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Wine lovers can get online advice for best bottles to crack open during holidays

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TORONTO - If you're stumped about what wine to sip with dinner or present to hosts as a gift at the next cocktail party you attend, you can get advice online.

WineAlign is a free community-based service for reviewing, sharing and discovering wine founded five years ago in collaboration with several top wine critics.

"It's become the No. 1 website in Canada for an independent source of wine reviews in Canada," said master sommelier John Szabo, who's been with the site since June 2009. "Currently we're at 55,000 members and something like 120-130,000 unique visitors per month."

There are 12 paid critics from B.C. through to Quebec. Some content is national while other information is tailored to a provincial audience. There's also a newsletter.

The site ties into real-time inventory.

"If you're looking for an Alsatian Pinot Gris rated highly by critic X ... up will pop the highest-rated Pinot Gris in stock in the store that you specify as your local store," said Szabo, a sommelier for more than a decade and also the author of "Pairing Food & Wine For Dummies" (John Wiley and Sons, 2012).

"Put in your postal code when you sign in as a member and you can not only read about great wine, but you can also know that it's available. It essentially does everything but buy the wine and deliver it for you.

"As opposed to a magazine where you read a great review and you're excited about it and you're left trying to figure out where do I find this. You've got to get on the phone, you've got to start searching the Internet. This is a one-stop shop. It's a wine-buying tool."

To help with selection, users can enter such information as budget, food choices and taste preferences.

Most of the content is free.

Natalie MacLean, whose wine review site www.nataliemaclean.com numbers just over 156,000 members and also includes a newsletter, recently held an online contest to create a shopping list of wines under $25 available in Ontario liquor stores so wine drinkers can "pour like Santa, but save like Scrooge," she said in a release.

The contest put together by MacLean, author of "Red, White and Drunk All Over" and "Unquenchable: A Tipsy Quest for the World's Best Bargain Wines," featured wine lovers choosing their favourite pairings for six international holiday dishes: latkes, the Jewish holiday dish of potato pancakes to celebrate Hanukkah; baccala, the Portuguese and Italian dried and salted fish dish for Christmas dinner; Moroccan lamb, the slow-cooked savory stew to celebrate the end of Ramadan on the Islamic calendar; collard greens, the African dish that's part of the feast for Kwanzaa; roast turkey, the centrepiece of many Canadian holiday tables; and fruitcake, the United Kingdom dessert made from candied fruit and nuts.

Those who'd rather have their tipple delivered to the door can shop at WineOnline.ca. The website helps consumers in Alberta and Ontario find wines that might not be available at their provincial liquor outlets. The organization, which launched in 2004, said in a release that it expects to expand into other provinces.

Seasoned wine connoisseurs and neophytes can choose cases of wines from domestic and international wineries and customize their order by grape type, region, reds, whites, roses or sparkling. There are sampler packs for monthly wine club members and a program that lets users select a six-bottle case of wines from Ontario wineries.

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