wanted to get my name out there. I chose Winelady for a purpose-to attract the female wine drinker. To this day, it's still a challenge to find those females.

HomeOffice: What's been your most effective marketing tool?

Cole: Promoting my site with the search engines. I do everything strictly by Internet. I don't do mailings. I don't do bulk e-mail. I don't spam anybody-nothing like that. I don't go and buy e-mail lists. I don't believe in that. I get a ton of e-mail that's just junk mail and I don't want anyone to think mine is junk mail. People I send mail to have joined by list, and the hits are growing every day.

HomeOffice: What have been the pros and cons of running your site from home?

Cole: Everyone has this idea that [with a homebased business], your time is your own. It isn't. I remember when I first started-I pulled all-nighters many times because I constantly change my site. I recently changed the way my gift area looks-that's taken me four days and I'm not done yet. You put in a lot of hours, but you have to keep changing it to keep people coming back.