One of the most common questions I get asked is “what should I pick at the grocery store?” In the long pause that follows, I always imagine the same thing. Anyone who drinks wine has experienced it: the excitement as you pass rows of pasta, plastic plates, and valentine’s stuff (ALREADY?!), the rush of turning the corner past the displays on the end of the aisle, and the quite bewilderment as you arrive. You have entered the wine aisle. You plod along, mouth slightly agape, staring up at a wall of brightly-labeled black glass. In creeps that awful feeling of being surrounded by thousands of bottles of wine and not knowing where to start. You’ve got Wine Aisle Dread.
Don’t worry, you’re not alone. Wine Aisle Dread turns many customers back toward their usual purchase, away from any of the wine department people who will just make it worse, all while stacks of new discoveries are left waiting on the shelves.
It’s absolutely true that buying a bottle of wine is a gamble. When you buy a bottle of wine, you are betting the price of that wine on everyone involved in making, shipping, and storing that wine. A single label or even a type of wine is not a sure bet, but there are some guidelines to picking a wine that can increase your chances of getting a good one.
First, where are you getting the wine? Are you at a discount grocery store off the highway? Are you at a Whole Foods in Uptown? Are you at a truck stop? Keep in mind that every business works hard to deliver what sells at their location. Wine sells very well in some places, and other places not. If a store sells a lot of wine, chances are you’ll get a better selection, the bottles will be handled better, and wine won’t sit around on the shelf for years.
If you’re at a truck stop outside of Abilene, odds are that $14.99 California Cab was not stored right, might be past its prime, or both. If you’re at a wine bar like ours, or a nice grocery store in the city, there is probably a higher demand for wine. This means more sales, and the product gets more attention.
Second, what kind of wine are you getting? Say you spend top dollar on a very fine Barolo. It gets home, and tastes like ash and sour cherry juice. Before you swear off Italian wine completely, and go for another Menage a Trois red blend, remember that some Barolos aren’t meant to be drunk within even 10 years of their production. It’s great wine, but it’s not ready. Or say you find a bottle of Beaujolais on the shelf from 2011. Older = better, right? Not quite! Beaujolais is a young wine, meant to be drunk fresh. 2011 Beaujolais probably won’t hit the spot, unless it’s a special bottle on purpose. This is where a guide can help. Whether you reach for Wine for Dummies (I highly recommend it), or ask for help, a little knowledge about just what’s on the shelf can go a long way.
I hope you can hit the wine aisle or the wine bar with a little confidence. There’s great stuff out there, and the occasional sour sip is worth finding a great bottle.