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Feb 13, 2008 08:31 AM

Lost in the Wineshop: is this common?

I just read Matt Kramer's editorial in the latest Wine Specatator:

in this article, he describes his experience shopping in a wine store without his usual internet access and his guidebooks, and comments on how lost he felt despite his prodigious experience as a wine writer. He comments that there is very little information on bottles to indicate the style of wine. He also notes that there are just too many wines to taste, and that it is impossible to be familiar with a majority of the bottles on the market.

As a wine neophyte, I found his article to be oddly reassuring. I have a huge interest in wines, and amongst my close friends, i am considered to be the wine expert (how sadly mistaken they are! I often wish I could fulfill their heightened expectations of my wine choosing skills!) I am often confronted by a large wine list in restaurants, and I often feel that despite all my efforts to educate my palate, my choices will come down to a glorified guess. That, or I'll have to choose a bottle that I already know well, and then I feel like I am missing out on an opportunity to try something new and exciting. If I am lucky, I'll have had a chance to review the wine list before going to the restaurant, or the sommelier in the restaurant will be an absolute gem (like the sommelier I encountered at our last meal at Per Se. She was appropriate, informed, enthusiastic, and made the meal a glorious food-wine synergy event! If only that could be repeated at every restaurant meal!


I have a similar experience in the wine shop, and love it when I encounter a member of the staff who can help guide my choices. However, I am more willing to take chances on educated guesses than Matt Kramer. If I come up with a stinker, well hey, that is just an expensive part of the education process!

Anyhow, I would be very interested in hearing the perspective of our local wine board experts. Any tips on how to make the most of educated guesses without the help of sommeliers and informed staff? And is Matt Kramer's experience typical, or is it possible to feel completely confident without internet and guidebook backup?

To the Chowhound editors: please please please leave this on the Wine Board!! I know you want to put it in Food Media, but I really would like the opinions of the Wine Oracles on the wine board.... and not all of them seem to travel to the Food Media board. This really is a wine topic....

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  1. Well, first of all, you realize (I hope) that Matt Kramer is full of $#!+ when he says that HE was lost "shopping in a wine store without his usual internet access and his guidebooks, and . . . despite his prodigious experience as a wine writer." I mean, let's face it -- he is more "current" in his wine knowledge than I, given that I left the trade some five years ago, and I NEVER take guidebooks or bring internet access with me to buy wines . . . sheesh! BUT his point is a valid one, even if it doesn't apply to himself directly.

    Society and the culture has changed since the days of the 19th century London wine merchant; so, too, has it changed from the "pre-Parker/pre-Spectator" days of the 1970s. Today there are (seemingly) countless guides, websites, blogs, etc. to steer you this way and that. But this isn't just about wine. Who today goes car shopping without checking Consumer Reports, the insurance industry's crash test ratings, and various online reviews? Who buys a washing machine or a flat panel HD TV without researching the decision on six or seven (12?) different sites and taking months to make a decision? Etc., etc., etc.

    "Too many wines"? Yes, well, Henry Ford tried that -- you could get a Model T in any color you wanted, as long as it was BLACK! ;^)

    The problem today is that Costco, Cost Plus, Wal-Mart (Sam's Club), Safeway, BevMo, as well as other "bog box" retailers and supermarket chains are major wine retailers today. And NO ONE IS THERE who can help the average customer with their selections. Thus, one sort of needs the guidebooks, the internet access, and all the other bull$#!+ to assist them . . . .

    But there is another way -- a much better way.

    As I have often said on these pages (and elsewhere), and as I have always told my students, "talk to a wine merchant." Every medium- and large city has reputable, knowledgable wine merchants whose job it is to assist customers in finding just the right wine(s) for the special occassion, for the dinner party, for everyday drinking. We are not talking expensive wines here -- some wine merchants specialize in carrying wines under $20, for example.

    Yes, there are a lot of wines out there. But they have the opportunity to taste a lot of them, and carry the wines they consider worthy of staking their reputation on, wines they like and feel their (potential) customers will like, too.

