Ask a Sommelier: Wine Shopping Advice

Geoffrey Fairchild on Flickr

This week, we asked our crew of sommeliers for their wine shopping tips. How do you spot a good retailer and what should we be looking for in a wine shop? What should you buy if you're looking to learn about wine? Are there specific brick-and-mortar shops, mailing lists, or online wine-selling sites we should be checking out?

Here's their advice.

"The absolute best way to buy wine and learn about wine is to find a wine shop where you feel comfortable. Visit all your local wine merchants until you find one that fits you. The staff should be friendly, inviting, and informative. Tell the wine merchant what already like, what you're looking for, if you want to challenge them, tell them what you don't like and most likely you will be recommended many bottles to change your mind. Keep your palate and mind open! There are thousands of winemakers all over the world, using the same grapes, but coming up with completely different tasting wines, try and taste them all. It also helps if the shop you end up going to has tasting days where they have bottles open for you to sample. Tasting is the most important part. Forget about all the hype, taste as much as you can and ask more questions than you think is appropriate."—Jeremy Wilson (Ned Ludd)

"Focus on an area of interest and explore it within a price range you are comfortable with. Values can be found everywhere; to me, the best part of wine buying is the exploration. My best advice is to start with familiar areas to you and determine what variety or wine style you have a preference for. If you find that you like Syrah for instance, with a little research you will find that the red wines of the northern Rhône are syrah based or that in Australia, they call it Shiraz. Now you have two new areas that you can start trying wines from while staying in a comfortable budget."—Mark Thomas (Wynn Las Vegas)

Look for the importer on the back of the label. Maggie Hoffman

"When I go to shops, I look for importers I like and where the mark up of the wine is not too high. Importers I like are Kermit Lynch, Terry Theise, Peter/Warren Selections, and many others. When you drink something you like from outside the US, check the importer on the back label and write it down. I have found there are some importers that have really created a niche for themselves importing value wines from smaller producers."—Alicia Nosenzo (Kin Shop, Perilla, The Marrow)

"I love going to shops that are part of larger chains but are in weird areas of the city, where people don't do a lot of shopping for wine. These shops sometimes get a hold of hard to find, limited things but they don't sell them because most of their shoppers aren't looking for it. There are a couple stores like that in Atlanta. I go there for Dauvissat, Lapierre, and Occhipinti. I refuse to say which one it is, for purely selfish reasons."—Steven Grubbs (Empire State South and 5 & 10)

"Sometimes you need to go on a few first dates until something clicks. A good retailer is really a place you can go and get answers to your questions. It's helpful to also go in with a plan. Knowing what you want, even if it's only red instead of white, is always a step in the right direction. If you know you want red, it eliminates half the store! Bring photos of labels of wines you like. The store may not have that wine, but it will give them an idea of what you want. I would also say we should all throw away the idea that you have to spend a ton of money to drink something delicious. If there's one blanket piece of advice I can give people it's that there's always something for under $20 that will be good. And if you're lost for where to start, look at $15 wines from Spain beyond Rioja or Priorat. Spain is a country that is undervalued, so if you are in that price point and you're looking at labels that have words other than Rioja and Priorat (which can be pricier), you will find something great! And the last piece of advice I'd give is: the next time you're in a restaurant where there's a wine professional, and you're drinking something you love, call that person over and ask them where you can buy it retail. Chances are if they have the wine you love, they'll have others you love too! I am always happy to ask my vendors on behalf of guests where certain wines are sold retail."—Caitlin Doonan (Toro NYC)


"The internet has become a great place to shop. I browse everyday. Although finding a great wine store in your neighborhood is a necessity. Get to know the people working there, take their recommendations, if the wines are no good find a new store and start over! In my hood Discovery Wines on Ave B in New York is great (doesn't hurt that I live upstairs)!"—Patrick Cappiello (Pearl & Ash)

"I like to see how things are stored, what the atmosphere of the store and the style of the people who work there is—are the staff helpful and informed if you need assistance? Is it fun? Do they do tastings? My favorites include Wine Authorities in Durham, NC, Boulder Wine Merchant in Boulder, CO, and I'm really excited to hear about a couple of acquaintances opening a shop in Oakland, CA in a couple months called Bay Grape."—Jill Zimorski (formerly of Hotel Jerome)

"Look for retailers that store their bottles properly, i.e. good bottles stored on their side, cool temperatures in the store, etc. Avoid grocery stores—that's the advice I give most of my friends. Even an average specialty wine retailer will have better selections than grocery stores. If you're looking to regularly enjoy wine without breaking the bank, I think it's important to experiment with affordable wines until you find something you like. Tasting a couple producers of your favorite grapes side by side, perhaps from different regions, can really nail down your favorite wines very quickly."—Evan Hufford (Saison)


"I love the website/emails from Garagiste. A Seattle based company with fabulous wine writing and great pricing. They have a different deal every day and they have fantastic taste. I've found some really wonderful things there."—Savanna Ray (formerly of Wildwood)

"I recommend visiting Storyteller Wine Company in Portland and also signing up online for his newsletter. Michael Alberty hand-selects wines of Oregon and abroad and provides a wealth of information and weekly wine tastings. If you're looking to learn about wine, I recommend starting or joining a tasting group. It's fun to pick one varietal or wine region at a time to explore."—Christopher Sky Westmoreland (Levant)

