Contributor Chad Walsh writes about wine and other beverages frequently for Food Republic. He is the former beverage manager for the Dutch in New York City and is currently working on the opening of Agern, Danish chef Claus Meyer’s planned restaurant in Manhattan’s Grand Central Terminal.
Nearly anyone who’s seen the inside of my refrigerator has mocked me for the disproportionate number of wine bottles to actual foodstuffs, a situation compounded by the fact that there are two additional wine fridges, filled to capacity, whispering their song of good provenance nearby.
As a sommelier, I shouldn’t have to ever buy wine from a store, in the same way that stylists don’t buy that many clothes for themselves. Occasionally, though, I have to walk into a shop and improvise. I might be en route to a housewarming party and realize late that the wine guy arriving empty-handed is a total buzzkill. Or let’s say I’m traveling and need to bring something back to my hotel.
Even to me, walking into a wine shop can be bewildering. Generally, there’s no list, like you’d find in any restaurant with a similar number of options, which makes a quick perusal difficult. Here’s my approach:
These days, especially when you’re in the cool parts of Austin, Oakland or Portland, the way the shop presents itself may not be as cut-and-dried as the classic retail store. Generally, things will be organized by nation of origin, with the prices ascending and descending depending on the corresponding shelf’s height. If the bottles at eye level are more than $50, you’re probably somewhere pretty fancy; if they’re under $15, you may want to look up. By the same token, when there is something “creative” going on — perhaps a gradient of single vertical bins based on richness, or shelves organized by suggested food pairings — there is likely someone present who can help you edit. Trust them.
Talk the Talk
The only problem with smart salespeople is that they are not psychics, and they probably also don’t really have the time or the motivation to give you an education. Often people like to throw out words that they know may or may not connote the style of wine they actually like to drink, but individual descriptors can get you pegged for the least creative recommendation pretty quickly.
For example, part of the reason that chardonnay, as a New World style more than a variety, became so pervasive is that it is easy to ask for something “buttery and oaky.” By the same token, it is easy to say that these are qualities you want to avoid, and unless you identify with the pungent, sometimes repugnant “sweaty passionfruit” that is cheap sauvignon blanc’s bouquet, you are almost inevitably walking out with a pinot grigio, which is basically the Italian word for “innocuous.”
I can’t repeat it enough! When dealing with wine people (retailers, somms, your annoying friends), start with the objective parameters. Most wine is dry, so unless you specifically want a sweet wine, dryness isn’t really a factor. Fruitiness, though, is, and the “Anything But Chardonnay” crowd tends to fall either in favor or opposed. Think more savory, herbaceous or austere.
Feel free to personify your wine into a potential suitor, especially when it comes to your preferred body type. When you want red, are you thinking light and fresh (pinot noir) or dark and foreboding (cabernet sauvignon)? Do you want a lean and spritely muscadet, or are you into unctuous experiments in “skin contact” with Ribolla Gialla?
Figure out how you feel about tannin, better compared to the spiking of pleasure with pain, or, at least, a distinct sensation on the sides of one’s tongues and gums. I often suffer tannic fatigue, an occupational hazard, and am usually picking up sparkling or white wine at the shop. When I do drink red, it tends to veer toward the lower end of the tannin spectrum (think Beaujolais and the aforementioned pinot noir). Some of you, though, have a masochistic streak that instills in you a desire for wines with so much tannin that it would make me feel like I needed to go to the dentist if I had more than a sip or two.
Exploring your options, and remembering some key words, will serve you well.
When in Doubt, Pick Champagne
Wine stores are not all created equal. Sometimes you will find yourself in a place with limited options. There might only be one shop open, or you might be somewhere remote. If the person you asked about Loire Valley–style cabernet franc points you toward Yellowtail, ask for a few minutes to browse and take a deep breath. If the ambient store temperature is over 65 degrees Fahrenheit, start looking for dust; the bottles with a good layer are fine to leave on the shelf.
