Brick-and-mortar wine shops come in all shapes and sizes, and chances are, there are several to choose from near your home or office. Once you’re a regular customer, your local shopping experience can be an easy in and out with a bottle or two you’re sure to like. But at first, you might find navigation trickier: Every wine store stocks different items; it can be hard to locate what you have in mind among the many offerings; inventory is regularly depleted and not always restocked with the same bottles; and relevant information about a particular wine is rarely summed up as efficiently as it is in the consumer reports common to many other industries.
Yet prowling the aisles need not be a Herculean task. Rather, it should be the amuse bouche that gets you excited to go home and open your newest acquisition. Good wine retailers know this, and with just a little effort on your part and theirs, you’ll build a relationship that provides rewarding drinking and neighborhood goodwill.
At Wally’s Wine & Spirits’ two locations in Los Angeles, the wine-buying experience has evolved to represent what owner Christian Navarro refers to as a “lifestyle community,” intermixing wine and fine food retail with a bar and restaurant.
“We need to look at how things are done in a different light,” says Navarro. “The world’s getting more and more complex; we don’t leave our offices or our homes as much as we’d like to. But people are hungry for that human connection, and so [at Wally’s] we’re trying to create that bond.”
Navarro reports that Wally’s locations boast between 700 and 1,500 visitors each day, “shopping, eating and drinking.” Even if your local wine shop doesn’t have all the amenities that Wally’s does, a good store works hard to engage and connect with its customers and to offer a better buying experience. So first, it’s worth it to spend some time visiting a few local stores before settling on one or two that seem likely to suit your wine-buying needs. And don’t be shy about asking for those bells and whistles.
Learn the Lay of the Land
On most trips to the grocery store, you walk down almost every aisle. The signs hanging overhead are important guides, but you have a rough idea of where to head for the next item on your list.
Develop a similar familiarity with your wine store. You’re not going to remember each and every row and the placement of so many bottles. But by walking up and down the aisles and really looking at what’s on the shelves, you can gauge whether or not the interests of the store’s wine buyer align with your preferences.
A typical wine store offers sections organized both by grape variety and by region. If you love Napa Cab, head to the Cabernet section and see if you recognize a few of your favorite labels in the mix. If you’re a fan of Old World regions, check to see if there’s good representation across top appellations and producers. Even if you don’t end up buying the wines you recognize that day, their presence is a confirmation that you’re in the right place and that you will likely find other bottlings to enjoy.
Get Clued In
Many retailers provide signage and visual indicators for wines they want to highlight in some way. It’s not all about moving inventory—it’s something that the store puts a lot of thought and energy into creating for the benefit of their customers. Understanding these cues can help to fast-track your buying experience when needed, or guide your exploration if you’re looking for something new.
Each of the more than 200 Total Wine & More locations across the country dedicates about 15 to 20 feet of wall space directly across from the entrance to wines with strong critical reviews. “We want to immediately show customers a good sample of highly rated wines, selected from different areas across the store, and rotated on a regular basis,” says Troy Rice, chief stores officer for Total Wine & More.
Total also offers a “Wine Buyer’s Set,” a themed group of wines brought together to showcase the diversity within a given grape variety or wine region, and “Team Picks,” bottlings selected by members of the staff as their personal favorites. Both these approaches are relatively common techniques employed by savvy retailers looking to offer recommendations to customers who want suggestions quickly or without a lot of one-on-one interaction.
A last word of advice on signage: If it includes independent critics’ scores, don’t hesitate to pull out your phone and double-check on that reviewer’s app or website that the ratings are accurate, and specific to the vineyard or vintage on offer.
Ask for Help
Signage aside, verbal communication is undeniably the best tool to make buying wine easy. But it’s also the component in the retail model that many consumers fail to take advantage of, often because they feel they “don’t know enough” to talk about wine.
Take a deep breath and remember: If you know what tastes good to you, you know enough to have a productive chat with your wine shop clerk. (For tips, see “Wineshop Talking Points,” below.)
