Food & Drink

Buying wine? You’re going to need a guide you can trust

Unless you are completely committed to traveling your wine journey all alone (a horrible idea), you need to find a trustworthy and effective resource to sometimes show you the way and sometimes, when the path is clear, walk at your side. I’m talking about a fellow traveler – someone who loves wine as much as you do, someone who loves the same kinds of wines as you do, or at least knows what you love. You need a go-to clerk in your go-to wine shop.

Long before there were decent selections of good wine virtually everywhere, I decided to shop at a department store that had a sprawling culinary department stocked with all kinds of cooking equipment, dining accessories, and actual food and wine.

“What kind of wine should I get to go with pizza?” I said to the first clerk I saw.

Imagine my disenchantment when he said, in the most cavalier way, “An Italian red, of course.”

Even back then, when I knew close to nothing about wine, these words rang out in my head: “Can you be more specific?”

But I held my tongue and moved on. I didn’t even want his help. He hadn’t asked, “What kind of pizza?” Or, “Is there a specific kind of wine you have tried that you like?” Or, “Have you ever had wine with pizza?” Or, “Have you ever had wine?”

A true professional would have asked at least a couple of those questions, and maybe all four plus a couple more. But he clammed up after five words. Because of this, I instantly categorized him as an “ineffectual resource.” I had asked him for a wine recommendation – not a country and a color recommendation. I would not be returning to him, or his store, for wine.

Just as bad is the “untrustworthy resource.” I have never been a fan of asking restaurant servers what they like on the menu because usually it goes something like this:

“I love, love, love the artichoke and edamame quesadillas.”

“But it says here that your brisket won the North American Barbecue Championship last summer. And your burger was voted best in the tristate area 14 years in a row. And your fried chicken has its own show on the Food Network.”

“Oh, sure, all true. But I don’t eat meat.”

Even if a server has tried everything on the menu, how could you possibly know if what he likes is the same as what you like? He could be a lunatic. Or a bad taster. Or an undiscerning glutton. He might have a raging sweet tooth, or an unholy attraction to bitterness or salt. Don’t ask what he likes; ask what the restaurant does well.

The same goes for wine. No one knows a restaurant’s wine list like its sommelier, and she is going to use all of her resources to deliver the most appropriate wine to go with the food you are eating, while also staying within your budget. She might suggest a wine she likes, but above all else it will be a wine that she believes is best for you and your plate of vittles.

This is also what you aim for in a wine store clerk. You want someone who values your best interests. There is a getting-to-know-you phase, but once you try a few of her suggestions and offer feedback, the two of you will start to share mind space. She will know what you like and don’t like, and you will be more comfortable buying her recommendations.

We all know people who are good recommenders and others whose ideas we steer clear of because we have been repeatedly burned by them. When you find a wine clerk who works well for you, stick with her. Return to her, and make your walk with her. You are allowed to walk with other people, but make her your foremost trusted adviser. If you do, your misfires – your wasted dollars – could diminish drastically.

The strategy holds true for importers too. If you like an imported wine, search the label for the name of the importer, and seek out its other wines.

Just as you don’t mind helping someone who asks you for directions, a wine seller doesn’t mind digging down into your wine psyche and finding out what brightens your eyes. Talk to her at length about your wine-drinking experience and your preferences. She likes talking about wine, and she is also interested in putting the perfect bottle into your hands every time.

Once she learns your preferences and dislikes, the two of you can kick your connoisseurship into high gear. Obviously she is going to steer you toward what she thinks is good, but she will do it in context, as it relates to you. If she is good at her job, she will describe a wine and ask if it fits with what you like. Or recommend a wine based on what you tell her you like.

Go to her often enough, and she will remember your preferences, and no matter what they are, she will never judge you. If she does, there’s another highly qualified, potentially trustworthy and effective recommender down the block ready to start a beautiful relationship with you. Walk in, tell her you’re looking for an “Italian red” and see how she responds. You will know fairly quickly if she’s the one for you.

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