    Some retailers may specialize in Burgundy, or in Italian wines, or Spanish & Portuguese wines, or California wines, etc., etc., etc. Other retailers will carry "everything," but -- obviously -- within their limited shelf space/display area. But any wine merchant worth the name will have tasted what is in his or her store. Perhaps the entire staff who works there may not have tasted each and every wine, but a good merchant will make sure that the staff indeed tastes many if not most (or all) of the selections in inventory. Even high-volume internet retailers such as K&L, Wine Exchange, Wine Club, and others have telephone numbers you can call to talk with a real live human being (gasp! what a concept!) and as questions about this or that wine before making a purchase.

    OK, some sarcasm is creeping into my post, and I apologize for that. But the point remains that people have come to see wine merchants/retailers in a bad light over the past 25 years, when in fact it is precisely these people (and sommeliers within a restaurant environment) that can help consumers the most! It is they who can and will take the time to listen to a consumer's likes-and-dislikes, budgetary constraints, etc., and make recommendations based upon the information they are given.

    Keep in mind that it is never the one-time sale that pays the rent, let alone makes the yearly profits. It's the repeat customer. Yes, it's true, anybody can steer you wrong and recommend a wine they know to be pure crap . . . once. But then you won't be a repeat customer, will you? And then the store won't be in business for very long.

    There are lots of tried-and-true ways to purchase wine reliably, consistently, and enjoyably. And I'm happy to share them, but this post has probably gone on long enough . . .


    1 Reply
    1. re: zin1953

      I know it may not be the best approach in this day of unending computer research, but when it comes down to wine, I try stores based on the wine merchant. I ask for something I am already familiar with, give him enough guidelines to where he should be able to recommend something I'll like and test the bottle. The truth is with wine, no matter the ratings no matter the research, the only truth is on the palate. Once you have educated yourself, you should be able to guide the merchant to your likes. Jason could not be more right about that (unless you have deep deep pockets or wish to go mad). See who recommends what, see if your taste buds gel and give them a try. And figure out what their lean is towards. Someone leaning more towards Italian wines may have some trouble recommending California wines unless you explain to them Please more fruit!

    2. As zin noted, I don't do much wine shopping without at least a little research.

      But if I were taking a shot in the dark buying a bottle on a whim with a wine store I wasn't familiar with, I'd:

      1. check the ABV%. If you have familiarity with the region and the varietal of the wine in question, you should have at least some idea of how it might taste. I've regretted many purchases that, in retrospect, I would not have made if I had seen the ABV%. I've also gotten lucky with one of my favorites, the Penfolds Bin 707. Usually at around 13.5%, I saw it as a strange Aussie curiosity where most reds go for around 15%. It's become probably my favorite cabernet.

      2. check the importer. There are a lot of others here who can do a better job than I of listing their favorites. FWIW, I trust Kermit Lynch, Robert Chadderon, Louis/Dressner, Michael Skurnik. I do not always love the wines, but I know chances are better than good that I'm getting a wine with distinctiveness and personality.

      7 Replies
      1. re: mengathon

        Don't forget though, the ABV% is only an estimate- it can be as much as 1.5% higher or lower. (usually lower than what's in the bottle b/c the producer will save on taxes) This can work as a good indicator, but probably not foolproof.

        1. re: pierrot

          You're partially correct.

          For wines with a "real" alcohol by volume of 14.00% or less, the number which appears on a wine label can be ±1.5 percent BUT with a "hard ceiling" of 14.0%. Thus, if a wine is labeled "12.5% abv," the wine can in reality contain a "real" alcohol content of anything from 11.0-14.0 percent. If, however, the label reads "13.5% abv," the "real" alcohol content must be between 12.0-14.0%.

          For wines with a "real" alcohol level of 14.01% abv or higher, the "fudge factor" is ±1.0 percent, with a hard floor of 14%. Thus a wine labeled "15.5% abv" must have a "real" alcohol level of anywhere between 14.5-16.5%. A wine which is labeled "14.6% abv" must have a "real" alcohol level of anywhere between 14.0-15.6%.

