Photographer: David Silverman/Getty Images Europe
Wine

How to Tell if Your Wine Shop Is Any Good

Six ways to determine whether you’re in capable hands.

You can buy good wine anywhere—even in big-box chains, supermarkets, and convenience stores next to gas stations. I once discovered a high-end drug store in Vermont peddling bottles of Chateau d’Yquem.

But if you’re really interested in good vino, find an independent shop with an owner who loves the stuff, tastes what he or she is selling, and employs un-snooty clerks happy to share what they know and become your new best wine friend.

Major cities such as New York, London, and Paris have lots of these boutique wine merchants. But just as with vendors for technology, jewelry, or cheese, a few do it better than everyone else. Here’s what to look for when rating your local wine store.

Layout and Atmosphere

Interior of the Urban Grape, Boston.
Source: The Urban Grape

A look around can tell you a lot. If bottles are sitting in the sun, that’s bad, because light damages wines. If heat is blasting out of vents next to wine racks, just leave, because the wines are getting cooked. Dusty old bottles tell you no one really cares about selling wine they believe in. Ditto for disorganization.

Does the shop make browsing for what you want easy? I find the traditional geographic classification of bottles—Bordeaux, California, Italy—most useful. Others prefer organization by varietal. A host of new arrangements aim at being less intimidating for newbies. New York’s cheery Bottlerocket matches wines with themed kiosks—seafood, poultry, take-out Chinese—to help people quickly locate the ideal bottle to pair with dinner. The Urban Grape in Boston organizes its stock the way most restaurant lists do, from white to red and from light to full-bodied. These are creative signs that the store’s staff is interested in helping you have a good wine experience.

More important than vague flavor profiles or someone’s point scores next to every wine is actual advice from a sales person.

A sleek, high-style designer interior or cozy, lived-in decor isn’t necessary (though it’s nice to hang out in). But I do give additional points to places that keep collector-grade wines in a temperature-controlled enclosure.

Selection and Point of View  

Exterior of Sherry-Lehmann, New York.
Source: Sherry-Lehmann

A broad range of interesting, distinctive wines from different regions, varietals, vintages, and price points is a must. The key word is “curated,” meaning that buyers hand pick wines they like rather than mindlessly stocking best-selling and mass-market brands, the junk food of wine.

Does it carry a selection of grower Champagnes, not just the most advertised mainstream brands? Are there wines from less well-known regions such as Greece, as well as classic Burgundy and Bordeaux for less than $50? Bottles in the California section should include more varietals than just cabernet, pinot noir, and chardonnay.

Large or small? The inventory at Upper East Side vinous oasis Sherry-Lehmann includes some 7,000 labels, including great Bordeaux and Burgundy. But the downside to a big store is that the sheer number of choices can feel overwhelming, and it may take time to develop a personal relationship with a particular salesperson if you’re a casual shopper.

Smaller shops, whose owner may be behind the counter, can sometimes be better places to stop by for a wine on the way home to dinner, as well as for newbies trying to discover what kinds of wines they like.

Browsing the racks of bottles tells you a lot about the buyer’s philosophy, just as a restaurant wine list reflects those of the wine director. A big section of organic wines and in-vogue categories such as Beaujolais, pet-nat bubbly, and orange wines, for example, lets  you know the shop favors more unusual labels.

New York’s eurocentric Chambers Street Wines is just such a shop. It’s wedded to top, small producers committed to organic, biodynamic, and natural wines, including many esoteric ones. Wandering around always makes me want to pull out a credit card, and recommendations from the vino-geek staff never disappoint.

Price

Be upfront about your budget range, but good prices and regular deals count. It’s easy to check the going rate for bottles by visiting Wine Searcher. If prices are over the norm by $5 to $10 per bottle, head elsewhere.

Regardless of how comprehensive the selection is, check a retailer’s variety of options in the $15 to $30 range. This is where the best values are and where curation really matters. I’m talking about the reasonably-priced interesting wines, not cheap plonk, that should make up about 20 percent of the store’s offerings. Manhattan’s Flatiron Wines, for example, stocks more than 300 wines for less than $20, including a delicious Portuguese red blend from producer Niepoort, for $18.

You should also expect at least a 10 percent discount for buying a case, including for mixed cases selected by the staff, and perhaps a loyalty program for regular customers.

Good stores take back spoiled wines—as long as the bottle isn’t empty. But not one you just didn’t like.

Advice and Service

A sommelier takes stock.
Photographer: Zero Creatives/Cultura RF

Look for staff descriptions posted next to bottles, or a section of staff favorites, much as in your favorite bookstore. Both are clear indications that employees are enthusiastic, in-the-know, and can offer help and educational shop talk.

The best advice comes from unpretentious, welcoming vino matchmakers who avoid being preachy and want to understand your tastes so they can find a bottle you’ll enjoy. It helps to ask questions—what they’d recommend with what you’re having for dinner, or a cabernet that’s not too tannic, or an alternative to chardonnay. For the latest in the wine zeitgeist, ask what they’re drinking now and why.

A cheery clerk should help any beginner find the words to describe the kinds of flavors he or she does and doesn’t like in wine. Maybe even pour a few tastes to demonstrate. Some shops keep track of what you buy to get a better handle on your likes and dislikes, which is helpful for both of you. Ask if they have a wine club.

And yes, a shop should offer free delivery, be willing to put together sample cases for your tastes, and take time to educate you, if you’re interested.

Tastings and Events

A typical tasting.
Photographer: Hero Images/Hero Images

Who would purchase a car without a test drive? No shop gets a high rating unless it offers frequent (and free) in-store tastings, without pressure to buy.

New York’s Astor Wines & Spirits, for example, hosts a free tasting on most weekdays during the convenient hours of 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. and gives a 20 percent discount if you purchase one of those bottles.

At London’s Hedonism, one of the world’s most glamorous wine purveyors, with a vast collection of such greats as Italy’s Masseto, provides samplings of 48 wines by the glass from their Enomatic wine machines, as well as special tastings with the world’s greatest winemakers.

Others even offer wine classes, like Paris’s Legrand Filles et Fils, which also has an in-store wine bar.

Digital resources

In this day and age, a good website with an online catalogue is required. You should be able to browse at all hours and even decide in advance what to buy. Some shops make this much easier than others. Regular e-newsletters with special deals are a huge plus, as are useful informational blogs. One of my favorites is Berry Bros. & Rudd. The London-based shop on St. James’s Street won an award for the Best Industry Wine Blog in 2015, and its website includes guides for wine and food pairing and wine investment.

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