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What to Ask in a Wine Shop

Your intentions are great. You want that perfect bottle of wine to celebrate a birthday. Or to pair with a specific meal. Or to just sit on your patio with glass in hand and watch the bees buzz around your lavender plant on a Friday evening after work.

So you walk into that local wine shop you've driven by a hundred times, ready to claim the one singular bottle that will make your night … your weekend … your whole life, even … a roaring success. But once you walk through the doors, you freeze … there are SO many aisles full of SO many bottles to choose from.

Where do you start? What do you ask?

Kerrin Laz, the proprietor of K. Laz Wine Collection in Yountville, suggests orienting yourself with how the shop is laid out first … is it by variety? By country? That will narrow down the search somewhat, as will trying to jog your memory about something you've tasted before.

"If they can remember a couple of wines that they've enjoyed in the past, we can try to find a similar style," she says. "You can also ask for any wines that we carry that are outside of where you live, or any new wines that you've heard about that you're excited about."

Another retailer and longtime fellow Premiere Napa Valley supporter, Michelle Hyder, approaches the question differently. "I want to almost reverse that," says Hyder, the owner of Omaha Wine Company in Nebraska. "It's more like, 'what should I be asking them,' especially if they don't know what they're looking for."

Hyder agrees it can be intimidating just to walk through the door. "We have about 500 different Napa Cabs. The selection is humongous, so it's very easy for consumers to feel like they don't know."

Hyder said that most folks will have some basic idea of what they want … red wine, white wine, something they had with dinner at a friend's house.

"We hand-sell our wines," said Hyder, who along with her husband, Hasan, recently purchased Omaha Wine Company from longtime owner John Draney. "We don't have a lot of signs up because we want to have a conversation, a back-and-forth about what you like."

Once that happens, she can narrow down the field on the path to wine enlightenment. "We'll ask things like, 'do you like big, bold, chewy tannins, or do you like wines that are soft and elegant?'" And it's totally OK if you don't know what that means—just say so!

"Matching people to their wine palate is like matching them to their fingerprint," she added.

Obviously, it can help if you have specific guidelines as to what you're looking for, but in terms of "jargon," Hyder advises that you might seize that perfect bottle quicker if you use terms correctly.

"Dry" versus "sweet" is a good example of this. "Sometimes consumers will say they want a sweet wine, and I will ask them if they really want something considered fruit-forward," said Hyder, noting that "sweet" can actually mean a Riesling or similar dessert wine that tastes very sugary.

The point here is that it is perfectly OK not to know what you want or even how to ask for it. There are three easy ways to get what you want:

  • Ask questions, if you have a basic idea of what you want as a conversation starter
  • If you don't know, a good retailer should be asking you the questions, so let them know that you don't know
  • Most retailers have websites, and some even offer wine education classes, so you can bone up ahead of shopping

The bottom line is you can expect a good wine shop to get what you want into your hands. "It's up to us to be the detectives," said Hyder.