Selecting a Wine Merchant – 5 Core Principles
If there is one main requirement for wine bliss as a consumer, it is finding a wine shop you can trust. There are many facets that go into a good wine store and some matter more than others. When looking for a wine shop you can reliably count on, use these five core principles to ensure you select the best home base for your regular wine purchases.
1) Wine Salesperson
The most important facet of a wine merchant is its people. Is the salesperson genuinely interacting with me to better my palate and wine knowledge with honest recommendations, be they hits or misses? Or are they pushing whatever is stacked high at the ends of the aisles or near the check-out counters as that is where the cheap wines with high margins usually reside? Try to work with one person who will get to know your tastes and be able to refine your purchases based on your tastes. Make sure you report back to them what you liked and did not like about the wine. It does not have to be incredibly detailed, simply stating the wine was too acidic, tannic, fruity, etc. is good enough. Javier Martinez, Head Wine Buyer at Sparrow Wines & Liquors in Hoboken, NJ breaks it down like this, “Don’t worry about specific descriptors – just try to use simple language. Telling me a wine felt too chalky or dry tells me so much more than trying to zero in on any specific flavor. Keep it simple!” This is immensely important because a lot of the time the reason why you do not like something about a wine is the most important facet of understanding your palate, so be sure to be honest. I have to agree with Javier when he tells me “Often times I can sense my customers are intimidated, but the best salesperson will always make you feel comfortable and give you the reassurance that “no question is dumb”. It’s all about learning and discovery.” This is fermented grape juice, you are not hurting anyone’s feelings people.
Are the prices fair? They do NOT have to be the lowest, especially if it is near your home as I consider that a convenience tax I am usually ok with paying. For me, as a general rule, anything consistently greater than 20% at other regional stores is not a good deal. A lot goes into pricing strategies, but all you need to know is who generally gives you the best deal and the best service. Have a price in mind and stick to it. Javier seems to agree “Don’t be shy about mentioning the price point you are comfortable with. Even if it’s an inexpensive wine you seek, the best shops will enthusiastically find something interesting for you at any price level. The wine world is full of great values!” We are truly living out a great wine Renaissance, nary is the existence of a displeasing quaff of wine.
Researching pricing is easy on Wine-Searcher.com where you can see a list of the prices for most shops that sell a specific wine in the state you reside (or nationally). Better still they have an App that is available on the iPhone and Droid which offers additional mobile ability to search using a wine via a regular keyword search or via the label with the phone’s camera. While wine-searcher is a good tool, it is not the end all be all when it comes to price. Haggling over a few bucks over a wine with your local retailer won’t win you VIP treatment. Also, if the price is really low it is best to do your due diligence, sometime’s if it is too good to be true, it really is.
3) Selection and “Drinking Outside the Box”
Try to avoid specialty shops unless it is for a specific desire. They tend to be small and more expensive (though most are positively managed by passionate owners). These are fine for specific wine needs but if you want to learn more about what wines you like and those that you do not like you may be limiting yourself. Variety is critical to helping you discover your palate’s likes and dislikes. It does not have to be a huge store, but it should have a good representation of styles and regions from most of the important wine growing regions in the world. There are thousands of wines out there, but there are a few types of wines these days that are hints, in my opinion, to whether or not a wine shop is run by an open minded sales team. There are a few key wine types a good shop should stock that you should look for. If they have one or more of these you should be in good hands: Northern Rhone reds, dry Riesling, Chenin Blanc from the Loire, Cru Beaujolais, Barolo, and grower Champagne. Everyone nowadays sells Napa Cabernet, Sonoma Chardonnay, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Malbec, Chianti, etc. They are all great wines and ones that I drink frequently, but they are available just about anywhere. Tasting “outside the box” is what really allows you to expand your palate and detect differences and similarities in precision, nuance, typicity, and balance in a wine. Once you are able to do this, the huge world of wine seems to be a much smaller place. Javier sums it up nicely with “People who work with wines often sell well known brands, so they will relish the opportunity to share their passion about off the beaten path wines.”
4) Storage and Treatment
If wine is not treated well in shipment, storage and display in a wine shop, the people that lose are the consumer and the producer as you will likely buy a product that is inferior to when it left the cellar doors of the producer. You get a shabby or worst case spoiled wine and the producer gains a bad reputation borne unto it not by its own doing. It’s hard to guarantee wine that arrives at the store is in good shape, but knowing a few key things can help:
– Talking to your salesperson: Ask them how they receive the wines in really warm months, cold is not as much an issue so long as its not freezing. Ask them how the importers and distributors handle the wine in shipment. Temperature controlled shipping containers are standard for any good importer of wine.
– Knowing a wine intimately – When a family member or close friend seems a little off, you can tell without them saying a word because you are familiar with them and their general demeanor. The same is true with a wine you are familiar with, you can tell when there is something off or faulty with the wine.
– Same wine – different store: Is there variability in the condition of the bottles you drink (above point)? Buy the same wine from another wine shop and see what the result is.
By keeping these key points in mind you can confidently pick a wine merchant that will work with you to achieve your goals be they to try one new grape per month, Cabernet made in every corner of the world or just plain old ultimate wine-geekdom.