Your local wine shop can be a hidden gem when it comes to discovering new bottles and regions, learning about wine or food pairings, and even meeting fellow oenophiles. Not surprisingly, the camaraderie found in an independent wine shop, alongside the opportunity to educate, is often the most appealing aspect of working in one. But now and then, customers can make working in a wine shop more difficult. Read on for wine shop owners’ top customer pet peeves and suggestions that can hinder or help a shopping experience. Following these wine buying do’s and don’ts will be sure to land you a great bottle every time.
Don’t Be Closed-Minded
Andrea Hillsey, the owner of Square Wine Co. in Madison, Wisc., says that customers sometimes limit themselves by not being open to trying new wines or sometimes even dismissing entire categories.
“I’ve poured Riesling and Chardonnay for folks who essentially swore off those varietals, and they loved them,” she says. “They’ll say things like, ‘I didn’t know Riesling could be dry or Chardonnay, balanced.’ Like everything in life, preconceived notions get in the way.”
Duey Kratzer, the owner of Mondo Vino in Denver, Colo., suggests two simple questions to ask to expand horizons and get a great bottle every time.
“Ask ‘what’s new?’ and ‘what are you drinking?’,” he says.
Avoid Asking if a Wine Is Good
Ryan Sciara, owner of Underdog Wine Co. in Kansas City, Mo., says that if you’re in an independent shop, assume that every bottle is quality. Like many owners, he tastes thousands of wines a year to make sure everything on the shelf is something he endorses.
“Of course it’s good,” Sciara says. “I wouldn’t have it in my shop or recommend it if it wasn’t good.”
This notion is why Sarah Pierre, owner of 3 Parks Wine Shop in Atlanta, Ga., recommends shopping exclusively at independent wine shops.
“Stay away from the big box stores that have sales agendas and goals,” she says. “Independent wine retailers primary goal is to nail it every time. We want you to love the wine and to come back for more.”
Use Descriptors Other Than ‘Dry’
Coly Den Haan, owner of Vinovore in Los Angeles, says a misunderstanding of the word “dry” can be tricky to navigate with customers.
“Almost all wine is classified as dry unless otherwise stated,“ she says. “This is hard to explain to a customer without making them feel dumb, and, for the most part, I know what they’re trying to say, but it’s a much broader request than they are realizing.”
Aside from assuming most of the wine on the shelf is dry, Den Haan’s list of wine buying do’s and don’ts includes using as many descriptor words as possible when articulating what you’re looking for.
“Sometimes people perceive fruitiness as sweetness, so perhaps they should steer clear of too fruit-forward wines,” she says. “Now, that’s not to say they don’t want any fruit in their wines, as some fruit is always good for balance, but they should stay away from the jammier stuff. Other words that might help them would be mineral-driven, crisp, bright, or crunchy.”
Try Not To Be Vague
One of the most challenging interactions that wine shop owners face is when someone comes in wanting a particular bottle without providing much detail on what that wine is.
Jessica Green, sommelier and owner of the natural wine shop Down the Rabbit Hole Wine Boutique in Sayville, N.Y., says she has the most challenging time when someone requests a wine they had weeks, months, or even years ago at a restaurant but have forgotten the producer and the varietal.
“I always recommend trying to take a picture of the bottle or carry a little pocket wine journal when going out to eat,” she says.
Green also suggests using an app to help record memorable wines. “This makes it a lot easier to help a customer look for a specific wine,” she says. “We may not carry the exact bottle, but we can try to get as close as we can with the knowledge of the region, varietal, and producer.”
Don’t Be Afraid To Ask Questions
The world of wine can be intimidating, but Green loves getting questions from customers in her shop.
“Find bottle shops that have an educated and passionate staff,” she says. “You will be able to gain more confidence as you frequent these shops while learning and tasting some great wines. Customers should never be afraid or intimidated to ask questions."
Hillsey agrees and says that many small, independent shop owners often go the extra mile to make customers feel as comfortable as possible, so reciprocating that camaraderie is appreciated.
“We want you to feel like you’re walking into our home for a dinner party, and there is a vulnerability to that,” she says.
She also recommends treating the experience more like you would with a sommelier in a restaurant than just retail.
“It’s our job to decipher what it is you need and help you get there,” she says. “We’re not that different from sommeliers working the restaurant floor. We need to read our guests and determine what wine is best for them. We’re just doing it in a different setting.”
Be Flexible With Budget
When it comes to wine buying do’s and don’ts, it’s certainly helpful to have a broad price range or budget in mind, but being dead-set on spending a specific amount of money isn’t necessary. In reality, it may stop you from getting a great bottle of wine at a lower price.
Den Haan is a firm believer that you don’t have to spend a lot of money to find fantastic wine. She says the sweet spot in her shop is between $18 to $28.
“Sometimes people come in and are just hell-bent on spending $100 on a bottle, and besides Champagne or magnums, I don’t have a lot of options for them,” she says. “Our special bottles are more in the $35 to $45 range, and, believe me, they are quite special enough.”
Pierre says customers will have better luck shopping for less expensive wines at a smaller store because they’ve tried all the terrible inexpensive wines so that customers don’t have to.
“If it’s inexpensive and it’s in a wine shop, trust it’s going to be good,” she says.
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