Part of learning about wine is learning how to shop for it. Most wine classes focus on what to do once you get the stuff home and in your glass. But knowing how to sip, swirl, sniff and spit doesn’t really help when your eyes are swimming at the sea of choices in the wine aisles. So here are my top five tips for anyone who wants to sail through stores with ease.
1. Acclimate yourself
Did you know that the climate of a growing region has a huge effect on the wine? In warm areas, grapes ripen quickly and evenly, with high sugar levels. If the weather’s cool, ripening takes longer and acidity is higher.
In general, if you like big, fruity wines, look for ones from warm places such as Lodi, Napa, Paso Robles, Columbia Valley (Washington), Maipo Valley (Chile), Provence (France), Apuglia (Italy) and Barossa Valley (Australia). If you like crisp or complex wines, go cooler: Carneros, Santa Barbara, Oregon, Bordeaux (France), Adelaide Hills (Australia), Marlborough (New Zealand) and Okanagan Valley (British Columbia).
2. Learn a few grapes and their happy places
Wine grapes grow almost everywhere in the world, but the superstar varietals are famous for a hometown, so to speak, where they perform their best. Memorize a few, then find out how good they taste when made in their happy place. Like Syrah? Explore the Northern Rhone. Love Merlot? Look for Pomerol or the more affordable Lalande de Pomerol. New World Cabernet? Go directly to Washington. Chardonnay? Pick up something from Burgundy’s Rully. (It’s rully, rully good.)
3. Work the clerks
Ask for recommendations. At a good wine shop, the staff tastes the new vintages, hears the scoop on the next cult Cabernet and withstands hundreds of sales pitches from reps, all so we don’t have to. Sure, the wines may cost a buck or two more than bottles on discount-store shelves. Call it palate insurance. And take note: Wine store clerks don’t exactly make the big bucks. So who better to ask when you’re looking for good QPR? (That’s wine-geek speak for “quality-to-price ratio.”)
4. Blast off into cyberspace
Wine sales shipping regulations form a strangulating net across the United States, but here in California we enjoy relative freedom to shop online. Boxes of joy arrive within days, as long as an adult is there to sign for them. Some sites are online versions of real-world stores. K&L Wine Merchants (klwines.com) is a favorite of mine for its direct buys from small European producers. (Its one-click shopping cart is too easy to use for my own good.) Other retailers exist only in cyberspace. Garagistewine.com, for example, sells rare and quirky brands by e-mail offerings to its members.
Auction sites provide hours of surfing pleasure. Besides finding bargains, you may use them to lighten your own inventory. Check out WineBid.com and WineCommune.com. If you want the rush of waving a paddle in real time, Hart Davis Hart Wine Co. (hdh
wine.com) receives online bids in the midst of live auctions.
5. Go to the source
Take your pick, Sacramento. There are wineries a short drive to the north, south, east and west. Each bottle bought in wine country comes with free scenery and a story to tell when you open it. Plus, you get to taste before you buy. Tasting room prices are usually a little higher than retail, but if you join a winery club, you’ll get discounts up to 20 percent, along with other bennies.
Save gas by preplanning your trip online:
El Dorado Winery Association
Amador Vintners’ Association
Calaveras Winegrape Alliance
Northern Sierra Wine Country
Clarksburg Winegrowers &
Elaine’s Picks of the Month
2005 Domaine Font Sarade Vacqueyras ($25, Taylor’s Market)—Font Sarade is known for making an especially elegant blend of Grenache and Syrah at the northern tip of Vacqueyras in the Rhone Valley.
2006 Sierra Vista Winery El Dorado Grenache ($20, sierravistawinery.com)—With a silky mouthfeel, plenty of cherry/berry fruit flavor and 20 percent Syrah to give it stuffing, this is a beautifully balanced Grenache at only 13.5 percent alcohol. Drink now or lay away for a few years.
1990 Château d’Yquem Sauternes Premier Cru Supérieur ($380, winebid.com)—Less expensive than the hyped 1989 vintage, the 1990 is gorgeous nonetheless. P.S.: A brand-name Sauternes from an auction site is a stellar choice when seeking a wine from a certain birthday or anniversary year.