Buying wine can be an interesting and endlessly adventurous journey of discovery. However, unlike other consumables, which generally have a predictable level of consistency year after year, wine vintages can be noticeably different in varying degrees from subtle to conspicuous.
Such annual differences could have any of myriad reasons including diverse weather conditions, changes in winemaker or winemaking style, or grapes from a different supplier. Newcomers needn’t be intimidated, however, and the following tips should help facilitate wine-buying forays.
Plan ahead: Read about wines--unplanned or spur-of-the-moment purchases are often disappointing, not to mention costly. Put your name on several wine shop mailing lists or internet sites that offer newsletters and updates on current releases, award-winning wines, and what’s new in the wine world in general. Compare several different stores/sites for the best prices.
Where to shop: Whereas specialty wine shops were once the only place to find a large selection of wines, today wine is available everywhere from discount chain stores to supermarkets. But remember that light, heat, and erratic temperature fluctuations are wine’s enemies so note the store’s environment. It should be fairly cool, and the wine should be stored well away from heat outlets or the glare of bright, intense light, such as a sun-drenched window. You want a retailer with rapid turnover, which isn’t always the case in supermarkets or drug stores. Ideally, the wine should be stored horizontally so the cork doesn’t dry out, but this may not be an issue in a store whose inventory moves briskly.
The store’s staff: Shopping for wine will be a lot easier if you choose a merchant with a well-informed staff. They should be able to advise you on everything (especially what’s new and interesting), suggest a special vintage, and recommend a wine to go with a particular dish. You’ll generally get more personalized and informed service at a wine shop than you will at a store where wine isn’t the focus. And you’ll get to know the salespeople better if you limit most of your shopping to two to three merchants. Many retailers will keep an eye out for wines they know their customers are looking for and let them know when it comes in.
Learn a store’s system: Familiarizing yourself with the way a merchant organizes the wines will give you a head start the next time you need to make a last-minute purchase. For American wines, most stores arrange their wines by grape variety (Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Zinfandel, etc.); foreign wines are typically shelved by country of origin (France, Italy, Spain, etc.). There are also often sections for discounted wines, odd lots, special promotions, and the like.
Know what you want: A little advance thought will make life easier, particularly for beginning wine shoppers. Is the wine for a party or a meal? If the wine’s to accompany food, what will be served? What are your personal preferences? How much do you want to spend? A little forethought will help the store’s staff direct you to exactly what you want.
Try before you buy: Trust your personal taste--it should always be the final word. You’re potentially setting yourself up for trouble (not to mention wasted money) if you buy a case of wine simply because a co-worker, friend, or wine writer likes it. You might think it’s dreck. Many wine stores have tasting bars that let you sample selected wines. If that isn’t possible, buy a single bottle and try it at home before buying several bottles or a case.
Making that purchase: Inspect the wine you buy to make sure that the bottle’s fill level isn’t lower than other bottles--it should be up to the neck. Also check to be sure the wine doesn’t show any sign of leakage. Both are a warning that air (one of wine’s worst enemies) is getting into the bottle. Buying wine in case lots generally saves you money because many wine stores offer discounts of 10 percent or more on case purchases. But only buy in case lots if you know you like the wine.
© Copyright Barron's Educational Services, Inc.
1995 based on THE WINE LOVER'S COMPANION,
by Ron Herbst and Sharon Tyler Herbst.
where to shop,
try before you buy,