How in the world do you navigate a wine store? After I took viewers on a tour of a store in a TODAY show segment last month, a number of viewers and readers asked if I could write something on the subject. So what follows is a short guide based on my experiences in a number of wine stores.
Most stores group their wines by country, and within the countries by region. So from France you’ll find separate sections for the Burgundies, the Bordeaux, the Beaujolais, the Rhone wines, those from the Loire Valley and so on. Within those clusters the reds and whites will be grouped separately. Often the wines will go from the less expensive bottles to more expensive, or vice versa.
Two wine stores in New York, which shall remain nameless, offer very different views of the world. In one, a passion by the owners for small-production French, Italian and German wines is reflected by the fact that these wines are more prominently displayed, while California wines are off to the far side.
In the other, a wall of California wines is closest to the door, which suggests, to me at least, that these guys want to sell you a bottle of wine and that California, with its easy-to-read labels, may represent the path of least resistance (there are also many excellent California wines, of course). Nearby are New Zealand, Australian, South African and Chilean wines, also with labels in English.
Further back are France and Italy. Is it because the labels are harder to read? Germany? Tucked away on a single shelf or so, seemingly banished. So how do you sift through it all if you don’t know exactly what you want? Well, if you’re open to discovering and trying new wines — and for me that’s the essence and the fun of wine drinking — you’ll find that your best friend in a wine store is a knowledgeable salesperson. Find a store where you feel comfortable with the help. I prefer low-key, patient salespeople to those who aggressively try to sell me a bottle. “Dude, this is killer wine” doesn’t tell me much and turns me off.
Come into it with a sense of what you want. What foods are you serving? Do you like lighter wines (red or white) or heavier wines? Wines from France and Italy, for example, are often a bit lighter — and less alcoholic — than many wines from California or Australia. Try new things. If you usually drink California cabernets, how about a syrah from California or one from France’s Rhone Valley? Instead of chardonnay, why not try a viognier? Give riesling another try. They can be dry and crisp as well as sweet.
Some wine stores are doing it differently. There’s one here in New York, for example, that displays all the whites on the first floor and all the reds on the second. Still others divide their wines under such headings as mellow, bold, rich, sweet and crisp, regardless of where they come from. I was in one store the other day that probably had no more than 50 or 60 wines lined up against the walls this way, each with a description of where it was from and how it tasted.
Providing such descriptions and displaying them is almost impossible in a large, traditional wine store that has many hundreds, if not thousands, of bottles. For that setting I’m reminded that in wine, as in much of life, there’s no such thing as a stupid question.
And what about those boxes you sometimes see at the front of the store with seemingly bargain prices? In some cases it’s wine that’s not selling for whatever reason; it can also be great wine at a great price. In wine, after all, it’s sometimes hit or miss.