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Two women on wine: Experience new wines comfortably

Your neighborhood wine store is the place to start

Posted: August 5, 2011 6:00 a.m.
Updated: August 5, 2011 6:00 a.m.
Lil Lepore and Shari Frazier Lil Lepore and Shari Frazier
Lil Lepore and Shari Frazier

Not every wine lover has a personal sommelier in the house. In fact, we'll venture to say that few do. But something everyone should have is access to a neighborhood wine store complete with wine-savvy staff.

It makes a difference. While the Internet may be a terrific resource for researching and learning about new wines, it is little substitute for experiencing wines first-hand. The same goes for the inviting displays of wine in a supermarket or big box retail store. Shelves can't answer questions and store personnel often know as much about wine as they do about the fruits and vegetables the next aisle over.

So where are we going here? It used to be that wine experts comprised only a small number and were limited to assisting the elite and well-to-do. Then specialty wine stores began to pop up across the country. The proliferation of specialty stores means wine experts are far more accessible now than even a few years ago.

Consider the proprietor of a neighborhood wine store to be your own personal shopper, wine consultant or sommelier. When the world of wines can seem overwhelming, he or she is the person who will be there helping guide your selections to fit your tastes.

There's another important advantage. In a store devoted exclusively to wine and wine accessories, you are more likely to discover lesser-known boutique wines that don't enjoy the benefit of advertising dollars to promote them. Instead, these small artisan vineyards rely upon a savvy wine store owner to carry their label and a curious consumer to seek them out.
Every wine has a story. A wine store expert can tell you the story behind the wine, while helping guide you through the decision-making process. Most will know the questions to ask and the answers you're hoping to find.

But keep in mind that not all wine stores are created equal. Find a neighborhood wine merchant who is willing to spend time with customers talking about wine. Make sure you feel comfortable asking questions and the staff is willing to help and assist. Finding a store with exceptional customer service in a warm, friendly and inviting environment should keep you coming back.

Dispelling the misconception of price, you can't assume that you'll pay more in a wine store than you would in a supermarket or mass merchandiser. In today's competitive market a wine store might carry more than 100 labels priced at $25 or less.

When it comes to wine, it's not what you know, it's what you like. Overall, finding something you like has less to do with price and everything to do with what suits your palate. Understanding your palate is essential for determining the wines you'll like.

So how do you begin to understand your palate? One way is to learn by doing - exploring the differences through tastings will help train and develop your senses. There's no reason you shouldn't be able to find the right wine every time once you understand your tastes.

If you're looking to try something new, how do you know which wines you'll like, which wines are great paired with food and which will be good standing alone? Are all zinfandels created equal and what is a blend?

Besides helping you understand your palate, many wine specialty stores have tastings and wine clubs to help introduce you to a variety of wines. Keep in mind that not all wine clubs are created equal. Some may provide only wines from a particular vineyard or region. While this may be preferable if you have a favorite winery, it doesn't necessarily broaden your senses by exposing you to the diversity of wines.

We encourage you to explore the costs and benefits of wine club membership before you sign up. Evaluate each on the degree of participation, variety, frequency, quantity and costs.

Does a particular wine club offer you the opportunity to select your wines each month? If not, you run the risk of receiving a shipment of something you don't like.

Will they allow tasting prior to shipment? If so, this is a surefire way to take home wines that you know already you will enjoy.

How often are wines shipped or made available and what quantities are offered? If you enjoy a bottle of wine weekly, a quarterly shipment of a few bottles may not carry you through.

Cost may be a factor. Remember, wine clubs are typically an ongoing monthly expenditure, so choose wisely. Price doesn't reflect quality, necessarily, nor will it be an indicator on whether you'll like a particular selection.

Our best advice is to learn by doing. With practice you can learn to distinguish wines from different regions, refine your palate and take pleasure in the unique characteristics of a variety of wines. Perhaps you'll gain a few new favorites, or you may come to love them all.

Buying wine should be as enjoyable as drinking it. There's no right or wrong wine - only what's right for you. We think you'll be pleased with what is available on the market today and much of it is at affordable prices.


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