It's hardly a stretch to suggest that wine shopping can operate as a unique form of masochism: The towering shelves, the breezy clerk, the siloed-off table of “staff picks.” You’ve been here before: You enter, pick up a bottle, pretend to read it (it’s in French). Within seconds, you’ve given yourself away — the clerk knows you’re a sham. And wait, is that a price tag or a year? What on god’s earth is a DOC? Skin contact?! Terroir??!!?!
Now you’re sweating, wandering idly amongst the racks of meticulously organized, fragile bottles. As you see it, there are two options available to you: either you get it together and ask for help (excuse me, can I have something umm, white and financially feasible?) or you buy whichever refrigerated bottle is stationed closest to the register and run for cover before the shop’s employees figure you out.
But, know this: In reality, the staff at your local wine shop (probably) doesn’t think you’re a sham. They love wine — a lot — and they want to talk to you about it, whether or not you identify as a self-proclaimed grape scholar. So do yourself a favor and allow them to guide you.
“You don’t need to know a ton about wine to walk into a store and leave with an excellent bottle,” says Lorena Ascencios, head buyer at beloved New York wine and liquor depot, Astor Wines. “Instead, you’ve just got to know what questions to ask — what little details to remember about the wines you do like.”
So, in the interest of tempering your anxiety levels upon entering a wine shop, we’ve culled together an expert-driven guide to navigating wine browsing like a connoisseur.
Find your go-to wine shop — & stick with it
When selecting your wine vendor, proximity is usually a guiding force. But location notwithstanding, it’s well worth finding a spot you particularly like, and committing to it. Whether it’s a question of ambiance, curation, or the clerk’s dry humor, you’ll want to lock in a locale where you enjoy operating as a repeat offender. The more time you spend frequenting a wine shop, the more familiar the employees will grow with your taste, the better you’ll understand the selection, and the less you’ll feel as if the shelves are slowly closing in on you each time you venture inside.
“Food and wine are all about relationships. The more we can connect with the people we’re buying from, the more we get out of the transaction,” says Alexis Schwartz, natural wine club host, and founder of roving beverage-forward dinner party series, Thirsty Thirsty. “If you can, find a shop that’s passionate about wine, talk with the people working there using your own vocabulary, and be open to a quick conversation.”
Whether you’re tapping local friends for recommendations, visiting a slew of different spots first-hand, or perusing Yelp reviews, begin by finding your store. Odds are, you’ll be returning. And they might even have a punch card.
Consider when and where you’ll be drinking
“Some wines are meant to complement food and that's when they really shine, others are great for drinking on a porch or enjoying at a party,” says Holly Berrigan, co-founder of MYSA Natural Wine, e-commerce platform and mail-order wine club. “So, the first thing I like to consider when choosing a wine is where and when I'd want to drink it.”
This part is fairly simple. If, say, you’re making your way to a backyard barbeque in Peak Summer, you might want bubbles, maybe a pet nat — something light, zippy, and low ABV for sustained daytime drinking. Perhaps you plan to serve an aperitif wine at a dinner party — something neutral to be sipped with hors d'oeuvres. Maybe you’re looking for a deep, jammy red to nurse by a fireplace in someone’s winterized cabin. Before you get into the nitty gritty of flavor, be sure to mention the where and the when of your consumption.
“I always ask a customer about the context in which they’ll drink the wine,” says Schwartz. “Is it for tonight over a blizzardy Sunday evening roast chicken? Or for next sunday at a friend’s beach place with no food? Then, once we’ve got that info, we can move onto personal preferences.”
Tell the staff what you actually like — in your own words
For most of us, this is the fundamental barrier to entry when it comes to wine-buying. Attempting to “speak wine” can feel a bit like stumbling your way through Medieval English — not a separate language, entirely, but not quite familiar either. So, when it comes to verbally identifying what you are, in fact, drawn to, often the secret lies in using your own words.
“I'm a firm believer that the more you can speak like you, the better,” says Schwartz. “Don't get preoccupied with sounding like a wine professional. Use words you’re familiar with, don’t worry about whether they’re ‘wine words.’” Rather than thinking in terms of a wine-specific lexicon, she recommends allowing yourself to rely on words that come naturally to you. Does something taste rich? Does it taste sour or vinegary? Buttery? Does it remind you of grass? Four Loko?
“I find describing how a wine feels to be the best compass for finding the right bottle — as opposed to a fruit profile. For example, does something feel zippy, rich, juicy?” says Chris Leon, owner of Brooklyn wine shop, Leon and Sons. When finding the proper adjectives for flavor, he believes it can help to think in reactive terms: Does it make you feel sleepy? Does it vaguely sting? Is it warming? No attribute is incorrect.
For most wine drinkers, the most notable flavor descriptor comes in the form of sugar. In Berrigan’s experience, folks are apt to walk into a shop declaring that they want something “not sweet” or “bone dry” — when really, what they’re saying is that they’d like something with less berry flavors or with a bit more acidity. “When people say they don't like sweet wine, a lot of the time they aren't actually talking about sugar. They may not like aromatic wines with floral notes or things that are too fruity,” she says. “Understanding more specifically if they enjoy acidic wines, or ones with minerality or spice, are all indicators that help me make better recommendations.”