          That said, you're absolutely correct, this CAN work as an indicator, but is hardly foolproof! ;^)


        2. re: mengathon

          re: #1

          The problem with this approach is that I -- and you, too; I'm sure -- have had wines the label of which lists a percentage of alcohol by volume (abv) of 12-13% that seemed hot and overly alcoholic, while some bottles labeled as 15-16% were smooth, supple and showed no signs whatsoever of being high in alcohol. Of course the reverse is also true. It's not really about the alcohol, but rather about the balance of a wine. Round numbers for the sake of this discussion, I think this approach will work somewhere between 50-60% of the time, maybe as high as 60-65% of the the time, but no higher. Thus, while knowledge of the alcohol level can be informative, it is by no means determinative.

          re: #2

          This is, for me, a much more reliable indicator of possible enjoyment. Certain small importers (Kermit being the "grand-daddy" of them all) have strong portfolios that one can rely one. I would substitute Chadderon personally (but that's strictly personal) for, say, Kysela Pere et Fils, and add several more (e.g.: North Berkeley, Beaune Imports, Bartholomew Broadbent, Jorge Ordonez, et. al.). It actually ends up being a rather long list -- this importer for THESE wines, but maybe not those; that import for those, but not these; etc., etc.; this depends upon the specific importer and their portfolio.

          Just my 2¢, and worth far less.


          1. re: zin1953

            Both your and pierrot's points are well taken.

            re: #1... thanks for the clarification regarding the ABV% rules. Your estimates 50%-60% are quite reasonable and in line with my personal experiences with unknown wines.

            For arguments sake...As an educated guess made without a helpful staff or knowledge of the specific winemaker (e.g., of a California Cabernet or an Aussie Chardonnay, two wines off the top of my head that can vary greatly in style and specifically ABV% across the board), 50-60% isn't half bad (pun intended). Now armed with the knowledge of a hard floor/ceiling of 14%, suppose I know my preferences (which is actually half the battle in selecting a wine), hypothetically, of super ripe, and lusciously round California cabernet, yet a steely, non-oaked chardonnay, I could drastically cut down my chances of running into an austere, Bordeaux-like red and a butterbomb white by eliminating those wines with ABV% that don't characteristically fit into that profile. Of course, there are bound to be numerous exceptions. But better than a vintage chart I'd say! =)

            re: #2. Bad typo. It should say Robert Chadderdon. And again, thanks for that partial list. I'll have to start seeing what I can find in NYC. Attempting to go through Chadderdon's portfolio gets a little expensive...

            1. re: zin1953

              Actually, I kind of like the typo -- I was going to say "Chadderton" -- with a "T," but that looked wrong, and so . . .

              Somewhere these is a thread of importers. I'll see if I can find it . . .

              1. re: zin1953

                Re importers: I add Martine's and Robert Kacher to those mentioned.

          2. A good wine store (and there are many out there) has owner/employees who learn about the wines they carry, and know their stock. They also take time to cultivate relationships with their customers who return and interact with them, so they are able to clue you in when something new comes in they think you'll like, and so they'll be able to respond positively when you ask for something specific.

            You should rarely be without informed staff in a good store. As for educated guesses... I tend to look for producers I know. Sure, everyone makes a dud now and then, but for me producers are more reliable than vintages. A good winemaker is going to pretty much always make good wines. If it's a great year, so much the better.

            1. "Any tips on how to make the most of educated guesses without the help of sommeliers and informed staff?"

              Tough question, because as you know even with our beloved monopoly, cultivating relationships with informed staff is still the best way to go -- even though sooner or later you will have to start cultivating anew, as your favourite advisor will almost inevitably get transferred to another store. I can't put enough stress on the "cultivating" part: you can get good advice from almost any advisor (as SAQ training seems to be pretty good on the whole), but the very best guidance comes from those who've had time to learn about your tastes and whose own tastes you've come to trust.

              Apart from that... taste, taste, taste. Not just with your tasting group, but at periodic events like the Salon des Vins (starts on March 27 this year -- it's essential either to wangle a trade invitation or to be there the moment the doors open to the public; any later and it's largely a drunken zoo), occasional country showcases, importers' events, and of course in-store if and when the opportunity arises.

