It’s said that we humans are creatures of habit. I won’t speak for everyone, but there’s little that I can say that would rebut the old adage. When it comes to wine shopping, I’ve found that it’s helpful to develop habits and strategies. I buy a little bit of wine directly from wineries (about 18 bottles a year), and a little bit more than that from online retailers (can’t say enough good things about Full Pull Wines, Wine.com when I have gift cards, and occasionally Wine Commune), but most of the wine that I buy is from a rotation of five brick-and-mortar wine/liquor shops in the Denver-area–Heritage Wine and Liquor, Davidson’s Liquor, Bubbles Liquor World, Castle Pines North Wine and Spirits, and Highland Wine Seller. I recall with mild horror the days of staring at the rows and rows of wine bottles and wondering “where the hell do I start.” Based on several conversations that I’ve had with “non” and “quasi” wine drinkers, it seems that the overwhelming number of bottles and regions to choose from is one of the biggest impediments to people getting in to wine. I would like to share a few habits and strategies and encourage anybody reading to share some habits/strategies/tips that they have found to be effective in successful wine buying, which I would define as buying good wine without overpaying.
- Tip 1: Do not ignore the close-out section – I walk in to a wine shop and the close-out section is my first stop. The assumption may be that if a wine is on clearance, it sucks. That’s not always the case. Here’s a short list of some wines that I’ve found on clearance: 1) Robert Mondavi Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2000 ($50, released at $125); 2) Betz La Cote Rousse Syrah ($41, released at $55); and 3) 2008 Bowlus Hills Walla Walla Syrah ($14, released at $21).
- Tip 2: Feel out the staff and if they’re knowledgeable, ask for recommendations – But, you say, how will I know if they’re knowledgeable? It’s not as hard as you think. Case Study 1: A staff member asks if she can be of assistance, and I ask her if she has any recommendations for Washington wines. She walks over to the Washington section, looks at several bottles, and then points one out, replying “this one says it’s an Estate wine, so I’d go with that one.” No thanks. Case Study 2: After noting on a certain shop’s website that they sometimes carry Sine Qua Non, I take a shot in the dark and ask a staff member if they have any in. “Nope”, he said, “but you should really check out Stolpman’s Hilltops Syrah. They sell some of their grapes to Sine Qua Non, so you’re at least getting comparable fruit.” Now we’re talking.
- Tip 3: Develop a rotation – By limiting your shopping to one or two wine shops, you may never know if you’re overpaying. I regularly visit five retail locations. After wandering the aisles, you start to notice price patterns. Sometimes the prices are nearly identical, but it’s also not uncommon to see non-sale prices for the same wine vary anywhere from 10-40% between shops. This price analysis may also help you realize how badly you’re getting screwed when ordering wine at restaurants.
- Tip 4: Be flexible – When on the hunt for a certain list of wines, don’t be afraid to go astray. The Duckhorn Sauvignon Blanc and Franciscan Cabernet Sauvignon that you’re looking for may not be on sale, but Cambria’s Julia’s Vineyard Pinot Noir is 33% off. Duckhorn and Franciscan make a lot of wine, so you’re not going to miss out if you wait for a sale. One caveat to this example concerns limited production/wildly popular wines. When they are on the shelf and not grossly overpriced, this may be the only opportunity that you’ll have to buy them at a retail shop. If you miss out, you can always battle it out with other bidders on Wine Commune!
I hope that these tips prove helpful. Also, I would love to hear about any close-out steals or horror or success stories that you’ve had with retail wine shop staff.