If you care about wine and want to drink better and more confidently, the best thing you can do is cultivate a close relationship with a good wine shop. I have been making this case for years without ever addressing the obvious question: How do you know if a wine shop is good?
The answer seems equally obvious: Good wine shops offer a great assortment of distinctive bottles. But that doesn’t help if examining a selection of wines is baffling rather than revealing.
You can tell a lot about a shop simply by walking through the door, even if you don’t know much about wine. For example, what’s the temperature?
Are bottles bathed in sunlight? Not good. Light can damage wine. Covered in dust? Also not good as it indicates a lax, possibly negligent, attitude toward the inventory.
Look at wine descriptions posted under bottles. Are they written by the store’s staff? That’s a positive sign, indicating personal investment and a distinct point of view. These are vastly preferable to preprinted “shelf-talkers,” with notes and scores from outside critics or periodicals; they suggest a lack of confidence, laziness or abdication of critical responsibilities.
Are bottles displayed standing up or lying down? It doesn’t really matter. Lying down is more traditional and preferable for long-term aging, though that doesn’t apply to bottles with screw caps, with no corks to be kept moist. Upright is a little friendlier and less formal. But neither is an indicator of quality. Bargain crates near the door? They often contain less interesting mass-market wines that are rarely good values.
Many characteristics are matters of personal taste. Does it matter if stores are big or small? Not really, though as with restaurant wine lists, a smaller, more focused selection will be less intimidating. Big stores have to work harder to offer personal attention.
In-store tastings are welcome, but you should never feel obliged to buy. Samplers, a half or whole case put together by the store, are useful. But even better are sample cases that are assembled specifically for customers. Good stores are happy to do this.
More important than the physical characteristics are a store’s atmosphere and point of view. It’s the difference between a sterile and a comfortable shopping experience.
Hospitality is more than a warm greeting. It’s anticipating how people shop and what information they want. At certain stores the wines are arranged on the displays as if following the progression of wines at a dinner party, starting with bubbly and moving through whites to reds, Old World to New World, subdivided by localities. For a more in-depth perspective, he also displays wines by characteristic — those made from grapes grown in limestone soils, say, or wines with lively acidity.
The best merchants can teach you about wine, but they understand that a little information is often enough. Few people appreciate a lecture on soil types or wine chemistry. Like good psychologists, sales clerks must always gauge the desires of their customers.
All in all and to add a little bit of salt and pepper you sometimes also have to be lucky…
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