Navigating a Wine Store

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With Halloween approaching, here’s a scary thought: You’re strictly a grocery store wine shopper, but you need to find a special bottle you can only get at a wine shop. You’ve never been to a wine shop, or you have, and were overwhelmed by the size of the place and the sheer number of choices. We’re talking aisle after aisle of innumerable stacks and racks. What to do? Where to go? Words from “The Big Lebowski” come to mind: “You’re out of your element, Donnie.”

Not to worry. Although wine shops differ in layout, nearly all arrange their wines by grape variety or country of origin, with signs prominently displayed to guide you. In the area marked “chardonnay” or “white wines,” you’ll often find both domestic and imported varieties. If you’re looking for cabernet or merlot-based wines, look for “cabernet” or “Bordeaux” signage. In this case, the “cabernet” will likely be domestic, from places like Napa, Sonoma, Paso Robles, etc., while the “Bordeaux” will be from the French region of Bordeaux.

If you still need help, approach the nearest staff member, and in an upbeat tone, ask him to point you in the direction of the chardonnay. If he leads you there, ask for a few recommendations from what’s on hand, and don’t be afraid to tell him how much you’re willing to spend. After you’ve decided on a bottle or two, ask for directions to the cabernet section, as well as recommendations for something that will go with, say, a tri-tip roast.

There’s something else you’ll notice about wine shops. There is far more information posted on the various wine stacks or racks than you’ll find in grocery stores. Think of it as guidance, at least until you become more familiar with these wines and their regions. The information will likely include descriptions of the wines and how they taste, as well as scores or ratings. For now, this is a good thing. These scores and ratings are usually written by professional critics as indicators of what they think of the quality. As time passes and you become more adept at tasting, think of this information as you would training-wheels on a bike. At some point, you’ll just want to take them off and ride on your own.

So far, so good. Now, do you remember why you came here in the first place? Yes, you were looking for a special bottle. Describe what you’re looking for to the staff member, along with how much you’d like to spend. Often, “special bottles” are kept in a different section of the store. Here again, if you don’t know the winery or producer, ask the staff member for recommendations.

If you become a wine aficionado, and many of us do, you’ll spend future time browsing these shops on your own. Quite soon you’ll have mentally “mapped” the place and will be discovering new wines as you travel from aisle to aisle and country to country.

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