Be a better wine shopper

Having a better wine shopping experience • Part 1:  Suggestions for consumers

Unless you frequent wine shops a lot, they can be a little intimidating. I relate this to my misguided and almost terrifying car line experiences at the local grade school. Just let me get in and out without anyone becoming aware that I have no clue what I’m doing. This point can be further amplified depending on your level of experience with wine labels, regions and styles. A true novice or neophyte can really feel overwhelmed; the complete antithesis of how they should feel. I really think this is one (of many) reasons people are put off with the whole wine mileu, or at least the shopping for it. 

The breakdown, however, is jointly shared on both sides of the counter. There are helpful and toxic wine stores as well as easy and difficult customers. The terms “easy” and “difficult” in no way judges personality or rudeness but rather runs in the same lane as having an athlete being “coachable”. If you are going to show up for the “game”, be even remotely prepared and help the person waiting on you…help them, help you. So, what can you, as a consumer possibly do to prepare for this anxiety-stirring visit? I’m not asking you to read a bunch of wine books or memorize facts from different wine regions, just a few simple things to make your experience more successful, pleasant and cost-effective.

First, and foremost, don’t avoid the staff in the wine store. They are there to help you. You are not a teenager buying condoms or tampons, you can actually make eye contact and have a conversation. So put your phone down and embrace that interaction. Many times, customers avoid this conversation with the staff because they have no idea what to say to the unavoidable frightening question, “Can I help you find anything?” Don’t think too much about it. The answer is, “yes. Yes you can.”

In the past you would have steered away from this engagement but now you have prepared so you are ready. No, you didn’t miss anything. I’m going to coach you up so you can have a fulfilling conversation with the end goal being you getting the wine you want. Also, learning a little wine lingo can go a long way. An educated consumer is a good consumer, for both sides. You are obviously an intelligent consumer because you improve yourself by reading these content pieces, so good for you.

Before crossing the threshold of the store, have some idea of what you may want. It doesn’t need to be an exact producer, variety or style but help the staff person with any direction. A good place to start is by using that phone you carry everywhere for something other than those brain-sucking games and take pictures of wine labels. I am convinced that this was the true intention when camera phones were invented. I keep a folder of wines I enjoyed and a folder of wines I didn’t. Telling your local wine guy what you don’t like can often times be even more helpful in guiding your future selections.

You should also mention if you plan on having the wines with certain foods. Sometimes this predicated the entire trip to the wine store. The whole wine and food experience is another topic but suffice it to say, it makes a difference in your selection. Lead with that information, “I’m having scallops for dinner tonight with some friends and am looking for a few wines to go with it.” That statement will get you where you need to be and give good direction to the person helping you. 

Have an idea of how much you want to spend (preferably a range) and don’t be embarrassed by it. If you want a wine for the evening to go with those scallops but you just filled your gas tank (2022 prices), be honest with the person helping you. Just tell them your price range you are comfortable with, but not then entire story of excuses of why you are reluctant to spend more. Don’t make them feel like Dr. Rick on the Progressive Insurance commercials…becoming your parents.

Be open to new things and suggestions by the staff assisting you. Remember the idea of being coachable; this is where it fits in. If the wine shop has good staff, they will want to find wines you like so you will continue to be a future customer. Allow them to do their job and suggest some things that may be outside your comfort zone. I often add a bottle on to my order because my local guy recommends it. The wine may be outside what I normally try, but sometimes that leads to discovery. I’ll be drinking the heck out of a rosé of Sangiovese from New Mexico all summer long. Many would turn their noses up at such a thing because we are drowning daily in overmarketing. You can find amazing things that aren’t mentioned in that wine magazine; many small producers cannot afford to buy that high rating. 

For God’s sake, don’t ask if the wine is good. I’ve heard this so many times and, although it used to make me grimace, it now makes me chuckle. I’m waiting for a wine shop owner to respond with, “Nope, I’m just trying to sell all the bad wines before the good ones.” (or something like that). Wine is not really “good” or “bad” but I believe that all wines desire to be good, like Danny Noonan in Caddyshack, but alas, sometimes they do not fit your flavor profile. What one person thinks is the best wine ever, another will spit out into the sink. Everyone has a different palate, thresholds of perception and preferences that are determined by genetics and life experiences. So don’t worry what anyone else is drinking, but rather find your own path of preferences and drink the heck out of them.