So, before you shout “dry, very dry!!” at your shop attendant, take a moment to contemplate some of your favorite pours. Do bottles you love lean towards a mineral or saline-like flavor? Do they feel sharp or citrus-forward?
Don’t forget to consider texture
Sure, this can feel like an odd descriptor when we’re talking strictly about liquids. But texture, in wine, is often about density. “Rich and full-bodied are terms that describe wines nicely and are easily understood,” says Ascencios. “You can refer to any type of wine this way whether it's a red wine, Champagne, or a white wine.”
Think of it like this: When we’re talking about density, wines and milks are not so different. You’ve got your light-bodied wines (textured like skim milk), medium-bodied (whole milk), and full-bodied (cream). Ask yourself — and your clerk — which of these you’d prefer for your wine-guzzling experience.
“Consider Frappato,” says sustainable Sicilia DOC winemaker, Gaetana Jacono, citing a wine that’s endemic to Northern Sicily: “It’s a light-bodied red, with few tannins. On the nose, it’s an explosion of raspberries, violet flowers, and a potpourri of spices, and it has an incredibly smooth texture. In the mouth it is soft and velvety.” Textured words like these — light-bodied, smooth, soft, velvety — can be wildly helpful for a clerk looking to help you find your bottle.
Think about what you’ll be eating
“I always try to remind myself that pairing food with wine doesn’t necessarily mean I should be searching for a wine that says the same thing the food is trying to say,” says Drew Brady, wine director at New York-based vegan restaurant group, Overthrow Hospitality. “I think of it like Mad Libs. The best pairings are when I find a wine that ‘finishes the sentence’ in an unexpected and exciting way like ‘...oh wow, that actually works!’”
Pairing wines and foods is a bit like curating an outfit. There are occasions for color complements and others that call for “power clash’ — a surprising flurry of things that don’t, at first glance, belong together but somehow still...work.
“I often go for a contrasting wine option since it makes for a more dynamic range of flavors. Think of a beautiful naturally made late harvest white wine with some stinky cheese,” Schwartz offers. “The late-harvest wine ends up standing in for fig jam that you may put with brie for instance.”
For Leon, the emphasis is on aligning details. As he explains it, a dish that relies heavily on heaps of fresh herbs calls for a wine with a similar herbaceous garnish. If you’re eating something with a compote, you’ll want to select a wine with a similar fruit note. “There are lots of examples: touches of citrus, hunks of finishing salt, etcetera,” he explains. “Find that defining accompaniment in the dish and reflect that in your wine choice.”
That said, you may not know precisely what wine will cut through said stinky cheese, or whether your parsley-heavy pasta dish will shine alongside, say, a chilled Oregonian red blend. So, when explaining your food menu to your wine clerk, pay attention to these details: Are you cooking with cloves? Will this wine be served with pumpkin pie? Is the roast chicken heavy on butter and thyme? The more specific you can get, the better.
Region can help narrow your selection
For your top level wine-buying experience, odds are you don’t necessarily need to know about region. This is the third degree, deep-cut type of knowledge we tend to leave to the experts. But if you’d like a base level understanding, it helps to think about terroir — which is the couth, French way of describing the natural environment in which a wine is produced (think: soil, climate, topography).
Let’s take Sicily for example — in large part, Sicily is surrounded by water, so the land takes influence from the sea. In local white wines like Grillo in particular, you’ll detect a sunny, saline quality. In reds — like the ever-popular Nero d’Avola — you’ll taste plum, back cherry, and cinnamon. The flavor is full-bodied, robust, and leathery, taking environmental notes from the warm, arid region in which the stuff is grown.
“Sipping Italian wines, you can travel in your mind throughout the boot,” says Giovanna Caruso, export manager at a costal, Sicilia DOC winery. “You taste the different regions, the way the land changes.” Especially at a time when travel is limited, tourism via flavor is certainly an enticing prospect — in this way, knowing your wine by its region can feel like a unique form of escapism.
“Feeling transported somewhere is one of the best parts about opening a bottle,” adds Schwartz. “The traditional food eaten in any given place tends to dictate the wine style — both of which are expressions of climate and the way the elements mingle in a landscape. It’s a beautiful thing.”
Know how much you’re willing to spend
Naturally, there are occasions for splurging on wine, and just as many instances for limiting yourself strictly to the demarcated “Under $20” section. There’s no shame either way, but be sure your clerk knows your price point when you ask for a recommendation (you'll save yourself from a soliloquy on that $58 Sancerre that might just overdraw your bank account).
“I certainly think there are delicious wines under $25. And if that’s what you’re looking for, we can always help you find something you’ll love in your price range. But I always urge people to look in the $30-45 range when they can swing it,” advises Schwartz. “This is really where you can have your mind blown and start to understand the complex beauty in wine.”
Berrigan has one final bit of advice on the matter of discount purchasing: “If the price seems too good to be true, it likely is.”