Wine and Walnuts

A blog about eating, drinking, cooking and reading in the not so Deep South

How to Shop for Wine: 6 Tips


[picappgallerysingle id="176490"]Do you ever go into your local wine store and stand there dumbfounded, gazing at the hundreds of bottles on display, without the first clue what to buy?  There are so many varietals, producers, brand names, price points, and flavor profiles that you feel overwhelmed by the choices.

If you’re a newbie to wine, this can be scary, even paralyzing. 

Well, I’m going to help you with that.

The following tips are down and dirty quick basics to get you started on wine shopping with ease.  There is an ocean of wine information out there, but what we want here is a simple set of tips to get your through your next shopping experience, yes?  So this won’t be exhaustive, but it’ll get you started.

Because I work in a wine store, I know which pieces of information are very useful to me when helping someone choose a wine, so I’ll start with those.

(This advice will be best for shopping in an actual wine store, a smallish, local shop, say, where the staff know something about wine, but you can adapt some of these tips for a supermarket or big box type of wine store shopping excursion as well.)

1. DO NOT let the wine staff intimidate you! 

We all start somewhere, and there was a time when that holier-than-thou wine snob/salesperson knew even less about wine than my 4 year old niece does. So keep that in mind, because if you do, you won’t be afraid to ask questions and get the information you need to make the best choice. (Of course, there are plenty of wine store staff who are kind and helpful and not the least bit snobby. It’s true.) If you go into a store with this one piece of advice, you’ll come out ahead.

2. Know what you want to spend. 

This will narrow things down considerably. For example, if you know you only want to spend $20, say so right up front. You have no idea how useful this is to the staff at a wine store – it helps us narrow down the 300- bottle selection to, oh, maybe 100 or so?

3. Know that you CAN absolutely, positively, find a nice bottle of wine, in a “real” wine store, in the $20 range. 

Or less, even. In fact, where I work, and this is true of most wine stores, there is also going to be a nice range of good bottles in the $10-$15 range.  And by “good,” I mean wine that is interesting and has some complexity, and that you want to drink (and your friends will too). 

So know that you can find good wines in the lower price point category, if you’re willing to try unknown producers, name brands you may not recognize, and wines from lesser known wine regions.

(I know for a fact that some folks won’t shop for wine except in supermarkets, because they, A. don’t want to be embarrassed by having only $10-$15 to spend in a “real” wine store, and they, B., think they can only get a bottle in that price range in the supermarket or in a place like World Market or Costco.  Not so!)

4. Know if you want red or white, sweet or dry. 

This is self-explanatory, but I feel like it needs to be mentioned, because I see a fair amount of shoppers come in knowing only that they want to take a bottle of wine to a dinner party or some other type of gathering, but have no idea whether it’s red or white, sweet or dry, they want.  And take it from the person trying to help you with a selection under those circumstances – it’s incredibly difficult!  We have to have something to go on.  Which leads me to . . .

5. Know the occasion/context. 

 If it’s wine to bring to a dinner party for example, you’re going to want something nicer than you’d bring to an outdoor BBQ, poker night or a large raucus party. For large gatherings or super informal ones, you can get by with something less serious, less interesting and less pricey – just get an easy-drinking, tasty and refreshing wine.

For instance, when people come in the store where I work, and want wine for a party where there are lots of guests and lots of other booze, and it’s summer time, then I tell them to get a case of the $6.99 per bottle Salmon Creek Pinot Grigio, because it’s perfectly nice for the price, and for the context in which they will be drinking it.

On the other hand, if it’s for a nice, sit-down dinner, I’m going to ask you what’s being served — if it’s steak, I’m going to suggest a fuller-bodied red with some tannins, like a Cabernet, if it’s hot out and there’s going to be lighter fare, or pork items, I’m going to suggest a dry Rosé or a light Italian white wine perhaps, and if it’s to go with spicy food, I might suggest an off-dry Riesling, and so on. Which leads me to . . .

6. If it’s a dinner party or some other occasion where the wine will be served with food, know something about what’s being served. 

If you get invited to a dinner party and will be bringing wine, ask what’s being served; this will be a big help for the wine store staff.  (You could also ask, if you don’t know already, which varietal is your hosts’ favorite – do they love Cabernet or Merlot? Sauvignon Blanc or Riesling?  This will help me help you.  : ) Your host will appreciate this, and your wine store staff will really, really appreciate it, because this will help us know how to guide you in your selections.

I’ll give you my dream customer/scenario so you’ll be able to put all this into practice:

You come into where I work and say, “I have $20 to spend, I’m going to a dinner party, I know there’s going to be steak on the menu, and my host likes Cabernets and Pinot Noirs.”  This is going to help me help you in 10 minutes or less, and we’ll both be happy at the end of the transaction. In fact, I may just fall in love with you.

In this scenario, I’m going to tell you we have a few really nice wines in your price range that will go well with steak, and if your host likes Cabernet, and you have $20 to spend, I’m going to right away point you to the Silver Palm Cabernet.  It’s around $20 retail, it’s really lovely for the price (I’m a big, big fan), and it will go well with steak.  And as an added bonus, the bottle is pretty and unique and different, AND, the wine isn’t  sold in supermarkets, so it’ll wow people. And you will be the genius who found it!  So, yay you.

On the other hand, if you come in and say, “I need a bottle of wine, um, I really don’t know how much I want to spend (this is usually a condition of the person not thinking they can get something decent unless they spend a lot of money, it’s usually NOT related to how much they actually know they want to spend), I’m going to dinner at a friend’s house, I’m not sure what the menu will be, and I don’t know what kind of wine my host likes.”

In this scenario, I’m not going to have any guidelines to get us started, we’re going to spend a lot of time going over all the many, many possibilities, and neither one of us is likely going to be fully satisfied at the end of the exchange.  Now I ask you, who wants that? 

Wine shopping should be fun and interesting, not intimidating and stressful, so take these suggestions to heart, and I promise that if you do, your next wine shopping experience will be way more satisfying.

If you have any wine shopping tips you’d like to add, shout ‘em out in the comments!


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About The Author

Kimberly Houston


3 Responses to “How to Shop for Wine: 6 Tips”

  1. Eliana says:

    Thanks so much for these tips! They will definitely come in handy as I pick out wines for my various holiday parties.

  2. Glad to be of service, Eliana! : )

  3. You might be entertained to read what happened when I went into a London wine merchant, and asked simply for an “interesting” wine…

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