Several readers have asked for advice on how to buy wine in a wine store without being ripped off or made to look like a fool. This is a legitimate question and a problem for nearly everyone who enters a wine shop.
In truth, unless you’ve actually tasted the particular wine from the particular year and winery that you are considering, there is no way to know for sure that you will like the wine inside the bottle. There are lots of totally incompetent wine clerks and even some who will sell you their worst wine just to get rid of it. To protect yourself from their tender mercies, there are defenses.
First of all, insist on shopping in a store that looks like a good wine store. This sounds rudimentary, but many people still think they are likely to get great bargains at liquor stores whose salespeople “don’t know what they have.” If they don’t know that and you see some fine bottle with a shockingly low price tag, don’t think it’s a bargain. It’s probably been on that overheated shelf with its cork drying out for years, ever since that yellowing price tag was fust slapped on it.
After you’ve picked a reliable store, usually based on tips from knowledgeable friends who shop there already, it’s important before going in to have some idea of what you want to buy, for what occasion, and how much you are willing to spend. Even knowledgeable clerks have limits on their time and if you don’t know if you want to drink it with a T-bone or a chocolate cake, they probably can’t help you.
If, on the other hand, you know you want something to go with steak, any good clerk probably has tasted a few of the store’s better reds, at various price levels, and can recommend a good one for your pocket that he knows personally. California Cabernet and zinfandel are among the best buys nowadays, as are Riojas from Spain for slightly less. If it’s flsh you’re having, tell them that and whether it will be grilled with a sauce, poached or how it will be served. A good white, like a chardonnay, is excellent and there should be someone in the store personally familiar with several of the wineries and vintage years offered.
One of the best ways to be sure you get a wine you will like is to soak off the labels of the ones you like best after you drink them. A dose of hot water in the old lavatory will do the trick. Then keep the label until you go back to the store and show it to the clerk. This practice avoids those embarrassing moments I used to experience as a clerk when the customer would say: “Well, it was in kind of a green bottle, and…” Next best is jotting down what appears to be pertinent on the label, although on some labels, especially Germans, the writings are in indecipherable Gothic script and an unintelligible anyway. Better to soak the labels or just keep the bottle and carry it in.
Once you’ve found a couple of good stores, to choose between them I usually look at several factors: What discounts do they give? Can you mix cases and get a discount or do you have to buy a whole case of one wine? A good way to find new wines is to buy a case of 12 different wines, then return and buy more of only those you really liked. I also like stores that keep at least some good wines in their coolers; sometimes you have no time to chill a wine before dinner.
Another good sign about a wine store is if they have their own tasting club and classes. If so, their clerks and buyers are usually more interested in the subject. A good selection of wine books for sale is also a good sign. Really great stores like Sherry-Lehmann and Morrell’s in New York, Mayflower in Washington, Martin’s in New Orleans, or Buster’s in Memphis normally have mailing lists for specials although it is rare for a store to have a complete list of their regular stock, it changes too often.
I try to get on these lists, even if I can’t get to those stores, because the wines they have can often be found at your local store, and if you are on the mailing lists of several stores, which are free, you know better what to ask for at your own store.
One last tip: The advancement of personal computers with word processors has made it much easier for every store to have its own up-to-date listings, and it’s a good idea to ask for them. It beats trying to carry everything around in your head and it never hurts to ask.
Written March 23, 1988
John Hailman of Oxford is a regular contributor to HottyToddy.com on two subjects: Law and Wine. Now retired from both his “day job” as a federal prosecutor in Oxford after 33 years and his “night job” of 25 years as a nationally syndicated daily columnist in more than 100 daily papers on wine, food and travel for Gannett News Service and the Washington Post, Hailman will cover both topics under the titles of The Legal Eagle and Wine Tips of the Week. HottyToddy.com will also run periodic excerpts from Hailman’s upcoming book of humorous legal stories, From Midnight to Guntown: True Crime Stories From A Federal Prosecutor in Mississippi. Hailman now teaches Federal Trial Practice and Law and Literature at the University of Mississippi.