What to See and Say in a Wine Store — Outsmarting Wine

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Photo by: Amy Fletcher ©www.aefletchers.com

Amy Fletcher, www.aefletchers.com

Every week, Mark Oldman -- wine expert, acclaimed author and lead judge of the hit series The Winemakers -- shares with readers the basics of wine, while making it fun and practical. In the coming weeks, he'll tell you what to ask at a wine store, at what temperature to serve it and share his must-have wine tools.

Come clean: In a wine shop, you choose by the label. Not to worry -- I, too, am seduced by alluring packaging. But what if you want to make sure that the wine also tastes good? Here’s a plan of attack that even a novice can conquer.

First, you need to maximize the chances that the store has smart, helpful clerks and not the snide, zoned-out clerks that make me head straight to an online seller. If you don’t already know the shop’s reputation, do some reconnaissance. Are the bottles cool to the touch or are they baking in the sun, on the road to ruin? Does the place use homemade shelf signs, or just plastic cards with canned advertising copy? Does it host free tastings? All are clues that the merchant takes its business and its customers seriously.

Once you’ve established that a shop is working for the forces of good, find a clerk and specify your desired color (e.g., white or red), weight (lighter or richer) and price range. Don’t be shy if you, like me, are stalking deals. Expensive isn’t necessarily better, as a wine’s quality isn’t always proportional to its price; often you’re also paying for the producer’s marketing costs and prestige.

There are other criteria that you can use to help the clerk hone in on what you want. Let him or her know what food you’ll be serving with the wine (if you already know) mention if there is a particular quality you like in your wine (e.g., floral, earthy, smooth like velvet) or if the wine is a gift (and if so, is it for a casual drinker or a connoisseur).

After being presented with your first option, “peel the onion” until you get three or four choices. Keep asking: “What else would you recommend?” I’ve found that it often takes a few minutes for a salesperson to remember all of the possible contenders to show you.

Finally, it’s time to choose among your options. Ask: Which choice is most popular with customers, the one they buy again most often? Has the clerk personally tasted each wine? Which one would he or she choose?

It’s now time to make your final call. Go with your gut -- or the label.

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