Ensure No Evil: As I’ve elaborated in my blog, it’s vital to first ascertain whether a given merchant is a servant of good or an agent of evil. Among the factors that worry me are: bottles warm to the touch (and thus inadequately stored); clueless or haughty salespeople; wine described with canned marketing copy (instead of homemade “shelf talkers” penned by the store’s personnel); and shops selling a seasonal wine like Beaujolais Nouveau in the summer (which, being released in November, is one of the rare wines that loses much of its flavor in just a matter of months).
Ask for It in a Sentence: Specify your desired color (white/red), weight within that category (light/medium/rich), price (feel no shame in asking for inexpensive wine) and one wildcard factor you like (smooth/crisp/oaky/earthy/etc.). Remember to “peel the onion” when considering your choices.
Scores: Many consumers and wine shops follow the points bestowed by critics but others dismiss these numerical ratings as overly simplistic and sometimes even biased ratings. It’s difficult to know how much emphasis we should put on “the numbers” we see plastered all over many wine shops. Scores are useful as a general indicator of quality if they are from a trusted source. Good critics, however, can make bad mistakes and will occasionally differ widely in their assessments of the same exact wine, just as tastemakers can disagree about restaurants, literature or anything else so subjective. It is therefore best to view a critic’s score not as the final word but as one element to use alongside what the store says, what (if anything) you have read online and off, and what your own instincts tell you in the moment.
Volume Discount: Take advantage of the fact that many stores offer a healthy discount for buying a case (i.e., 12 bottles) or more. That discount will usually kick in even if you get a “mixed case” of different wines, not just 12 of the same bottles.
Free Tastings: Where the law allows, more and more stores are doling out free samples of vino (bless them). This is the perfect way to lessen the risk of being disappointed in your wine purchases, while learning an extra nugget of information about the wine that you can use to regale your tablemates. Check a shop’s newsletter or website for upcoming tastings.
Mark Oldman is a wine expert, acclaimed author and lead judge of the hit series The Winemakers