Flying Solo: Shopping for wine at da Jewels and such

Flying Solo: Shopping for Wine at the Supermarket and other Overwhelming Spots 

In happy-go-lucky Gourmetville, everyone has a lovely boutique wine shop with their own savvy salesperson to help them select just the right wine to go with tonight’s tea smoked duck and soba noodles. Sadly, most of us don’t live in this rosy world of unlimited time and funds. It’s far more likely that we grab a bottle of something at the Mega Mart after we sweep through the deli section for a pre-roasted chicken and two sides. Now it’s not just the Uber-Fud gourmet joints that have a big wine selection. Your big chains and bigger box stores now have multiple shelves of hooch staring you and your rapidly cooling bird down. What to do?!

Don’t panic. While it’s generally preferable and more fun to get a bit of expert advice when you’re wine shopping, there’s no reason to be afraid of flying solo. Here are a few hints for making you an informed shopper.

Get the lay of the land

Most wine stores or sections have some kind of organization to them. Here in the
US, it’s generally by “varietal” or grape. In other words, all of the Chardonnays are together, all of the Merlots are together, and so on. Some places, and most wine-focused stores organize by region. Here you will find all of the
US wines together, next the Aussies, and the French, etc. Once you get the layout, it’s easier to gravitate towards one section to browse.

Have a style and/or price in mind

Leisure wine shopping is great fun for me. I love to linger over labels I’ve never seen and peruse sale prices. But this is crunch time. No dilly dallying. You’ve still got to make it to the dry cleaners by six. Do you feel like a light red, a heavy white, bubbles? What sounds good? Are you entertaining a last minute guest that warrants a splurge of $30 or is it just you and the cat catching reruns of Scrubs? Tuesday TV night may only call for a $7 expenditure. There is never any shame in shopping the low end of the price scale. After all; you’re having wine with dinner tonight while most of your countrymen are drinking milk or Diet Sprite.

Zero in

Armed with the decision that you want a big, buttery chardonnay to go with your chicken and you have $12 bucks to spend, you can go to town. If your store has Chardonnay all in one spot – yahoo! You can look for names you’ve enjoyed before, eye the shelf for sale prices, peruse any “POS” (Point of Sale, or advertising stuck on the bottle or right next to it), or look for a region or country you’ve been meaning to try.

If your store is set up more by region, I find that wines from Chile and
Australia are widely available and offer really decent quality at the $10 and under price point. Start there and see if something catches your eye. Resist the temptation to buy strictly by the pretty label or funny name. It just means a marketing guy somewhere is overpaid.

Read Up

Explore any verbage that may be posted near wines of interest. I find that a store employee’s personal recommendations are the most reliable. I’m a sucker for a hand written note from the buyer himself. Not only that, if the wine sucks you can probably ask for the employee by name and return it.

Anything touting “gold medal” or “best in show” is a dubious distinction. There are gazillions of wine competitions and fairs held all over the world. Some are quite prestigious, but many are “everyone gets a ribbon” type affairs. Basically, if a winery submits their wines to fifty competitions, they’re bound to win a medal of some kind and the big guys make this a general practice. Don’t be blinded by the bling.

Many publications offer wineries the opportunity (for a fee) to print their favorable reviews on a bottle “neck hanger” or “shelf talker” to be displayed in stores. These little pieces of advertising may feature a point rating, grade, and or tasting note as well as the magazine or website’s name. While many of these recommendations carry clout, a 95 point rating and “Best Buy” declaration from Earl’ may not be the ringing endorsement it appears. Magazines like Wine Spectator, Wine and Spirits, The Wine Advocate, and International Wine Cellar are fairly reliable. I’m sure it goes without saying that the most cherished accolades are from Winediva Enterprises and Beverage Experts. (This is my cheeky way of offering full disclosure that companies I am involved with may start offering similar POS offerings soon.)

Check the Born On Date 

One caveat of shopping for wine in multi-purpose stores is that they may not turn over product as quickly as a designated wine store. Basically, you want to make sure your wine isn’t too old. But wait, isn’t older wine better? Not always, and definitely not in the case of inexpensive vino. Especially whites. Everyday whites should be fresh and light in color. Ideally your white wines should be from the 2005 and 2006 vintage right now. Especially the ones from the Southern Hemisphere.

Light whites like Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio should be a pale yellow color; Chardonnays can be a bit more golden. No white should look orange or brown in the bottle as that is a sign of poor storage and over the hill juice.  Reds should be 2003 or more recent if you want to play it safe. A five dollar Aussie Shiraz ought to be 2005 or younger. Likewise, reds should have a solid ruby-hued and saturated color. Major brown hues are a red flag.

When in doubt, cheap wine don’t age. Forty dollah; no hollah.

Kick the Tires 

Now that you have an enticing bottle of Chardonnay in your hand from say Edna Valley, California and it’s got a reasonable price tag of $11.49, it’s time to give it a quick once over.

Make sure the capsule (the foil around the cork and the neck) isn’t sticky and ideally spins a bit. Any kind of goo leaking down a bottle or emerging from the cork is a bad sign.

Labels that are off kilter, severely frayed, or obviously water damaged probably indicate the wine has been returned from someone’s wedding or other big hoopla. The wine has been chilled and warmed at least once and possibly several times which may or may not damage your bottle. It’s certainly not helpful, so best to play it safe.

Don’t be hatin on the screwcap. Plenty of respectable wineries use them now and a screwcap is an added assurance that no bad cork bacteria is present to make your wine smell like Grandma’s basement. Plus no corkscrew needed.

Don’t Overthink

It’s a beverage for cryin’ out loud, not a life insurance plan. There’s no reason to wring your hands over one bottle of grape juice for one evening. Once you’ve practiced these steps a few times, your shopping shouldn’t take long. Ideally, your inner monologue should go something like this:

“Ok, I feel like a big red tonight. What do they have…

Oh cool, a big section of Zins! I like those. Ah ha! Ravenswood! Always like that, but oh bummer, twelve bucks.

What’s this Peachy Canyon? It says, “Juicy, jammy, and a bit of spice. Tracy’s favorite with pizza.” Ok Tracy, for eight bucks; you’re on.

Bottle looks good. Done. Now, where’s the peanut butter?” 

Drinking wine is fun. Shopping for it shouldn’t rain on your pleasure parade. When you have the time and inclination, by all means, snoop through boutique wine shops or linger in the long aisles at ginormous wine superstores. But when in urban hunt and gather mode, wine can still be part of your “one stop on the way home” shopping. Channel your inner Winediva and with these helpful hints, you’ll be cheered heartily by the rest of your tribe upon your arrival.


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