In California, wine drinkers have the luxury of buying wine at supermarkets, wine retailers, big-box stores and wine bars, and online and directly from wine producers. Sure, you can walk into your local Ralphs or Trader Joe’s and grab an inexpensive bottle for dinner. It may be drinkable, may even be good. Or maybe not.
Unless you’re the type that spends hours in online wine forums and subscribes to the major wine publications, buying wine can be a crapshoot. Only the truly obsessed or those with a professional interest have the time for the necessary due diligence — and often not even then.
There is one sure way to increase your positive wine buying experience and come home with a bottle you truly love.
Befriend your local wine shop.
Here’s how to do it.
Pick a real wine shop. Not a liquor store with a few shelves of wine. Poke around on its website to get a feel for the kinds of wines favored by the shop. Some are more into California wines, others lean more to Italian or French. Some go in for eclectic — orange wines, Georgian and Slovenian wines, obscure grapes. Some are Champagne specialists; some deal in rare or older bottles. Plan on visiting two or three. One close to your house, one near your place of work and one that may demand an expedition but a pleasurable one.
Pick one shop, go in, suss out the selection, check out the wine sales staff and wait for a quiet moment and introduce yourself. Ideally, you want to be able to spend a few minutes to chat so you can get a sense of the person. Enough so you can decide on this visit or an upcoming one: This is my guy (or woman).
Come with a mission in mind. You’re going to a dinner party and want to buy a wine. To that end, you’ve already found out something about the menu beforehand. The host may already have clued you in on the type of wine.
Ask for suggestions. Don’t be shy: Come right out and say how much you want to spend. Less than $30, say. A good wine clerk will be able to give you some idea of what each wine he or she is suggesting is like and also give you a sense of the winemaker or personage behind the wine and how the estate works.
Name the last couple of wines you really enjoyed. Or that one wine you savored with fish soup in Cassis and can’t get out of your mind. Don’t have that kind of memory? Snap a photo on your smartphone and indulge in some show-and-tell.
What else does the shop have in a similar vein? A smart clerk will suggest another wine from the same appellation and also might come up with another bottle with some of the same characteristics but from another part of the world entirely.
Buy several bottles. Go home, have the wine and — this is important — go back to the store soon afterward to give your designated wine person some feedback. Don’t be afraid to say you didn’t like a particular bottle, but try to articulate why. The same goes for the wines you did like. See if you can identify why.
Get some more suggestions. Try the wines and repeat. Each time you’ll be learning something about how and why your palate seems to gravitate toward certain wines. As your wine guru begins to understand your tastes — and you do too — buying wine becomes less of an unknown and more of a fun adventure.
Once you identify one flavor profile that syncs with your taste — Syrah, say — then you may want to occasionally splurge on a best-of-class bottle — a Guigal Côte Rôtie or a Chave Hermitage.
Go to tastings. Most serious shops have either a tasting bar or offer weekly wine tastings, usually focused on one region or grape. Comparative tasting are crucial in developing your palate. And by that I mean tasting one Pinot Noir or Sangiovese against another and beginning to decipher the differences between a Pinot from Oregon or the Santa Rita Hills and one from Burgundy’s Côte de Nuits. It’s a wonderfully absorbing homework exercise in service of finding the wines that you truly love.
Becoming an obnoxious wine snob is not obligatory. It’s possible to appreciate wine without indulging in wine geek speak.
At the best wine shops, OK, you may pay a dollar or two more for that bottle, but how good is it when you take home a bottle that truly delights?
And if you’re going to drink wine, why not drink the best within your budget?
I do know people who drink the same wine every night whether it’s Domaine Tempier rosé, Ojai Vineyard Syrah or Antinori Santa Cristina. I understand that about as well as I do people who eat just three or four things — period.
Tweak your curiosity about wine. It’s a wonderful moment to be a wine drinker, especially in Los Angeles.