When presented with the myriad choices available in even the most average wine shop, a lot of buyers freeze up. Malbecs attract the eye, but what about Bordeaux? Should I worry about vintages? Does this Alsatian Riesling go with my turkey meatballs?
Purchasing wine is something we frequently do on the fly. And that leads to a lot of lame bottles being presented to party hosts and left unfinished at the end of the night.
So I went up to Manhattan’s Sherry-Lehmann, one of the country’s very best wine stores, to talk to Chris Adams, a partner in the business who’s also an old friend of mine. Here are six tips we came up with for smarter shopping:
1) Plan ahead. You’re probably online all day (if you have enough leisure time to read this column, that is), so why not find the best wine shop near you for starters — not necessarily the place you pass on your way home from work. Then do some research — see if you can find out about their specialties, strengths, current sales, and overall vibe before you show up in person. You’d be surprised what a quick Google of the name of your neighborhood and the words “wine shop” can do.
2) Open your mouth and talk. In the same way that some men won’t ask for directions, many folks won’t talk to the proprietor or the floor workers in a wine shop, no matter how confused they are. But that’s what they’re there for. Tell them what you want (if you know), what the occasion is, what food, if any, the wine will be served with, and what you’ve liked before — and don’t be afraid to give a price limit.
3) Find a taste buddy. You’ve found the right store and talked to someone named Jane, let’s say. So, take Jane’s recommendation and go home with a bottle. If you like it, there’s a good chance your palate and Jane’s are similar. Go back to the same person every time and you may have a good thing going. If Jane didn’t connect for you, try Joe.
4) Shop the sales. This might seem ridiculously obvious, but in many categories, sales are something to be wary of — deeply discounted TVs or slabs of cheddar cheese might not always be a good call, for example. But reputable places like Sherry-Lehmann will often buy a large amount of good wine from one producer so that they can offer it at discount. Then, when they get down to the last few bottles of a certain vintage, they’ll frequently slash the price so that they can move it out the door. In the past, I’ve snared premier cru Burgundy by top makers at Sherry this way, at surprisingly good prices. These last stragglers are often called “bin ends” — a phrase that makes me salivate.
5) Make them work. Wine selling is a service business, so ask retailers to do things for you. Chris has quite a few clients who’ll call him up and say, “Make me a mixed case of 12 wines, all different, and none over $15.” This is a bigger pain for him than just selling a case of a one wine, obviously, but he does it gladly. A mixed case is a brilliant and efficient way to try a lot of different wines.
6) Push your price level. I’m going to ask you to do a bit of math here: Take your current price limit and add seven dollars to it. My theory (based on a patented combination of quantum mechanics, calculus, and major guesstimation) is that, under $50 or so, every $7 you add to your allowable cost opens up a whole new quality level of wine. This doesn’t mean that more expensive wine is automatically better; it just means that you can consider a wider range of wines, including some that cost a little bit more to make.
Ted Loos, executive editor of Art+Auction magazine, is the former features editor of Wine Spectator and has written on wine for Bon Appétit, Town & Country, and many other publications. He's the author of Town & Country Wine Companion: A Tasting Guide and Journal (Hearst Books; $12.95), published in fall 2007. "In the Cellar" appears on ARTINFO every other Wednesday.