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How to Choose a Wine Merchant

3 of 10 in Series: The Essentials of Shopping for Wine

Sizing up a wine merchant is similar to sizing up any other specialty retailer. The main criteria for picking a wine shop are fair prices, a wide selection, staff expertise, and service. Also, the shop you choose must store its wines correctly.

Buying wine by catalog, telephone, mail, or the Internet can be work if you don’t have access to a decent wine shop where you live.

The following information can help you find the right wine merchant:

  • Putting price in perspective: When you’re a novice wine buyer, your best strategy is to shop around with an eye to service and reliable advice more than to price. After you’ve found a merchant who has suggested several wines that you’ve liked, stick with him, even if he doesn’t have the best prices in town. It makes sense to pay a dollar or so more for wines if they are recommended by a reliable merchant.

    When you have more knowledge of wine, you’ll have confidence to shop at stores with the best prices. But even then, price must take a backseat to the storage conditions of the wine.

  • Evaluating selection and expertise: You won’t know on your first visit whether a particular store’s selection is adequate for you. If you notice many wines from many different countries at various prices, give the store’s selection the benefit of the doubt. If you outgrow the selection as you learn more about wine, you can seek out a new merchant at that point.

    Some wine retailers know less than their customers. Be free with your questions, and judge how willing and able the merchant is to answer them. Expect a wine merchant to have personal knowledge and experience of the wines he sells.

  • Expecting service with a smile: Most knowledgeable wine merchants pride themselves in their ability to help you find a wine that you'll like. Trust a merchant’s advice at least once or twice and see whether his choices are good ones for you. If he’s not flexible enough — or knowledgeable enough — to suggest wine that suits your needs, obviously you need to find another merchant.

    Any reputable wine merchant should accept a bottle back from you if he has made a poor recommendation or if the wine seems damaged. Ask ahead of time about the store’s defective and unopened wine policy. Return an open bottle only if you think the wine is defective — in which case the bottle should be mostly full! A week or two beyond the purchase date, you should consider the wine yours whether you like it or not.

  • Judging wine storage conditions: If you plan to buy a lot of wine or expensive wine, check out the store’s wine storage conditions. What you don’t want to see is an area that’s warm — for example, wines stored near the boiler so that they cook all winter, or wines stored on the top floor of the building where the sun can smile on them all summer.

    In better wine shops, you’ll see most of the bottles (except for the inexpensive, large, jug-like bottles) lying in a horizontal position, so that their corks remain moist. A dry cork can crack or shrink and let air into the bottle, which will spoil the wine. A short time upright does not affect wine much, and so stores with a high turnover can get away with storing their fast-selling wines that way, but slower selling, expensive bottles, especially those intended for long maturation in your cellar will fare better in the long run lying down.

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