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Shopping for Wine with Confidence

A well-stocked wine store is a potential gold mine of tasty bargains and informed guidance

Fine Cooking Issue 26
Photos: Scott Phillips
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If you haven’t done it much, combing the shelves of a well-stocked wine store, trying to find the right bottle—for tonight’s dinner, for a gift, or for future drinking—can make you bleary-eyed. There are so many goodies to choose from, but the name of every bottle you’ve ever known and loved or wanted to try has slipped your mind. And many people don’t feel comfortable asking for help because we’re all supposed to know about wine, right?

But if you’re armed with a few shopping strategies, it’s easy to avoid being overwhelmed and to enjoy hunting for delicious bottles. Here are some pointers for using all the resources a good wine shop has to offer so you can buy wines that make you happy when you pull the cork.

Listen, talk, and read before you buy

Whether you’re trying to buy a medium-bodied red under $10 for tonight’s roast chicken or a wine with aging potential, use the same approach you would if you were shopping for a new food processor or range—gather information from several sources.

To find help you like, eavesdrop. Are staffers speaking personably and accessibly to other customers (“This Shiraz is fruity, dry, and tastes great with grilled steak”)? If you like what you hear, snag that friendly help, or ask for another wine-savvy employee. When you find a salesperson you feel comfortable with, ask for that person whenever you shop. Most sales folk I know are proud of knowing their customers’ tastes, and they really enjoy matching the right wine to the right situation.

Trust your own taste. But what if that knowledgeable, friendly salesperson’s taste differs from yours? Ted, who works at one wine shop I frequent, knows a lot and always takes time with me to share his current favorites in all price ranges. Every bottle Ted has suggested has been sound and well-made–but I’ve never really loved any of them. I still shop at that store, but since Ted’s taste is different from mine, I now ask for someone else.

If you’re shopping for a certain meal, be specific about what you’ll be eating. Chicken curry or grilled chicken marinated in olive oil and rosemary can mean the difference between Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir.

State what you want to spend. “And if you’re looking for a cheap bottle to bring to a party, don’t hesitate to say so,” says Steve Ledbetter, a wine buyer at Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant in Berkeley, California. It might feel awkward, but you won’t be offending anyone with “I’m looking to spend around $10,” or “My ceiling is $20.” This narrows the field, which is helpful both to you and to whoever is waiting on you.

Don’t feel obliged to use wine jargon. You needn’t say you’re looking for a woody Cab with cigar-box nuances in the nose, black currant notes mid-palate, and a tar-tinged finish. Fred Rosen, owner of Sam’s, a wine store in Chicago whose staff tastes wine every day, advises that saying what you like (“I just had a light, fruity Tuscan red that was delicious”) and what you don’t (“I’d rather stay away from super-fruity Chardonnay”) gives the best idea of what you’re after.

Try some role-reversal. If you encounter salespeople who try to be diplomatic (“Well, it really depends on your taste…”), ask which wine they’d like to drink. My friend John often takes this approach and ends up with great finds. Most wine people love to talk about what they enjoy, so putting them in the role of the drinker is a good way to find out if they can speak enthusiastically and knowingly about the wine.

Read the shelf tags. Many stores have shelf tags (known in the trade as “shelf talkers”) that offer number ratings or quotes from wine magazines. Better still are tags with tasting notes written by staffers after a gang of them has tasted the wine and talked about it. Such tags often give helpful food-pairing hints, too.

Get on the mailing list. Many merchants publish newsletters that let you know about future shipments and specials. In states where they’re legal, retailers often give informal, drop-by tastings. They’re free, and tasting is the best way of all to learn about wine.

Devise a fallback strategy. Not all stores that sell wine sell good wine, nor do the salespeople always know more than you do. If you find yourself in a store that’s stronger on gallon jugs and hard liquor, don’t go hunting for that exquisite bottle from a small, little-known producer. Better to go for tried and true names you recognize, such as Joseph Drouhin or Louis Jadot from France, Mondavi or Kendall-Jackson from California, Lindeman’s from Australia, or Pio Cesare from Italy.

Row after row of bottles can be dizzying,…

…but a good wine store has signs, staff,…
…and even tastings to help you find what you’re after.

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