What is your method for choosing wine?

Back in my salad days of waiting tables in white tablecloth, I was fairly well versed in various wines, flavor profiles, and the latest and greatest.

Since I am no longer in the restaurant industry, my wine knowledge has suffered, but I can still appreciate a proper wine for drinking at home, that is not utterly boring.

When perusing the wine section and faced with new brands, I stick to a formula that has yet to steer me wrong: I look for wines priced between $20-$30, that have a plain label with the winery name.

How do you choose wine when you love a good bottle, but are not always able to keep up on the latest trends?

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I know that certain distributors and importers tend to have things I like, so I look for those. For example:

Beaune Imports
Blue Danube
Charles Neal
Eric Stauffenegger
Grape Expectations
Jenny & Francois
Oliver McCrum
Selection Massale

Kermit Lynch is also reliable, but most of his wines seem too expensive for me.


I’m always up for trying new wine (as long as it’s not overly sweet and cloying). I drink wine every night, so I’m always looking for the best bang for the buck wines (for weeknights–less than $15, preferably less than $10. For weekends up to $25 and special occassions up to $75/$100). So my wine budget may be tighter than others, but I still need wine.

I tend to buy wine based on the varietal (knowing which varietals that I tend to prefer), country/region/producer and if I’m completely in the dark about a new wine—then the importer. I also shop @ a variety of smaller wine shops that have great customer service and can steer me to the wines that I will be happiest with. I think a well educated wine salesperson is the best method of discovering new wines, as well as tasting and just jumping in and picking out something that may look or sound interesting.

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I go by varietal and fruit source if I have no additional specific knowledge or experience on which to base a decision. As to price, I agree that a $10 wine has less of a chance to be a good experience as does one at $30, but that’s not a guarantee. BUT… with everyone carrying a cell phone these days, Google can help, assuming you have some trusted sources you can rely on.

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Usually I’ll ask the Somm for suggestions based on what I want or will be eating. And usually they’ll have multiple suggestions, and bring out bottles to sample.

Example: I was in an Italian restaurant that focuses on preparing strictly Southern Italian dishes. When inquired about wine, I stated, “I want something medium bodied and spicy that will go well with this dish.”

3 bottles came out, all from the region the dish was from. Tasted them all and made my selection.

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I think Robert’s technique – which I also subscribe to – is one of the two most reliable methods, but a) it only works when seeking out imported wines, and b) it also requires what I’ll call pre-existing conditions: you have to know what you’re looking for in advance. By that I mean you need to already know you that (e.g.) you enjoy a Montsant or a Corbières, an Orvieto or a Vinho Verde. If you already know THAT, then I think you’ll find certain importers to be exceptionally reliable . . . even if you don’t know the specific producer/winery of ____________, the fact that “Jean Deaux” was the importer of said producer is (in my experience) is one of the closest things I’ll have to a guarantee that I’m going to love the specific wine.

In addition to those mentioned by Robert above, I’d toss in Terry Theise Selections, Jorge Ordoñez Selections, Classic Wines of Spain, Broadbent Selections, and Martine’s Wines.


But what if you don’t know if you like a Vinho Tinto from the Alentejo, or a Gruner Veltiner from the Kemptal? Or, what if you’re looking for an American wine?

Personally I don’t things have changed in this regard. A true wine merchant is your best bet! Not a BevMo or Costco, but a serious wine retailer whose employees KNOW their wines, KNOW their inventory, and take the time to GET TO KNOW you and your tastes. I’ve discovered hundreds of great wines this way over the years – with much better results than reading magazines or shelf-talkers . . . .

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“A true wine merchant is your best bet! Not a BevMo or Costco, but a serious wine retailer whose employees KNOW their wines, KNOW their inventory, and take the time to GET TO KNOW you and your tastes. I’ve discovered hundreds of great wines this way over the years – with much better results than reading magazines or shelf-talkers . . . .”

And that’s exactly why, when it comes to buying wine for home or BYO consumption, I most often rely on recommendations from the very knowledgeable folks at the Moore Brothers store in Wilmington, DE. And because we have so many wonderful BYO restaurants here in southeastern PA, I don’t often find myself face-to-face with a daunting wine list.

We try to keep our wines in the $15-20 range for everyday drinking, and $20-50 range for special occasion drinking. We prefer red wines over white, but still keep a couple bottles of white in the wine fridge for guests who don’t like red wine or to go along with seafood.

We aren’t fans of oaky whites, so we tend to drink pinot gris, sauvingnon blanc or reisling. Chardonnays are just too heavy for me for a white wine.

