The Five Questions to Ask Your Local Wine Shop

Simple queries, better vino

By Nora O'Malley

The Five Questions to Ask Your Local Wine Shop
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12 April 2016

You walk into a wine shop with one goal in mind: to leave with a decent bottle.

It seems simple until you’re hit by overwhelming selection, unfamiliar labels and display tables full of sales and promotions.

Enter: the wine seller. The employees at your local wine shop can be your guide through the jungle of tinted glass and cork ... assuming you know what to ask them. Just a few basic questions are all that’s standing in the way of you and the bottle of wine you actually want to drink tonight.

“Can you help me?”
It seems basic, but most people pretend they’re “just browsing,” which actually translates to “wandering aimlessly and grabbing the bottle with the prettiest label.” It’s no surprise that this is not an effective strategy. A (good) small wine shop is usually staffed by people who are obsessed with wine — and their selections in particular — and definitely know more than you do. Use them!

“What’s new?”
Just because a wine is new to a shop doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to be great for you, but it does mean that the staff has very recently tasted it — so it’s fresh in their minds. It’s a good place to start to see if they’re really excited about a certain bottle. It will also help you get your bearings with how they describe wine in general, which should help you communicate what you’re looking for.

“I know I like [insert any wine here]. What else do you think I would like?”
Your wine shop truly wants to help you, but it’s so much easier when you give them something to work with. Even a morsel, just any nugget of preference, can set them down the path of expert recommendation. Next time you have a wine you like, just take a picture of the label and show it to them. Even if they don’t have that particular wine, it will certainly help them lead you to something amenable.

“What’s the best value for $20?”
First off: you’re an adult, you can spend $20 on a good bottle of wine, so let’s get that out of the way. Secondly, $20 gets you into the range where you can really get the most bang for your buck. Your friendly wine director might recommend something from a region you wouldn’t expect, like Portugal or Hungary, and odds are it will be much better than what you’d get from Napa for the same price.

“What are you loving right now?
Want to see your wine seller really light up? Ask what they’re drinking tonight. Odds are they’ll have a recommendation that is affordable (hey, they’re not exactly millionaires, either), interesting and almost definitely something you wouldn’t have picked out on your own.

And while these questions might help you discover your new favorite wine, there’s only one that never will: “I had this one wine at this one restaurant this one time, and I think it had an orange label. Do you have that?”

Don’t be that guy. Just don’t.

—Nora O’Malley

Besides her extensive writing background, Nora O’Malley is a certified Sommelier and spent years as a manager of New York’s ABC Wine Company. She also opened Lois, an all-tap wine bar.

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