How To Go To A Wine Store

Wine stores can be intimidating. Maybe James Bond can fall out of a plane, crash through a Monte Carlo restaurant and still amaze the waiter with his choice of the perfect Bordeaux. Not you. Walking into a wine store you see hundreds of bottles staring back at you, mocking your inexperience. There are twenty different countries, varietals you can’t pronounce, and you wouldn’t know what fish to serve with a German Albalonga if someone put a corkscrew to your head.

Well, relax. The liquor store is there to impress you, not the other way around. You’re not supposed to know all the different labels. They are. Great bottles exist at every price range for all occasions. The key to finding them is to pick the right store, to develop a relationship with the staff and finally to learn more about your own personal taste.

Step One – Choose the Right Store

Given a choice, avoid stores that carry more liquor than wine, as well as those where you only see big-name brands and no smaller boutique wines. In your case, the more wine you don’t recognize the better.

The atmosphere of the store can be a good indicator of how carefully the wines are selected. Is the place well-lit and clean, or dark and dingy? If the place is excessively warm, then avoid it altogether.

Most important, are the salespeople friendly and communicative? Wine stores can play on your paranoia and your ego. None of us wants to get ripped off, but we also fear spending too little as well as spending too much. Good salespeople are attentive to what you’re looking for and respectful of your price range.

Step Two – Start a Relationship With the Staff

People used to know their local butcher and baker. Supermarkets have eliminated these traditions, but with wine it is still a necessity. You cannot buy wine like a regular grocery item.

The first thing a salesperson needs to know is what the wine is for. Are you looking for something to serve with tonight’s steak dinner, or a special gift that can age for a few years? Salespeople need your help to guide you to the right choice. Let them know any specifics, such as a wine you’ve enjoyed in the past, but don’t limit them otherwise. They may have a great red to go with your salmon dish if you’re willing to try it.

Keep an open mind about new countries and smaller wineries; take advantage of the time you’re living in. Don’t walk in with a magazine list of top ten wines expecting only to find them. Ask if their store has a specialty.

Be wary if you ask for a $15 bottle, and they show you one for $25 (but if the salesperson knows something perfect for $16, then give it a try). Also beware a wine they can’t tell you anything about and haven’t tried personally—and they can’t refer you to another salesperson who has. If you feel ignored and they reach for the most obvious bottle stacked high in the bargain bin, it’s time to try somewhere else.

Step Three – The Repeat Visit and Learning Your Own Taste

After you’ve tried your wine, the most important step is to return to the store and tell them what you thought. Let them know if it was a huge hit, but don’t be scared to say if it was a disappointment. Ask for the same salesperson and try to explain what worked or what didn’t. Taste in wine is very individual, and repeat visits can help determine which bottles are more likely to appeal to you. There may be a few mistakes along the way; that’s normal. If after a few visits you haven’t enjoyed anything, don’t be shy about asking to be helped by someone else.

Take advantage of tastings at stores; you’ll learn even more about your own preferences. Learn how to describe the qualities of something you enjoy, so you can get something similar, or how to avoid characteristics you don’t want in your next purchase. Many wines, while not being bad, may just not be your taste. Whether you enjoy white, red, rosé or a rarer variety, a perfectly chilled wine can only be obtained by having a wine cooler. A wine cooler is an appliance that stores your wine collection at a cool temperature.

Organic and Biodynamic

If you’re interested in wines that are organic and biodynamic, you’ll be surprised to learn a lot of these wines don’t always put these terms on their labels. Some stores have a special section, though most have them mixed in with the others. Ask your salesperson which organic and biodynamic wines the store carries. It will keep salespeople on their toes to know more about their wines, and when it’s time for the store to order new selections they will know that customers are looking for them.

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By Adam Morganstern

is the editor of the Organic Wine Journal.