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Shelf Talk

Navigating the Elusive Wine Shelves


Have you ever gone to the store to buy wine only to find yourself confounded by the myriad varietals, vintages, regions, producers, labels, and price points on display? Well if so, you’re not alone. I started to pursue wine tasting as a hobby a couple years ago, and I know first hand that shopping for wine can be a confusing, overwhelming and downright frustrating experience if you aren’t prepared. I’ve talked with a few wine-loving friends and interviewed a local merchant who runs a specialty wine shop in the Napa Valley, and we’ve come up with the following list of tips and information to get you wine shopping with ease in no time.

First, decide what type of store to shop at. Unless you live near a region sprinkled with vineyards and tasting rooms, you will generally have three options available to meet your wine retail needs: grocery stores, bottle shops (or liquor stores), and specialty wine shops. We have excluded restaurants and online wine shopping from this list because these two outlets involve a very different shopping experience and warrant a different approach.

1. Grocery stores will have a smaller selection of wines to choose from (usually 3-5 short aisles), lower price points for the selection available (most bottles will cost between $5 – $35), and limited help available if you have any questions. While grocery stores do not offer as much variety, they make wine accessible to everybody. Grocery stores may be good places to start if the large selections and wine experts in more specialized stores seem overwhelming.

2. Bottle shops or liquor stores, as the name implies, are not limited to wine distribution. They carry a wide variety of beverages in addition to wine, including liquor, beer, spirits and nonalcoholic beverages. When it comes to wine, bottle shops will offer a larger selection – a wider range of varietals, brands, regions and price points. You will find widely distributed labels and some smaller, boutique labels depending on the distributors that the bottle shop owner works with. Unlike grocery stores, bottle shops usually have an employee or manager available to answer questions or make recommendations.

3. Specialty wine shops will not necessarily have the largest selection of wine labels available, but they will have confidence in the labels they do carry. In general, specialty wine shop owners will have personally tasted and selected the wines featured in their store and may be experts in the trade. If you choose to shop at a specialty wine shop, the employees should be able to make great recommendations for bottles that will suit your palate and your needs.

Once you’ve selected your retail outlet type, consider the following two questions. These will help you narrow down your options for a more focused shopping experience:

Are you looking for a red or a white wine?

This is pretty self-explanatory. It’s mainly just a matter of preference but may vary depending on the season, the meal or the occasion. Generally (and “generally” is the key here – there are no ultimatums when it comes to wine flavors and styles), white wines can be quite refreshing during warmer months, while red wines are generally heavier and taste well during cooler times of the year. It’s also a good idea to serve red wine later in the day, as it generally has a higher alcohol content and may leave drinkers feeling groggy or tired.

How much do you want to spend?

Price does not always reflect quality, but it’s definitely a factor. The producer’s marketing objectives, the label’s popularity and the winery’s production costs all play a role in the pricing of a bottle. Think about a time when you’ve purchased a pair of off-brand sandals. Were these shoes as comfortable or long lasting as a pair that may have been made a little better or cost a little more, like, say, a pair of Steve Madden’s? Sometimes a higher-priced bottle may be worth the investment.

That being said, it is possible to find great bottles of wine that won’t break the bank. From my own wine buying experiences, I’ve found that I have to spend a little more to get a decent bottle of red wine ($15 – $20) than I do to get a decent bottle of white wine ($9 – $12). Why is this? Well, producing red wine involves many moving parts: it’s a longer process that is much more labor intensive (largely because of barrel aging – most whites will never see time on oak). There’s too much good wine out there to be stuck on bottles in the “under $7” range, so drink less and spend a little more. I’m confident you won’t regret it.

When browsing the wine shelves, you may also want to keep these other things in mind:
  •  Shelf talkers, like tasting notes and wine scores, are not guarantees (much of this depends on the critic’s taste preferences and is not a guarantee that you will like the bottle)
  •  If you’re looking to buy wine for a crowd or a special occasion, consider buying a case (12 bottles). Stores will often offer a discount between 10 percent – 20 percent for larger purchases.
  •  If you have a smart phone on hand, put it to use! There are plenty of wine apps available to help you find bottles to match your palate with your price range. These apps may offer critic or every-day drinker reviews, interfaces that let you search for wines by taste preference, occasion or meal, and some may even let you scan the bottle’s UPC barcode to compare prices from different retailers. Here are a few noteworthy wine apps to check out: Hello Vino,Snooth Wine ProPair It.

I could write all day long about my experiences as a wine shopper, but I wanted to get inside the mind of someone on the other side of this business – someone who’s job it is to source and sell wines that will please the diverse customers who walk through his doors.

Dan Dawson is the owner and general manager of Backroom Wines in downtown Napa, CA, a shop that specializes in rare, hard-to-find labels from all over the world. Backroom Wines offers a unique shopping experience. The shop has a tasting bar where they offer weekly events like themed tastings, “meet the winemaker” sessions and paired dinners where wine experts walk attendees through the flavors and sensations of various food and wine pairings. Their website,, ships directly to customers all over the U.S., and each carefully selected bottle comes with tasting notes, written by Dan himself, so you’ll know exactly what to expect from the wine you purchase.

Here’s some valuable wine shopping advice that resulted from my talk with Dan Dawson:

I asked Dan what percentage of consumers that come into the store and ask for his help in selecting a bottle. He said at least two thirds of his customers will ask for a recommendation. This number blew me away and highlights a very important principle for wine shoppers to remember – don’t be afraid to ask for help. That’s what they’re there for!

To follow up this response, I asked Dan what question consumers ask him most often. He said that most customers will come in and say something like, “I’m looking for a nice white wine, what do you recommend?” or “I need a red wine. I had this really great bottle at dinner last week, and I want something similar.” Unfortunately, without more information about the wine’s taste profile, varietal or producer/label name, it can be hard to find a wine for consumers with these questions.

Here’s what Dan suggested: “The most important thing a customer can do to help me find a wine that he/she will like is that, when you try something that you like, write it down.” Write down the label, varietal, grape-growing region, vintage, whatever – really anything will help clue the wine specialist into what wines may be a good fit for your palate. Sure, it can be hard to remember a label or a varietal a week, or even a day, after tasting, but be sure to document those special wines that really stand out to you. Once a wine shop owner knows what sorts of taste profiles you enjoy, he can easily narrow down his recommendations.


More articles from our Food and Wine Basics Series:
Best Flavor Forward, easy tips for food and wine pairing
Take Two, recipes paired with two wine suggestions: one classic, one adventurous

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