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Jun 29, 2006 05:28 PM

Talking about wine in wine stores

I'm always on the lookout for something new to try and every time I go into a wine store I am confronted with a bevy of choices. The challenge is trying to get a recommendation that I can trust. Often the folks working in the store don't really know much about the product they're selling. Other times the person is knowledgeable but has very different tastes from me. The challenge is to explain what you are in the mood for in a way that translates well enough to get the kind of recommendation you're looking for. Any thoughts? How do you handle this challenge?

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  1. One way is to tell them a wine that you like, and ask if there is something similar.

    My favorite wine stores are characterized by the following:

    1. the salespeople have tasted everything in the store (or almost everything).

    2. There are descriptions of the wine (or most of them) so you can get an idea of what's in the bottle without having to ask. Naturally, these have to be informative descriptions, not the marketing crap the vintner or distributor puts out.

    3. Salespeople who treat the customer with respect -- that is, they don't assume you are an idiot right off the bat, they don't assume you need help, they don't make assumptions about how much you want to spend, and they don't try to sell you everything in the store. The best salespeople come across, to me at least, as good advisors, not used car salesmen.

    4. The best wine stores I've been to all have regular tastings. Many have tastings that are essentially a distributor coming in to pour tastes of his/her wine. That's better than nothing. But the better stores have "in house" tastings hosted by the staff and meant to showcase a particular theme (Pinots, wines under $10, wines for Thanksgiving, etc...).

    1. Good question.

      Part of the solution is to frequent stores that stock wines you like and to identify salespeople who share -- or at least understand -- your preferences. And when faced with someone new, you can ask leading questions. Personally (and YMMV), if my interlocutor starts enthusing about blockbusters, gobs of anything, 90+ WS points, 200% oak, high alcohol levels or any number of other code words or if his eyes glaze over when I bring up the Jura, I give his reccos wide berth. On the other hand, if he gets that far-away look when the topic is Chinon or Mosel, if he uses light-bodied and acidic as positive descriptors, if he displays an awareness of food-pairing issues, if he qualifies his Shiraz recco with an "it's not my style but many people love it," if he never mentions Parker, I'll be more inclined to listen.

      It's also always a good idea to be specific about wines and styles you like. Armed with that knowledge a good staffer can provide you with a worthwhile recco even if it's not something he personally enjoys.

      1. Finding a wine shop is the same as finding wines you like, it's a never-ending process. I have found the answer on finding wine: drink a lot of them. As you noted, there is a never-ending supply of new wines to try and it's the same for new places to try to locate them. After you form an opinion on a new wine, Google it to see what others think. Information from all sources is interesting and useful, but it seems one doesn't outweigh the others.