You can buy good wine anywhere—even in big-box chains, supermarkets, and convenience stores. 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, jewellery, 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
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 disorganisation.
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 organisation by varietal.
A host of new arrangements aim at being less intimidating for newbies. Some shops matched wines with themed kiosks — seafood, poultry, take-out Chinese — to help people quickly locate the ideal bottle to pair with dinner.
Others organize their 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.
Selection and Point of View
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 Bordeauxs?
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 favours more unusual labels.
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, head elsewhere.
Regardless of how comprehensive the selection is, check a retailer’s variety of options. 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.
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.