In my last column, I gave you a brief how-to in regards to opening a bottle of wine. It’s a seemingly easy enterprise that is terrifying for far too many people. For some reason, wine and all that surrounds wine is just like that. Complicated. Confusing. Unapproachable. Maybe it’s the centuries of history behind the vine that intimidates people. Maybe it’s the snobs who look down their noses, pinky extended, and make you second-guess every wine-related decision.
“That’s not how to open it. Give it to me.”
“You’re drinking your white wine too cold!”
“Oh, you actually LIKE Apothic Dark? Hmmm.”
Even writing this is like the Noir calling the Nero black. Damn. Even that joke is snobby.
Apart from finding a way to justify my day-drinking, the reason I made the decision to dive headlong into the wine bottle was to demystify wine for myself and for others. How complicated can wine really be? “It’s just grape juice,” as one Valley wine purveyor, Charlie Doyle, is known to say. Turns out, wine is simultaneously as simple as you want it to be and much more complicated than you can possibly imagine. As Marshall McLuhan put it, “The medium is the message.” And, as you are reading this column in a biweekly free newspaper as opposed to the Wine Spectator or Decanter magazine, I’m going to assume you want wine ideas made simple. Hence, part two in a series of wine how-to: how to buy a bottle of wine.
Me: When you go into a store, how do you decide which bottle of wine to buy?
My wife: I look for something I know, which is the Rooster wine.
“The Rooster wine” is the La Vielle Ferme which features a rooster on the label. It is an excellent, cheap, and easy-to-find wine.
My wife: I also look for a font that I like. Sometimes I think “I recognize that label. I should get that.” But then I can’t remember if I remember that label because you got it for me and I liked it, or if I got it before and didn’t like it.
When I asked around the radio station how people choose a bottle of wine, I got a variety of responses:
“Pretty label,” declares Dave Musante, our general manager.
“I want to pair it with what I’m going to eat with it. What I’ve had before that I really like,” proclaims the beloved Joan Holliday, afternoon host on The River.
“Best value for my money,” utters Trumpy, from Hits 94.3, disappointingly. He should know better. He’s worked in the beverage business. And yes, that is his real name.
“I get super confused and ask for help. Also, I can’t remember anything. So, I never know what I liked from before to get it again,” says our promotions director, Mark Lattanzi.
And this leads me to my first piece of advice.
Go to a real wine store. Not a gas station with giant bottles of wine on sale. Not a grocery store that has one row of beer and one row of wine as a grocery upsell. Not a convenience store that may conveniently sell wine and Slim Jims and heat lamp food. Go to a store where you know that they know about wine. Luckily, here in Western Mass, the reputable wine stores flow like beer.
Walk into one of these stores with at least an elevator speech about what type of wine you like. Find a clerk. Ask for help. I know it may feel like pulling over at a gas station (that happens to sell wine) and asking for directions, but do it. Most of the clerks in the actual wine stores in our area don’t work on commission. They want you to ask them questions so they can show off the copious amounts of wine-knowledge that they have acquired. They want you to be happy. And they want you to come back. So, ask them for help. Tell them what you like. Tell them how much you’d like to spend. And, importantly, heed their advice. Don’t dismiss their first recommendation out of hand because you think they are trying to upsell you. They might be. They might not be. But even if they are, it might be worth the risk. If you feel like they sold you a bill of goods that wasn’t good, try another clerk or another wine store. But my experience has been that if wine is what the store is known for, you will walk out happier if you ask for some help and you take their advice.
Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of wine buyers in America make their wine buying decision by judging a wine by its label.
“…a font that I like.”
If the label is fun, flashy, or fancy, it’s likely to grab a buyer’s attention and fly off the shelf. Sometimes you can judge a book by its cover, and the same is true for wines. Sometimes. But, as Lin-Manuel Miranda and Emily Blunt want to remind you, “The cover is not the book.” Usually the brightly colored labels with, say, marsupials on them lack quality. If you’re looking for something more refined, you may want to avoid “critter” labels altogether. Unless that critter happen to be a stag or a screaming eagle. If it has a fancy French chateau as an emblem on the front of the bottle, it MIGHT be quality or it might be trash. For my money, it’s less of a risky bet to go for a 19th-century bourgeois palace than a kangaroo as a decall.
If you are in love with a particular wine, take a picture of its label with your phone. Oftentimes clerks in these stores will know exactly where that wine is on their shelves. They will know where they might have moved it, even if the customer says “This wine was right here, on this end cap last week!” And they will know if they carry that label at all. Also, most people who work in a wineshop will be able to read the seemingly-or-actual foreign language that winemakers put on the label, and they can help steer you to a similar wine if they don’t have the exact bottle you are looking for.
If you find yourself faced with the ultimate challenge — a selection of gas station wine — ask yourself these questions:
Do I like big, juicy, fruity, sweet wines?
“Oh, I’d NEVER drink something too sweet!”
Search your feelings. You know it to be true.
If you’re a “sweet” wine person, use the map as your map. Drink California or “souths” from America and Africa. Those wines explode with flavor.
Is your life void of joy and happiness? Are you looking for a wine as bitter and austere as your love life or the government shutdown or Brexit? Then skip “New World” wines and head for Europe.
Last best piece of advice: Go to a real wine store and find a wine that is $15 or more. Suck it up and pay the $15. That is the Mendoza Line of where quality meets thrift. If winemakers feel they can justify making the public pay $15, they are either truly striving for at least goodness or they are Kathie Lee Gifford or another celebrity. I hope your wine falls to the former.
If all else fails, find ANY bottle of wine, pour it into an empty Pringles can, and drink it while driving an electric shopping cart around a Walmart.
Tweet Monte Belmonte @montebelmonte.