October was an exciting wine month; I had two amazing wines – a 1947 and 1961 Chateau Bel Air-Marquis D’Aligre from one of Bordeaux’s most prestigious terroirs, Margaux. Both wines were incredibly fresh considering their age.
The reason for that freshness and, frankly, grace over decades was – to put it simply – care.
The wine merchant who had opened each of the bottles (magnums) explained that the eccentric winemaker, Jean-Pierre Boyer (in his 80s, never married, and only ever dedicated to his one true love, wine), filled and corked the bottles, arranged them flat in his cellar, and never touched them again. Until, that is, the day they landed on a table in rural France, just about two hours east of Bordeaux where I was visiting.
That got me thinking. On the heels of a previous column on the importance of proper wine storage – aimed at those looking to purchase and store finer wines – there remains an important conduit between you and your wine. One that warrants some guidance.
It’s the wine store.
Here are four critical considerations for any wine store, government-run or otherwise, that you can use to ensure you’re getting the best possible bottle every time you purchase. These are in no particular order, but feel free to prioritize based on the choices you have available to you:
It’s no longer a game of just red and white wines. It’s now orange wines. And organic/biodynamic wines. It’s small producer champagnes and wines from areas off-the-beaten-path such as Croatia and the Czech republic and Hungary and Moldova. It’s wines made from hard-to-pronounce indigenous grapes, beyond the orthodox international varieties everyone already knows.
So, if the retailer you frequent has the same-old same-old, it tells you some important things: they’re not tasting enough and therefore not introducing interesting new products into their mix; they don’t possess the expertise or education to confidently speak about such wines and may therefore shy away from them; they are not dynamic enough to explore and select interesting examples of these wines to help introduce clients to new places and tastes.
If possible, seek out an alternate store. That may be tougher in jurisdictions where governments run the show, but private importers and private wine stores do exist in the same or other accessible jurisdictions. The ultimate reason for making the extra effort is simple: a little bit of research and effort could mean you’re drinking a lot better.
I use the ‘Goldilocks and the Three Bears’ analogy. Some stores have too much selection… some stores have too little selection… and some are just right.
Remember that quantity is important, but it should never come at the expense of quality. Too much can be a pain to manage for both the owner and the customer. Just as importantly, the needed turnover to ensure a fresh wine selection suffers. There’s nothing worse than old, dusty bottles on a shelf (unless you’re in a wine cellar in Tuscany!). On the other hand, too few choices limits your ability to explore. Find a retailer with a balance that fits you right.
Heat damages wine – extreme heat in extreme ways, and excess warmth in ways that take away important subtleties.
Red and white wines essentially wilt in warmth and, over time, simply die out. Important complexity and distinctions are lost, making them one-dimensional in the glass.
Needless to say, a warm wine store is a bad wine store and you should run, not walk, away from stores that are excessively warm. A simple way to gauge this is to look at the employees: if the store is properly cooled, they should be wearing a sweater or fleece to work their eight-hour shift, regardless of whether it’s winter or summer.
You might even feel cold after walking around for a few minutes. That’s good.
Good stores aim to keep their wine as close to the very upper limits of cellar temps as possible, around 18ºC (65ºF). That tells you they care that your wine stays fresh and vibrant and that you get the most from your bottle, regardless of its price.
A good store knows that the vast world of wine can be intimidating, so they make sure to hire staff who love to provide advice, guidance and great service to any customer, whether they’re buying a $15 or $150 bottle of wine. There is just no substitute, and a good store knows it.
These stores also know that sharing knowledge through ongoing tastings and helpful descriptions is another part of the service equation. Your go-to store should not be afraid to explain wines with appropriate tags and callouts in easy-to-understand language, while offering ongoing wine and spirits tastings to help you get familiar with the products. They also give you a reference point for what you like and don’t like – so take advantage of those opportunities to taste, taste, taste.
A last quick point about service: getting to know the owner and/or one or two sales people is a great idea. It allows you to build a rapport but also, in their minds, a preference heatmap. You’ll know they’re extra savvy if they ask probing questions, listen intently to the response, and build their suggestions on what you’re after based on what you’ve said, not on the highest price bottle.
In the end, this approach will help them help you get exactly what you want as often as possible, whether you’re pairing with food, or simply sipping for enjoyment. And that’s as good a reason as any to fill your glass.