"I love sending people to smaller downtown shops like Flatiron, Moore Brothers, Chambers Street, as well as the all-purpose, excellent Astor Wines. All of them have friendly, knowledgeable staff who can help you put a few things together from just a bit of intel on your likes, dislikes and budget. If you come back to report on your experiences, they can then really hone in on what will work for you next round. Buying wine is not about "shelf talkers" (those meaningless score-reporting tags generated for commercial promotion of the wines), it's about people, relationships and experiences."—Juliette Pope (Gramercy Tavern)

"Most importantly, let the retailer be your personal sommelier and get comfortable talking price and purpose of the wine. Are you going to a dinner party? Is it an anniversary gift? Do you want a delicious bottle under $18 for a girls' night? Because they've tasted their inventory and know where the values are, give the retailer your parameters and let them take the wheel. For Tuesday night wine, look for regions where raising your price point from $10 up to $15 means a big leap in quality (such as in Argentina and Chile). For special nights, bring that price up a bit. An $11 North Coast Pinot Noir and a $28 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir are worlds apart, but can both be delicious. Keep one for weeknight Netflix binges, and one for a dinner party. Where to shop? I absolutely have to recommend ACME Fine Wines in Saint Helena, especially for California wine. Karen, Erin, and Beth are brilliant sommeliers who really are your go-to for an insider's guide to all things hot, new, and classic in California, at all different price points. Plus they ship online orders and have really cool wine clubs (overnight to San Francisco area!). They know every project that every respected, point-scoring, award winning winemaker/assistant winemaker/consultant/viticulturist in the area has worked on, and can secure these under the radar bottles for your new collection. In San Francisco, the San Francisco Wine Trading Company in West Portal is amazing, especially for their Champagne and hard-to-find spirits. Arlequin Wine Merchant is every sommelier I know's favorite spot, and for collectors I always recommend K&L and Wine House."—Cara Patricia (Saison / Bright Wine Fund)

"Go to a wine shop once or twice a year and it is a transaction. Go once or twice a month and it is a relationship. Once I find a bottle I like, I buy a case and can usually finagle a discount of some kind. I also love having a house red and a house white. Buy a case of each of something you like and keep it around for a while. My red right now is Pleiades by Sean Thackrey. My white is Txakoli from Northern Spain."—Jeremy Adler (Eveleigh)

The Delectable app.

"In this digital day and age, we are not limited to what our corner liquor shop carries but there is still nothing better than having a reliable local wine shop with a knowledgeable staff. I also find professionals I admire and follow them on Delectable, a super user-friendly, photo-based app through which you can also purchase wine. In San Francisco, I shop at Arlequin Wine Merchant and in Healdsburg, I go to Bergamont Alley—Kevin carries exclusively imported wine and has been known to open his doors after midnight for certain Riesling emergencies."—Courtney Humiston (Dry Creek Kitchen)

"When you do find a retailer you like, it's extremely helpful to stay in touch and build a relationship with a salesperson there. Based on what you like or don't like, that person can introduce you to new wines that are in line with wines you already enjoy. Wine shops I love: Crush Wine & Spirits (get on their mailing list! dangerously good offers all of the time), New York Vintners (ask for Jesse), Flatiron Wines (ask for Rosemary), Chambers Street Wines (ask for Beaver or John), Bottlerocket (Gary is your man)."—Jordan Salcito (Momofuku)

"It's hard for me to buy wine online. I love the conversation with the retailer, the feel of the bottle in my hands. Some wine shops are magic. McCarthy and Schiering in Seattle is one of the greatest shops I've ever been to, and I always leave with something new and fun. Beware of buying older wines in a shop without temperature control. Hi-Time Wine in Costa Mesa is great for online shopping. When picking wine that will be educational, try to start with the classics and work backwards from there. It's hard to enjoy and appreciate a nice Sangiovese from Umbria without really knowing what Chianti Classico should taste like. A great Cabernet Sauvignon from an unknown part of Southwest France will taste that much better when you know how a classic Bordeaux from 200 miles north that's twice the price compares."—Jackson Rohrbaugh (Aragona)

"In Los Angeles, I rely on Wine Hotel for my Burgundies, Wine House for a great all-around store (it's not a small retailer, but their consignment cellars are terrific!), and Domaine LA. The key factor is that in those stores you will find extremely competent staff that know their product. Also, it is in their great interest to make you happy and come back. My advice is to be extremely detailed in what are you searching for, citing a producer or a wine that you really enjoyed in the past or the specific dish you're cooking to go with the wine."—Andrea Scuto (Trattoria Amici at The Americana at Brand)

"In Houston, I go chat with the Houston Wine Merchant folks, or to D & Q Beer Mart for Justin's selections, Austin Wine Merchant in Austin, when I'm home in Vermont, the selection at the Norwich Wine and Spirits is truly outstanding, and Crush in NYC has a great e-mail newsletter, K&L from San Francisco as well."—David Keck (Camerata at Paulie's)

Got More Tips?

What's your favorite wine shop? Do you ever buy wine online? Any tips for getting the most out of the wine shopping experience?