By Lawrence Marcus
Updated July 30, 2014
Credit: istockphoto

Here’s the best tip ever for buying good wine: Shop only at good wine stores. However, there will be times when you need last-minute wine in an unfamiliar neighborhood or city, and you also need some lottery tickets and shameful snack cakes.

Here’s a guide to making wise decisions in a questionable wine shop, seedy liquor store or dimly lit gas station.

1. Don’t ask for help. You may as well ask the staff to recommend Powerball numbers.

2. Beware of fake wine. In some states, certain stores are prohibited from selling booze that rises above a certain level of alcohol. If a bottle is labeled at 5.5 percent ABV, it’s probably “wine product”—a watered-down, sugared-up concoction that’s sort of the alcoholic equivalent of American cheese. Nasty. Find another store or buy beer.

3. Flip some bottles around. Do you see labels from trustworthy boutique importers like Kermit Lynch, Martine’s Wines or Louis/Dressner? Whoops, you’re in a good wine shop! You can stop reading this guide.

4. Avoid nonstandard containers. Drinkable wines generally ship in minimally adorned 750-milliliter bottles. Steer clear of packaging that features ostentatious glasswork, has a sparkly all-over label or resembles an old-timey hobo’s jug.

5. Go abroad. Good, cheap wines from California, Oregon and the United States’ other worthy winegrowing states do exist, but often they aren’t so easy to find. If you’re spending $13, you’ll have a higher success rate with random bottles from France, Italy, Spain, New Zealand or Chile.

6. Consider Côtes du Rhône. The largest producers in France’s Rhône valley make huge amounts of inexpensive red wine that is, really, pretty good. It might not be exciting, but in this shop you’re looking to hit a grounder single, not a home run.

7. Sparkle. Blah wine is better when its bubbly. Cheap Prosecco and cava have more redeeming qualities than equivalently undistinguished still wines.

8. Look closely at that shelf talker. As in, make sure the bottle described on that promo card is actually the one on the shelf. Don’t worry about the actual score. (Can you really taste the difference between 88 points and 89? Can anyone?)

9. Beware of back vintages. In the best shops, you’ll sometimes see older bottles for sale. Usually these were purchased from private collectors, who (hopefully) stored them in a temperature-controlled cellar. That stray, dust-covered Bordeaux in the corner? It’s been hanging out and sweating non-air-conditioned through every summer since 1996. Better to find a young, healthy bottle.