If you were going to buy a car, no one would expect you to know the specs on each model. That’s what the salesperson is for. Your job is to tell the salesperson what’s important to you in a car, and then to let him or her point you toward the cars they offer that fit your requirements.
The same principles apply to wine. A good wine shop spends time educating its staff about the world of wine in general and about the store’s inventory in particular. At Total Wine, all associates complete online training and participate in weekly in-store training and tastings. “It’s a blended approach,” says Rice. “Computer-based training, instructor training. We’ll even send our team to California or Europe to spend time with producers of the wines that we sell.”
“Over the years, our staff education has evolved quite a bit,” says Chris Adams, CEO of Sherry-Lehmann Wine & Spirits, one of Manhattan’s leading wine retailers since its founding in 1934. Today, in addition to regular staff tastings with visiting wine producers, the store partners with distributors to allow staff members to taste through the entire range of producers and bottlings from that supplier.
“Our team sees and tastes through the wines to gain a better understanding of what the supplier is focused on and how their focus reflects on the whole of our Sherry-Lehmann inventory. I like this approach because it gives voice to our partners big and small, and demonstrates the diversity of our approach to building an inventory.”
A good wine store’s staff is happy to talk to you about wine, about what you like and about what they have that might be a match to your preferences. They’re equally as eager to provide basic information for beginners as they are to dive into the details with connoisseurs. They’re your own personal reference source—and part of the cost of the bottle you’re about to buy pays for their education and time—so take advantage of them.
“The people we hire have to really want to be in this environment,” says Navarro of Wally’s, describing his employees’ passion for wine and food. “We’re all looking at the total picture together, and it’s about getting people excited.”
Wine Shop Talking Points
I Like ...
Even if you provide only one general descriptor about a wine you’ve liked in the past, it will start a conversation that can help a salesperson suggest wines with a similar character. That word might reference the wine’s flavor (for example, fruity, peppery or smoky), the body and shape of the wine (big, rich, light, round), or the impact on the palate (tangy, zesty, velvety).
If you can provide additional information, this will help the staff member whittle down the options even further. You might mention a grape, wine region or wine you’ve liked (Pinot Noir, Tuscany, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc), or you might reference a specific producer or bottling.
In this digital age, with phones almost always on hand, a great learning tool and aid for buying wine is snapping a picture of the bottle when you have a wine you really enjoy. You can edit the photo to include a word or two that captures your impression of the wine. Not only does this give you an image to show the salesperson, but it develops your wine vocabulary.
I Need a Wine for ...
The vast majority of the time people go to a wine store it’s to buy wine for a particular purpose. Whether it’s a bottle for dinner that night (what are you cooking?), a special occasion bottle (what are you celebrating?) or bottles to restock your wine shelf (what do you drink more of, red or white?), these are all clues that will help your sales associate home in on good recommendations.
I Want to Spend ...
Nobody really likes talking about money, but how much you’re willing to spend on a bottle of wine is a crucial piece of information to share with the wine shop employee. Most stores offer bottles priced as low as $9 or $10, as well as bottlings selling for several hundred dollars each. If you’re looking for something affordable, the staff member can turn their mind to regions or producers known for good value; if you’re ready to spend more, it opens other avenues for the employee to explore with you. A good employee will know the store’s inventory, and they’ll enjoy the exercise of finding a great wine to recommend to you, regardless of your price point.
What's Drinking Well Right Now?
Sometimes the best conversation starter is to kick it back to the sales associate; let them talk about a wine they’ve tried recently that they thought was delicious. Wine is constantly evolving in the bottle, so why not get an up-to-date impression of some of the store’s offerings? You’ll likely get a summary of why the salesperson liked it—details about the wine’s taste and style. You can compare the salesperson’s descriptors to your own thoughts about wine (without having to break out your own wine vocab), and let them know if it sounds like a style of wine you like or not. You may end up buying their recommendation, or you might use it as a launchpad to explore other options.