Although the risk/reward might be a bit out of whack, I tend to defer to champagne, not just because it is such a versatile, always-welcome wine, but also because there are big players in place to ensure quality and consistency. To this day, I have never bought a bottle of Bollinger Special Cuvée, a definitive “go-to,” that wasn’t opened immediately and found to be perfectly delicious. These days, $50 on the shelf is a certain kind of guarantee.
Know Some Appellations
Okay, fair, you don’t always want to drink champagne. (You sure about that?) You’re still in an unenviable situation — suppose there is bulletproof glass between you and your quarry. Now what?
You could narrow your search by nationality, of course — perhaps you gravitate toward wines made close to home, or you turn up your nose at anything that wasn’t made in Italy. But even within a single country, wines can be confusingly diverse.
This is why it’s good to learn an appellation or two. By that, I’m referring to both a specific wine-growing region and also, at least in most of the world, a set of rules for how to make stuff within that region. To use the French example, think of Burgundy, or Bourgogne, as the broadest appellation, including the villages in the middle, like Chambolle-Musigny, and individual crus, both Premier (Chambolle-Musigny 1er Cru ‘Les Feuselottes’) and Grand (Musigny). In France, it’s called an “Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée,” but depending on where you are it might be Denominaciones, Denominaziones, Districtus Controllatus, etcetera.
In the end, those names are a sort of written guarantee that the wine will have satisfied certain standards of drinkability. That’s not to say that every bottle of Pouilly-Fumé you find will be delicious, but if it bears the name of the village (and it isn’t some poseur), you will at least know that it is made according to a set of rules that were established in 1937 and include restrictions on yields and taking shortcuts during vinification.
Not getting robbed on the way out is up to you.
Let the Importer Pick for You
Although the names on the back labels of imported wines can vary from state to state, experienced wine shoppers quickly begin to notice some recurring characters. If two wines that you like both had “Louis-Dresner” on the back, keep an eye out for the other producers this particular importer has chosen to bring in. A Kermit Lynch selection garners attention not just because of his memoir and reputation as being the guy who brought certain appellations to the United States, but because his palate, and the palates of the people he entrusts to work on his behalf, finds wines that are both rustic and sound.
There are plenty of names to know, like Wildman, Rosenthal, Locasio, Wilson Daniels, and so on, but when you find someone you trust, let that brand be your guide to new varietals and unexplored regions.
Price point is a tricky issue in the world of wine retail. The basic input costs of winemaking make it hard to get a bottle of much quality on the shelf for less than $10 (although there may be some rare $8.99 gems), and the winemaking practices behind those supremely cheap bottles might make you reconsider their value. By the same token, it’s tough to get good champagne for less than $40, but there is a whole world of less expensive bubbly out there. Although prosecco can be fun when it’s good, look for Crémants from France, e.g. Crémant de Bourgogne, or Crémant d’Alsace, which are made in the same method as champagne (instead of the Charmat process used for prosecco), with great-quality bottles available for closer to $20 per bottle.
Price doesn’t necessarily guarantee quality, though, and unless you’re familiar with a specific producer or style, the $50 shelf can be a minefield of overpriced shlock from big growers. Do your research before dropping that kind of dough.
It doesn’t matter who you’re bringing it to: Wine is always welcome, even if it’s to stash in the spice cabinet for the next time they’re making artichokes à la Barigoule. Take the price tag off; don’t buy the stuff you drink alone, with Hulu; and don’t be afraid of failure. I’ve excitedly opened a new bottle of wine to impress someone only to find that it’s terrible. It doesn’t ruin the evening; if anything, everyone agreeing that something is shitty will just put everyone at ease.
Also, if you’re arriving anywhere with a bottle of wine that is sealed with a cork and not a screw top, bring a wine key. As entertaining as it is to watch someone on YouTube use a sneaker and a brick wall to open a bottle of wine, the potential mess, including an emergency-room visit, isn’t worth it. It also works on bottle caps, too, for when you inevitably switch to beer.