I have worked within wine retail since 1995 and during that time I have listened to all types of questions and answers from customers regarding wine. When it comes to buying I have no illusions on how difficult it can be. I'm lucky, I study wine. I also know how tricky it is too. It's a very personal and subjective matter.
I do occasionally feel that people need to give some thought about what they want before walking into a store.
Here's what I mean -
"How much would you like to spend?"
"Nothing too much, er, mid-range." Sorry chaps, one person's cheap is another person's expensive.
"Do you know what you'd like?"
"Something nice." I don't recall anyone asking me for a disgusting bottle of wine. 'Nice' I thought was a foregone conclusion. Maybe I'm wrong?
More recently I had this scenario thrust upon me. A customer walked into the store, first one of the day I might add. The gentleman asks -
"I'm looking for a wine for someone's 40th, what can you recommend?"
I go through my usual repertoire of questions -
"How much would you like to spend?"
"Do they like Red or White?"
"I don't know."
"Do you know if they have a particular style they like, grape variety, full, medium or light bodied wine?"
"Sorry, don't know...What would you buy?"
"What would you buy for someone's 40th?"
Where do you go with that? As I mentioned to the customer, the art of gift buying is unique to the person they are buying for. I do not know this person so therefore I cannot offer up too much helpful advice. In the end I pointed out a selection of wines that I thought were good. He decided that he needed to consult his wife.
I do take into account that this was an extreme case. The chances are he had been sent out to get a last minute present.
Based on this I thought I would give some pointers in buying wine.
Have a fixed budget in your mind. To say something as non-specific like cheap, mid-range doesn't really help. When I go shopping I know roughly what I want to spend before I've entered a store. As I stated at the top, one person's cheap is another's expensive.
If you are buying for someone else, gifts, dinner parties, find out a bit about what they like. Do some research. I know as vendors we are here to help but we can only go so far with the information provided.
Price doesn't guarantee quality. Because a bottle maybe expensive it doesn't make it exceptional. I've sampled cheaper wines which have tasted better than dearer wines. The cost of a bottle can be based on certain factors, for example regions and restrictions. Southern French table wines should be cheaper as they have fewer production restrictions. They can be mass produced, use multiple grape varieties. Appellation Controlee regions like Burgundy or Bordeaux have set guidelines. There are very tight controls on how much they can produce. This can, invariably, produce wines with a higher shelf price.
Don't gender specify wines. If a wine's good, it's good regardless of gender. Nothing worse when someone asks for a wine, saying it's for a woman. All of our palates are different. We all taste different things. I don't see where gender comes into it.
If you see wine available to taste then taste it. They have been opened for a reason. You may not buy one there and then but you might like it, hopefully you will be back to buy a bottle in the future.
Do not be put off by the wine store itself. If you are greeted by a wall of wine then allow the sales person to do the work for you. If the sales person is any good and the right questions have been asked they will find a wine that should suit your needs.
Don't let the seller guide you to a point where they are trying to sell you something you don't want. A customer told me the other day that he went to a store and asked for Argentinian Malbec. The assistant commented on that "French Malbec was the best" and led him to France. He didn't want French. He subsequently left without buying anything. By all means, listen to recommendations if the store can't fit your needs but don't be led away from your request.
Finally don't be worried or embarrassed about asking silly questions. The vast majority of the wine drinking public know little about wine. Use the vendor. Let them be your guide. Hopefully you will learn too. Impress your friends with this new found information. Believe me, there is nothing more satisfying than holding a group of people in the palm of your hand by talking about wine.
I would be interested in hearing your wine buying nightmare stories.
Now go forth and purchase with a bit more confidence.
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