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7 insider tips on how to buy wine smarter

7 insider tips on how to buy wine smarter
(Photo credit: Total Wine and More)

For the novice, choosing a bottle of wine can feel like a game of Eeny, Meany, Miny, Moe. So many bottles. Add to that feeling judged by our choices, and it's no wonder some people are too intimidated to experiment.

Well, fear no more. Here are seven insider tips that will help you feel more confident in your choices and find wines you'll truly enjoy.

      1. Make a plan. For instance, if you want a good bottle of wine that costs 10 to 15 bucks, ignore everything else. You can definitely find many nice bottles in that price range.

      2. Ask for assistance. Don't be afraid to walk into a store and say, "I want a good bottle of red wine, and I have $10." Taking advantage of the wine store's expertise increases your chances of satisfaction and cuts down your search time. You'll likely get an answer right away, and if the recommended wine is one you know you don't like, proceed to the next point.


      3. What do you like? Tell the store expert the name of a couple of wines you've enjoyed. Then he or she will consider the flavors and other qualities of those wines, as well as where they came from, and will recommend a few wines in your budget that share similar characteristics. These may be other wines from the same producer, the same region or ones in a similar style from another place entirely.

      4. Note shelf talkers. Read those little cards that quote a review and give a numerical score. Though the reviews are always positive, of course, note the name of the reviewer, try the wine and see if you agree. Chances are you'll find a reviewer who shares your taste for "what's good." When you're looking at an unfamiliar wine, seeing that your favorite reviewer loved it gives you a lead.

      5. Go exploring. Or, as one wine-seller once advised, "Try weird wine." Look where many consumers do not — at lesser-known regions and varietals. Tastings are the perfect opportunity to do this. Stores usually conduct them on a regular day (check their website or in-store signage). You can learn a lot about your preferences by making a habit of attending tastings.

      6. Read the back label. Note the importer/distributor of a wine that you like, and look for it when you're trying to assess an unfamiliar bottle. Many importers, following their own taste, assemble a list of distinctive wines the same way as a sommelier. For example, Total Wine & More has a selection called Winery Direct, with wines they select and purchase directly from producers, giving the double benefit of a recommendation and a lower price.

Out of the thousands available, here are a few "Winery Direct" wines to look for.

  • Miglianico Montupoli Montepulciano, Abruzzo, Italy.

  • Terre di Talamo Morellino di Scansano Riserva, Tuscany, Italy.

  • Phebus Malbec Patagonia Reserva, Patagonia, Argentina.

  • Quinta das Carvalhas Tinto Douro, Douro Valley, Portugal.

  • Neethlingshof Pinotage, Stellenbosch, South Africa.

  • Bougrier “V” Vouvray, Loire Valley, France.

  • Framingham Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough, New Zealand.

  • Kudos Pinot Gris Oregon, Willamette Valley, Oregon.

  • Val Do Sosego Albarino Rias Baixas, Rias Baixas, Spain.

  • Donnachiara Falanghina Beneventano, Puglia, Italy.

  • Trimbach Pinot Blanc, Alsace, France.

      7. Use your smartphone. When you find something good, take a picture of the label. That single shot will usually record all you need to remember: the name of the wine, who made it, country of origin, the vintage, and the day you drank it. If you want to record your impressions or add any other details, there are several "wine journal" smartphone apps.

—John Midkiff for Total Wine

John Midkiff has worked as a sommelier, restaurant beverage director, bartender and server. He's studying for the Court of Master Sommeliers Level 2 certification.