For many, if not most, consumers, navigating a wine store is a daunting task.
So many wines, so little time — and knowledge. Even as wine shoppers have become savvier in recent years, the selections have broadened significantly in terms of grapes and regions.
Almost as varied are the levels — in terms of quality and quantity — of customer service. It’s a quick shift from “Can I get some help here?” to “Leave me alone, or at least stop trying to upsell me!”
What’s a wine buyer to do?
Go Boy Scout: Be prepared. Walk in there knowing what you want — or at least having some parameters. You don’t have to forge the kind of tightly formatted game plan that would make an NFL coach envious, but being unclear isn’t helpful.
Word up: Be ready to talk about your potential purchases using the most apt terminology. It’s OK to trot out broader “food” terms such as citrusy, but better still to go with true descriptors such as fruit-forward, crisp, robust, silky/velvety, lush/plush and juicy. Talk about weight of the wine. On the palate, light-bodied wines have the texture of skim milk, medium-bodied ones are like whole milk, and full-bodied wines are akin to heavy cream.
Open up: Leave your Upper Midwest reserve out in the car. Tell the merchant what you like and/or don’t like, the more details the better. And absolutely relay the price points you’re seeking. Be willing to say, “I like Rombauer Chardonnay and want something like that, but cheaper.” Or “I don’t know much about Bordeaux, but would like a good introduction in the $15 to $20 range.”
Shop by the label: Not so much the front label, although a cute or coy brand name as a hostess gift can work. But the back label is where it’s at with wine. First, read the spiel. If it’s all “dew-dappled leaves in the verdant vineyard,” the purple juice inside the bottle is likely as vapid as the purple prose touting it. Look for straight talk: how and where the grapes were grown, facets of the wine itself, potential pairings. Similarly, look for words, not numbers, on “shelf talkers,” those tags hanging under the bottles. And get to know the national importers; once you’ve liked a wine from European Cellars or Jorge Ordonez or the Piedmont Guy, you should be happy with their other stuff.
Think locally and globally: A similarly good tipoff comes when the importer’s name has a “MN” after the home base. Direct imports such as these bypass a tier that otherwise would add to the wine’s cost because the importer is also the wholesaler. But more important, we have a splendid group of importers in these parts, people who go to the source and seek out wines that combine quality and value. (They’re the ones who have to sell the stuff to local retailers and restaurateurs, after all.)
Take it easy: Don’t ever let someone rush you. It’s your time, not theirs, that matters. Wine is too expensive for hasty decisions.
Consider the occasion: If you’re looking for a wine for dinner that night, tell the employee what you’re eating, in detail. (Salmon or chicken, for example, need different wines for different methods or sauces/glazes.) And unless you’re having steak, a lower-alcohol, less voluptuous wine is usually the ticket. If you’re buying for a gathering, ask about “crowd pleasers” and/or wines that punch above their weight class, since you’ll likely be buying several bottles — and get some specifics on why they fit the bill.
Be firm: Expect a discount if you buy a case, even a mixed case.
Forge ties: Over time, it’s easy to develop a rapport with a simpatico winemonger, someone you can seek out and count on for great steerage. It’s also important, if not imperative, for anyone who loves wine to have one or more go-to sources such as these.
Bill Ward writes at decant-this.com. Follow him on Twitter: @billward4.