              17 Replies
              1. re: Mr F

                Ah, thanks for the reminder about the Salon des Vins! I'll probably have to be a part of the drunken zoo, but you are right, it is a great opportunity to try a lot of the products offered by "our beloved monopoly"

                1. re: moh

                  Assuming the format hasn't changed, it's better than that: you get the chance to try all kinds of things not stocked by the monopoly, and you can buy single bottles of those wines if you wish. I'm sure it's still worthwhile if you can't make it early; just a bit more of a struggle to find the best stuff...

                  The last time I went to a "zoo" event, there was another unanticipated problem: as the crowd thickened, it became harder to elbow my way to a spit bucket -- the more people there are, the more likely you'll find yourself swallowing samples you don't want to swallow.

                  And another bit of strategy for making educated guesses, at least at the SAQ: when shopping the regular (not specialty) section, I tend to avoid the higher shelves, as they're often overloaded with products for which distributors have paid a premium for shelf placement. Lower shelves seem to have a disproportionate share of decent juice from smallish independent producers, vs. big-name industrial plonk higher up. It's not a foolproof strategy, but it does seem to help.

                  1. re: Mr F

                    Cool tips Mr. F! I didn't know distributors could pay to have their products put on a higher shelf! I'll start bending a lot more in the SAQ...

                    Re: Zoo - I am guilty of being a swallower, not a spitter, especially if it is a good wine... But I certainly recall tasting wines that weren't worth drinking, so your point about big crowds is well taken.

                    1. re: moh

                      For others reading this, you should know that paying for shelf placement -- called "slotting allowances" is ILLEGAL in the United States when it comes to alcoholic beverages. So, to, is "cooperative advertising," whereby the manufacturer or distributor pays part or all of the cost of advertising.

                      Both these policies ARE permitted for a wide range of other, non-alcoholic products -- from soft drinks and breakfast cereal, to snack foods and paper towels . . .

                      Indeed the only way, for example, that Liquor Barn could compete with supermarkets on the retail price of Coca-Cola® -- for example -- was with their co-op advertising allowances: it allowed us to sell the product BELOW COST, and still make a profit!


                      1. re: zin1953

                        Fascinating. So a liquor store receives no compensation from all the posters and cardboard displays blocking the aisles?

                        Very interesting.

                        1. re: tom porc

                          Not in the US . . .

                          That said, there IS "compensation," of sorts.

                          You may, for instance, be invited to go to the luxury box suite to see the game . . . but, of course, it's just coincidence that you put up that 250 case end-display of Miller Lite. (After all, you may have gotten the invitation anyway. Yeah, right!) You may get a better price, because you bought 56 cases of Kendall-Jackson instead of 10 -- AND you get employee(s) of the wholesale company to come into your store and build the end display, meaning you don't have to pay your employees to do that; they can be doing something else, like helping customers.

                          In small mom-and-pop liquor stores (rather than high-end wine shops), sales reps from the distributor will come into the store, put up the (e.g.) "Sutter Home White Zin for Valentine's Day" or "Kahlua 'n Cream on the rocks" back card on the 5-case stack to help move the wine/liquor on its own, because -- heaven forbid -- the person behind the counter may actually have to make a recommendation . . .

                          And so on and so on and so on.


                          1. re: zin1953

                            Those laws tend to keep the playing field somewhat more level for independent merchants than it would be without them. Those two things are among the only legal benefits the little guy gets in the system. Otherwise the system is so much based on volume that the small retailer must find a niche among products that have limited distribution. That leads to greater expertise. customer service and hand-selling in the smaller shop. Not a totally bad place to be (carrying small-production things the big guys can't get, and providing better customer service ), but it's a tricky situation sometimes.

                              1. re: zin1953

                                Though, I think the laws differ from state to state- In Michigan any kind of free good is seen as bribery- while in Illinois it's pretty much a free for all (case deals and free goods abound)

                                1. re: pierrot

                                  Case deals and extra bottles are all part of volume discounting and do exist in California too. The few places they don't exist are, I find, in states where the State controls sales directly through their own outlets.

                                  1. re: pierrot

                                    Free goods are illegal. Case discounts based upon volume purchases (e.g.: 5% off on 5 cases, 1-%/10 cs., 15%/25 cs.) are quite common, as are special pricing for restaurants to pour by-the-glass, and temporary "post-offs" (price reductions for one month or two).


