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How to Be a Smarter Wine Shopper

F&W’s Ray Isle tells how to navigate every part of a wine store, from the discount bins to the cabinets under lock-and-key, and come home with a delicious bottle.

First Impressions

It’s easy to walk into a store, buy the nearest Chardonnay and leave. But don’t just grab and go: There are some smart ways to save money and get a better wine at the same time.

1. Free Stuff

Before spending $5 on a gift bag or $25 on a fancy corkscrew to replace the one airport security took, know that many stores keep free plastic gift bags and inexpensive corkscrews behind the front counter.

2. Best Sellers

Shops often put best-selling wines—or wines they want to become best sellers—up front. This doesn’t mean the wines are bad, but there are probably more interesting selections deeper inside the store.

3. In-Store Tastings

Tastings are usually conducted by store staff or wholesaler salespeople; they’re fun, but they’re especially worthwhile when the winemaker is present.

Plus: American Wine Awards 2009: Winemaker of the Year

4. Closeout Wines

Stores sometimes mark down the last few bottles of a wine (or older vintages) and put them in a special bin or rack. Exercise caution with whites or rosés more than a couple of years old.

5. Staff Wisdom

If you’re interested in a wine, ask whether the salespeople have tasted it, and what they thought of it. Gauge how excited they are. If you get a ho-hum reaction, ask for something they are excited about. This goes for wines at every price point, from less than $10 to $100 or more. Or, mention a bottle you’ve liked in the past, and ask if they have anything at the same price that’s similar.

Brian Duncan on Buying Wine on Sale


Deep Inside The Store

Beyond the impulse-purchase zone, there’s more to navigate: rare bottles, esoteric regions and printed tags (“shelf talkers”) pushing the virtues of certain wines.

1. Collectibles

Rare wines are often kept under lock-and-key, but if they’re not kept relatively cool, too, they’re not worth safeguarding (heat destroys wine). Before spending $100 on a bottle, especially for an older vintage, touch it. If it feels warm, it’s too warm.

Plus: 5 Best Wine Investments: A Pro’s Picks

2. Cool Whites

Most wine shops keep bottles of popular whites in a refrigerator. Don’t feel limited by these choices: Many stores have a quick chiller (a swirling bath of ice water) that will cool down any white in about five minutes. As a general rule, chill sparkling wines yourself; if they’ve been in a fridge for a long time, they can lose their fizz.

3. Stand-Up Wines

Bottles kept upright look good on shelves, but the corks can dry out over time. If a bottle is very dusty and stored standing up, avoid it.

Plus: Best Cellar Tips

4. Case Deals

Most wine stores offer a discount on wine purchased by the case—usually 10 percent, though it can sometimes run as high as 15. Often, different bottles can be combined to make a “mixed case” that will still qualify for the discount. Ask.

5. Owner’s Favorites

Substantial stock in a particular region or type of wine may indicate that the store’s owner or wine buyer has a particular love for those wines. This means there may be great values or unusual and wonderful wines in that section.

6. Talking Tags

Stores highlight wines with “shelf talkers” that give critics’ scores or reviews. Glowing write-ups are often used year after year, though, so make sure the vintage in the review matches that of the wine on the shelf. Handwritten tags from the store’s staff are helpful; if you like the wine, you can get additional recommendations from an actual person.

7. The Cheap Stuff

Jug and box wines aren’t meant for aging. If they’re covered with dust or the vintage isn’t the most recent one, it’s best to look for something else.

Plus: Bargain Wine Guide

More Great Wine Tips:

Published October 2009
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