For reds, we prefer cabernets (franc or savingnon). We’ve had a couple good pinot noirs recently, and some good red blends as well. I think some people look at blends as being “low”, but there are some really good blends out there, where the variety of grapes really complement each other.

We’ve done a 2 wine tasting trips out to Temecula, CA in the last 3 months and picked up 8 bottles of wine the first trip and 9 bottles on last month’s trip. We are big fans of wine tasting at different wineries – that’s how we’ve discovered some of our favorite brands – wine tasting on the Central Coast over the years. We became big fans of Justin, Wild Horse and Tobin James that way. We ordered a bottle of Silver Stag at a special occasion dinner a couple years ago at the sommelier’s recommendation, and we loved it, to the point that we ordered a case of it to give to friends as Christmas gifts. Still one of our faves.

If I’m at a store, I’ll read the rating and description of the wine and see if it’s something I want to try. I like wines that have spice or fruit notes to them. I’m not a fan of “earthy” wines, ones that have things like hay or grassy notes. I just pick up bottles of wine to try. If we like it, we found another wine we like. If not, we just don’t buy it again.

Also, my boss has a “wine dealer” that drops off cases of wine for him at the office, and my boss gives me a bottle or two of wine to try. He’s also a member of a couple wine clubs, and will give me a bottle out of those sometimes too, so we can try a bottle that’s not available outside of the club membership.

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Good News and Bad News

[quote=“boogiebaby, post:8, topic:366”]
We’ve done a 2 wine tasting trips out to Temecula, CA in the last 3 months and picked up 8 bottles of wine the first trip and 9 bottles on last month’s trip. We are big fans of wine tasting at different wineries – that’s how we’ve discovered some of our favorite brands – wine tasting on the Central Coast over the years.
[/quote] Nothing beats being able to taste before you buy, and – obviously – that’s a great way of doing things IF that resource is available. It’s not for everyone, certainly, and not even a resident of (e.g.) San Luis Obispo or Temecula itself can visit every single wine at leash and every local winery. Some will be missed. Others will change vintages, which may mean the new release is better or worse than the prior one. And some winery might change winemakers and with that, change styles.

Should I state the obvious flaws here? What if you are reading the rating and description from a past, now sold out, vintage? Sure, you might notice, but if you are anything like the typical American consumer, you probably won’t – at least not all of the time¹. But even when it it for the current wine, who is the person who wrote the rating and description? Often it’s the person who put up the sign itself, and that would be the sales rep – the man or woman who sells the wine to the store. If it’s a winer writer, is it some flunky, some flak with a blog (seems like anyone and everyone has them these days), or it is a highly regarded professional? And if it’s the latter, is is someone who likes/enjoys/has a similar palate to you, the consumer?

This is exactly why a serious wine merchant is often your best bet. What do I mean by that? A store that takes pride in what they do, the selection of wines that they have created (curated?) for their clients. They are knowledgable about each and every wine in the store, and rather than trying to SELL you something, they are there to LISTEN to you, to what you like, what you dislike, what you’re looking for, and what you’re comfortable spending. They will ask questions like, “Have you every tried ________? Oh, great, what did you think of it?” Based upon your responses, they can get a better (and better) idea of your personal palate preferences, and suggest wines that will be right in the proverbial “sweet spot.” And whether you liked it or didn’t, after you actually have the bottle, go back and tell them what you thought of it. The more data you can provide them, the better their recommendations will be for you.

I have a handful of retailers where I can ask “What have you got for me?” and their recommendations range from “Excellent” to “Outstanding” – at worst, it’s going to be “Very Good.” I’ve been turned on to more wines I might not have otherwise ever tried this way than I can count . . .

(I’ll leave my thoughts on wine clubs – even though I used to run one – for a different time.)

¹ Anecdotally, I’d say people FAIL to notice about 75-80 percent of the time; at least that approximates my experience.

Not sure why you decided to pick apart my post, but my method works for ME. The OP asked how we pick wine. I stated what I do. Just because it’s not what you prefer to do doesn’t make it wrong (or flawed as you put it).

It’s great that you are so serious about your wine that you have a “serious wine merchant” to consult with but I’m perfectly happy with my methods as you are with yours.

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Didn’t pick it apart . . . certainly not in the way you seem to be suggesting. Indeed, I complimented you, telling you that “nothing beats being able to taste before you buy” and “that’s a great way of doing things.” And indeed, that is the key: to find a method that works for you – as in “You, the individual consumers,” plural. In other words, the post, however, was not limited to just you, nor specifically directed at you – though I concede it’s hard to make a point using your post, without you thinking thus.

