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Dear Dr. Vinny,

I'm the person who's usually sent to go purchase wine for various informal meetings and parties for my office. What questions can I ask a merchant? What things should I know to better articulate what I'm looking for? Normally I have the mandate to buy a couple bottles of white and maybe one red. And my question to the shopkeeper is ... "What's good for under such-and-such amount?"

—Stephen, New York

Dear Stephen,

That's a good start. Be as direct as you can about what you're looking for, including the price. There's no point in implying you might buy a $150 bottle when you're really looking for something in the $10 range.

When I think of good customer service, I think of Daniel Dawson, the owner of Back Room Wines in Napa. I asked him for advice, and he agreed that the most important thing is to let the merchant know your budget.

Daniel also added that without feeling pressured to say "I like oak" or "I love raspberries," you should already be thinking of two wines you know you like, one white and one red. If you tell the salespeople this information, they'll be able to recommend a wine and compare it to your examples in a way that's easy to understand. And if you can't remember the exact name, just point to the bottle.

You also might want to find a shop you like and stick with it. The more regular a customer you are, the more a retailer will be able to hand-pick choices for you.

—Dr. Vinny

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