If you care about wine and want to drink better and more confidently, the best thing you can do is cultivate a close relationship with a good wine shop. I have been making this case for years without ever addressing the obvious question: How do you know if a wine shop is good?
The answer seems equally obvious: Good wine shops offer a great assortment of distinctive bottles. But that doesn’t help if examining a selection of wines is baffling rather than revealing.
Institutions like Chambers Street Wines, Flatiron Wines & Spirits and Crush Wine & Spirits in New York City are great for expert and novice alike, and they serve a nationwide clientele. But customers who cannot confidently scan a website or who don’t buy in quantity must visit a store.
You can tell a lot about a shop simply by walking through the door, even if you don’t know much about wine. For example, what’s the temperature? Moore Brothers Wine Co. keeps the store at cellar temperature, 56 degrees, which is great but not entirely necessary as long as a shop is not warm.
Are bottles bathed in sunlight? Not good. Light can damage wine. Covered in dust? Also not good as it indicates a lax, possibly negligent, attitude toward the inventory.
Look at wine descriptions posted under bottles. Are they written by the store’s staff? That’s a positive sign, indicating personal investment and a distinct point of view. These are vastly preferable to preprinted “shelf-talkers,” with notes and scores from outside critics or periodicals; they suggest a lack of confidence, laziness or abdication of critical responsibilities.
Are bottles displayed standing up or lying down? It doesn’t really matter. Lying down is more traditional and preferable for long-term aging, though that doesn’t apply to bottles with screw caps, with no corks to be kept moist. Upright is a little friendlier and less formal. But neither is an indicator of quality. Bargain crates near the door? They often contain less interesting mass-market wines that are rarely good values.
In-store tastings are welcome, but you should never feel obliged to buy. Samplers, a half or whole case put together by the store, are useful. But even better are sample cases that are assembled specifically for customers. Good stores are happy to do this.
More important than the physical characteristics are a store’s atmosphere and point of view. It’s the difference between a sterile and a comfortable shopping experience.
At Bay Grape, a wine shop that opened a year and a half ago in Oakland, California, upright shelves of bottles bear allusive messages like “She Sells Seashells” on a Muscadet. At a rustic wood-plank communal table near the front of the store, Zach Beauchamp, an assistant manager, led a half-dozen visitors in a discussion and tasting of Austrian wines. A group of women at a small table in front shared a bottle, and a few lone souls took advantage of the free Wi-Fi and pecked away at laptops. It was a classic community gathering spot centered on wine, warm and inviting.
The approach has won Bay Grape an ardent clientele. “It’s great when you can have a conversation; it’s less transactual,” said Eliza Kinsolving, who had stopped in for the wine class.
At her two Unwined shops in Alexandria, Virginia, Vanessa Moore trains her staff to recognize customers by name and to get to know their tastes. Her shops specialize in small-production, family wineries, and her inventory is constantly shifting, a difficult notion for customers to accept if they are used to widely available brands. It requires winning their trust.
“I want my stores to be like I’m entertaining in my own home,” she said. “I want to anticipate what everybody needs to be really happy.”
Good shops understand that the best values are around $15 to $25, so they ought to have a lot of good selections in that range. They should have cheaper wines, too, though without pandering. Pinot noirs for $5 may make sense in the supermarket environment of Trader Joe’s, where the strategy is to sell dull wine cheap, like Two-Buck Chuck, but not in a good wine shop.
The best merchants can teach you about wine, but they understand that a little information is often enough. Few people appreciate a lecture on soil types or wine chemistry. Like good psychologists, sales clerks must always gauge the desires of their customers.
At Bay Grape, the casual, almost playful atmosphere is underscored by rigorous service and a deep awareness of the insecurity that comes with shopping for wine. Its husband-and-wife owners, Josiah Baldivino and Stevie Stacionis, have both worked as sommeliers — Baldivino for Daniel Boulud’s Dinex group of restaurants in New York and Michael Mina in San Francisco. They have trained their staff to engage customers in conversation and to ask in-depth questions.
No shop will always be able to get you the specific bottle you want, especially with small producers and various government regulations, which give every state its own peculiarities. But good merchants should always be ready to offer something similar.
“We really want to get at what people want, so we can say, ‘I don’t have that, but I think you would love this,'” Stacionis said.