                                    1. re: zin1953

                                      Are we referring to the same type of deals? such as a buy a case, get a magnum? Recently I saw one company trying to meet it's target number, offer buy 10 cases get 20 free. I know there are lots of "off the book" deals, but these are in formal writing.

                                      1. re: pierrot

                                        Yes. I see mostly multi-case deals but there are also 13th bottle, buy a case & get a magnum deals and (unfortunately) buy this and we'll get you an allocation of that.

                                        1. re: Midlife

                                          >>> such as a buy a case, get a magnum <<<

                                          Tie-ins are a) illegal in California, and b) EVERYBODY does it.

                                        2. re: pierrot

                                          >>> such as a buy a case, get a magnum <<<

                                          It's illegal in California.

                                  2. re: Midlife

                                    Small retailers dont join some sort of cooperative to receive bulk discounts?

                                    1. re: tom porc

                                      There are such things referred to as "pool buys" -- these became semi-big things in the 1980s here in California when everyone was afraid Liquor Barn was going to drive the "mom-and-pop's" out of business. There are not that frequent today, however. They aren't that necessary.

                    2. I did find this once upon a time several years ago looking at something unrelated. "General rules" for buying cheap wine you know nothing about. I cannot say I agree a whole lot with them, as there are many exceptions to these rules (I've had many good wines, especially food wines that had alcohol contents below 13%). Anyhow, hopefully it will help you somewhat. Just remember, especially with wine, there are very few real rules:


                      7 Replies
                      1. re: Icantread

                        Thanks for the link! I see what you are saying about "many exceptions to these rules". But there are some very useful points to remember, and it was also fun as a mental exercise to think about the exceptions to the rules.

                        1. re: moh

                          Exactly, and if you have some knowledge, you can make pretty good decisions left with nothing else. It was, for me, an interesting way to think about the wine. Used blindly (ie I was below "wine neophyte") I did buy some disappointing bottles. The thing is, I still remember the principles when I shop, so it must have been good for something!

                        2. re: Icantread

                          well, I stopped reading at "Rule #1".

                          Rule # 1: Look for alcohol
                          The lower alcohol wines will be limp and uninteresting by comparison.

                          1. re: Maximilien

                            Fair point Maximilien, certainly this list has its flaws. But it is an interesting discussion starter! Overall I thought the list gave some nice pointers for those consumers that don't have the experience of some of the regular posters on boards like these. For newbies like me, it is helpful to have lists like these to organize my thinking about wines. You have to know the basic rules before you can start breaking them! And if you haven't had a tonne of exposure to many different wine producers, this can help you to at least make a stab at what might be a wine that suits your taste. But I definitely agree that for Rule #1, I'll look at the alcohol level but ignore the bit about the lower alcohol wines. But avoiding excessively high alcohol wines is not a bad guideline to consider.

                            1. re: moh

                              It's interesting, I avoided higher-alcohol wines for quite some time because of that, partially because I had only had poor ones in the past and you could taste the alcohol. Recently, however, I've had some great great zins and zin blends where the alcohol was very well integrated and the alcohol content was rather high. The 2005 Prisoner was an example of this and I really enjoyed it. So was Marietta (sp?) which went phenomenal with cheese. Same for a Zin by Hendry and several others I don't remember right now. That being said, I like the blends I've had lately better than full on Zins, as far as structure and integration of the alcohol. These were also bottles in the $30 price range. So while I don't find anything wrong with the lower alcohol content, especially wines from Germany and Eastern Europe (St. Laurents and Rieslings), you can also get lucky with higher content as well. But if you're a beginner, on a budget, or just plain don't know what you're looking at and have no one to guide you, it is true that a high alcohol wine might be a product of mass-manufacturing and low alcohol of inferior product.

                            2. re: Maximilien

                              One hopes you have your tongue firmly in your cheek when you say that . . .

                              1. re: zin1953

                                Best Riesling I ever had was 7.5%... which was nice, because our tastebuds needed a break after tasting 15% zin all day.