In my last entry, I suggested finding a good wine merchant. This is so important I decided to write more about it. If you’re like most people, you probably buy the majority of your wine at Trader Joe’s or another grocery store. While you can find good wine in grocery stores, to find really interesting wine, you need a dedicated wine shop. Not only will the selection be better, but a good wine shop will also have knowledgeable staff to help you expand your wine horizons.
I can’t begin to tell you how much better my wine experience became when I finally found the right wine shop. One piece of advice every book and wine column I read seemed to have in common was to find a good wine merchant. I have to admit, at first, I was intimidated by wine shops. I didn’t really know much and the large inventories felt daunting. I also had a bad experience early on, which put me off for a bit but ended up being a valuable lesson.
The first time I tried to put together a tasting for friends, I thought it would be fun to try a Pinot Noir from Oregon, one from California and one from Burgundy. I had no experience with Burgundy, but I knew it was expensive. I went to a well-known wine shop and asked for a Burgundy in the $65 range. The person who helped me informed me in a derisive tone that I would get an inferior wine at that price point. I was embarrassed and assumed I’d made a huge mistake by trying to spend such a small amount. Luckily, a friend was with me who was outraged by his rudeness. Later when I learned more about Burgundy, I, of course, discovered there are lovely bottles available for $65 (and less!) that would have been fantastic for my tasting. My friend was right. That guy was a jerk.
Eventually, I found another store. I went in a few times, but even though the staff members seemed friendly, I was afraid to engage. I always said I was just looking and I was. I was too intimidated to buy anything. Eventually, I discovered the shop’s website. I made a few online purchases and signed up for their email list. Before long I was making regular internet purchases which I would pick up in-store.
As time passed and the staff members began to recognize me, they started to chat with me about the wine I was picking up. Eventually, they started recommending other wines they thought I might like. Contrary to popular belief, they were not recommending super expensive wines I couldn’t afford, but rather wines in the $18-$30 range. I realize this is not cheap wine, but wine at this price point is generally miles beyond $5-$10 wine in taste and quality. This is the point where the extra $10 can make an enormous impact on the pleasure you receive from the wine.
Over time, I got to know several staff members quite well. They always made me feel at ease. Not once was I made to feel stupid for asking questions or cheap for not spending a lot. More importantly, they got to know me and what I liked which meant I could trust their recommendations. That’s when I started really exploring new wines and new wine regions. Instead of drinking mostly California wines, I was drinking wines from all over the world.
My friends and I became regular customers. We attended tastings and classes and bought a lot of wine there. We always joked that it was like our Cheers — where everybody knew our names. If someone wanted to buy me a gift, they could go to this shop, tell them it was for Helen Oliver, and be pointed to something I would love. Sadly the store was sold and eventually closed, but discovering that shop was one of the most important experiences of my wine journey.
If you haven’t found a wine shop of your own, do yourself a favor and find one ASAP. Locate a store near you and wander in to check it out. If someone is rude or makes you uncomfortable, wander right back out and find another. Don’t be afraid to engage with staff. Be honest. Tell them it’s your first time in and you’re trying to get a feel for the store. When you’re ready, tell them what you like and ask for some recommendations. Then go back and tell them what you thought. Even if you didn’t like their recommendation. Remember, they need to learn what you like. A good wine merchant is not there to dictate taste. They are there to help you find wine you enjoy and earn your trust — and your business.