Wine Buying Tips

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Selecting wine at a self service wine shop or grocery store can sometimes be a very daunting experience.  Wine shelves are overloaded with with just about every type and style of wine imaginable.  Wine labels scream at you with cute or provocative names and descriptions, then stores place signs imploring and seducing you into buying this or that wine.  What to do?  Well, I’m here to help shed some light on the whole process and hopefully make your buying decision a little easier and a little less confusing.

Here are some tips to remember when wine shopping:

  1. Wineries and wine distributors are in business to sell wine by any means possible. Hint: fancy labels with cute pictures.
  2. Wine merchants, grocery stores, etc. are in business to sell wine and sell it at the highest profit margin possible.
  3. Wines with the highest margins (profit for the winery, distributor and store) sold in most retail stores are placed at or above eye level (the sweet spot) on the shelves.
  4. Lower priced and lower margin wines are usually at or below waist level. The least expensive are near the floor.
  5. Wineries and wine distributors pay BIG bucks to get their wines on major retailers shelves and then pay a premium to get them placed in the sweet spot. This placement often has little do with the quality of the wine but more to do with the margins (profit).
  6. Smaller and boutique wineries often cannot afford the to buy shelf space to get their wines onto the big merchant’s shelves.
  7. Wines sold in most grocery stores and mass merchant stores are not being stored anywhere near ideal wine storage temperatures.  Store temperatures are maintained for the comfort of the customer, not the wine.  Hint: be very wary of buying an older wine off the shelf of any non wine specific store.
  8. 90% of all wine produced commercially is intended to be consumed soon after being released by the winery and not made for long term storing and ageing at home.  Better wines will be aged at the winery under ideal conditions before being released, some for two years or more and are better candidates for long term storage.
  9. The description on the back of the wine label, if there is one, was usually written by the marketing department.  The winemaker may have some input but the professional wine taster will have little input.  No marketing company wants to put things like plastic, cooked cabbage, bruised fruit, wet wool and cat pee – yes those are actual descriptors used to judge wine – on their wine bottle.
  10. Pay little attention to the marketing guys, instead look for independent reviews by some of the industry’s more respected wine critics or better still, impartial reviews from everyday wine consumers.  A word of caution here too, some “wine critics” are actually employees or contracted employees of the merchant and tend to write glowing reviews of the wine du jour and – you guessed it – the ones with the highest profit margins.
  11. Try to get know what flavors you find appealing in wine.  Look at the front of the wine label and it will tell you the grape variety from which it’s made.  Wine made from Cabernet Sauvignon grapes will mostly taste like black currant and blackberry.  Chardonnay will have a citrus flavor, Merlot will taste like cherry and so on.  For a more complete list of the most popular grape and wine flavors click here.
  12. The only sure way of selecting a wine that you’ll enjoy is to taste as many different varieties as possible and pay particular attention to the flavors you find appealing.  If you are fortunate enough to live near wine producing areas, try to visit the wineries and taste some wines.  Remember, just because it’s a Cabernet or Chardonnay or Merlot or whatever, every winery and wine producer will put their own imprint on their wine.  So expect variations in taste from one brand to the next.
  13. Just because the bottle may say Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa, it likely is not all Cabernet and more likely it’s not all from the same vineyard.  Few Cabs are made from 100% Cabernet grapes and fewer still are Cabernet grapes from a single vineyard.  In the USA for example, it is permissible for a winery to label a wine Cabernet Sauvignon even though it can contain up to 25% of other varietals.  Again, careful reading of the label will often tell you the source and varietal of the grapes.
  14. Lesser value commercially produced wines are made in huge quantities and are made from grapes grown in many different vineyards and even growing regions.  A wine labelled “Red Blend” or just “Red Wine” will contain many different varietals of grapes.

In summary, get to know what you like and don’t be afraid to try something new.  Don’t be lured into buying something just because it has an appealing label or commentary. Paying more for a bottle of wine does not necessarily mean it will taste better, however, with a little experimentation, you’ll be able to find wines you enjoy at just about any price.

Salute!

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Categorized: Tips