Relying on point-of-purchase shelf talkers can often be a disaster – not for you, but as my footnote suggests, for a good many people. (Again, my comments were directed to the readership-at-large, not any one single reader.)

Most cities and suburbs in the US (and in many cities and regions abroad, but – admittedly – not all) have several of what I will term “serious wine merchants.” Again, it’s not a BevMo, a Costco, or a TotalWine; a CostPlus, a Trader Joe’s, or a Whole Foods¹ or some other supermarket chain . . . rather I’m speaking of stores – some well-known, some just “mom 'n pop” – who want customers to be customers-for-life, rather than just being someone who pops in once, maybe buys something, and maybe will be back (or maybe not). They can be a tiny store like Vintage Berkeley (where practically every wine in the store is <$25), or Paul Marcus Wines (which focusses on Italy, Burgundy, and small grower Champagnes). They can be the retail outlets of famous importers, like Kermit Lynch Wine Merchants, North Berkeley Wines, or Rare Wine Co.'s website. Whether it’s a large store like Spec’s in Texas, or a small store like Faubourg Wines in New Orleans . . . the point is they take the time to care about and learn the likes and dislikes of their (potential) customers.

As you should be! I never suggested that you weren’t. On the other hand, I did point out some limitations in your methods for the benefit of the readership as a whole . . .

After a 40+ year career in the California and International wine trade, my passion is something of an occupational hazard, and I certainly did not mean to put your nose out-of-joint, as they say.

¹ Although, let me hasten to add they are better than most other supermarket chains.

I’ll agree w/ Jason as far as buying retail for home drinking: shopping at and developing relationships with quality wine shops in your area is the best way to go in order to reduce the “meh” factor. I always get very good recs within my wine budget and hardly ever get a recommendation that I’m unhappy with.

Plus (at least in LA) lots of wine shops have weekly tasting events where for $10-$15 you can sample a selection of featured wines, sometimes meet the winemaker or distributer and have a fun time checking out new wines. One shop close to me (Larchmont Wine & Spirits) even has a section for weeknight $15 and under bottles (and their monthly staff pick in the same price range) that are interesting and enjoyable.

“Back in my salad days of waiting tables in white tablecloth, I was fairly well versed in various wines, flavor profiles, and the latest and greatest.”

Back in the times when I used to work as room service waiter near Boston, I would sip from each glass in the elevator while taking the orders to the rooms. That’s how I developed a taste for wines and cocktails.

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Eew !!

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My wine shopping experience yesterday was pretty typical for me. Although I live in PA, I rarely shop in our state liquor stores because shopping there is awful – a topic for another thread. So I drive about 20 minutes into Delaware to what I’d call a “boutique” wine shop (Moore Brothers). I’m on their email list and get notifications of special offers, which I sometimes take advantage of. So among my purchases was 4 bottles of Cremant’d’Alsace which I’d ordered online. Next thing I needed to do was to replenish some of my must-haves: a few bottles of a D.O.C.G Prosecco, a few bottles from northern Italy (Ettore Germano Barbera, Sori dij But Dolcetto, Valpolicella Classico) – all wines I’ve had before and enjoyed. I’m planning on grilling lamb chops for dinner one day soon so I asked for a recommendation and bought a Côtes du Rhône Villages. And then I asked for a recommendation for something I probably haven’t tried. Another nice thing about Moore Bros. is that they keep a record of your past purchases so if I want another bottle of “that red wine from Italy that I bought last month that I think is called Val-something” they can tell me it’s the Valtenesi and find a bottle (or not, if they’re out of it, as they were yesterday, but told me there will be more coming in in mid-November). So my new purchase for yesterday was a couple of bottles of Barmes-Buecher Alsace Reisling.

I rely heavily on recommendations from the well-informed staff at Moore Brothers. Quite often there are several bottles open for tasting (no charge); in fact, I had my very first sip of Mersault during one of those tastings (yes, it was a $70+ bottle that was open for tasting!) and it was amazing! It’s especially nice when the winegrowers are there. Also, if there’s a wine I’m particularly curious about, there’s a good chance they’ll open a bottle and pour a sample for me (and for themselves, as well). I’ve rarely ended up with a bottle I didn’t enjoy.

I noticed that quite often when I used to shop at Total Wine – the ratings and description were for a different vintage than the wine on the shelf.

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CindyJ, I live in Southern California and work in a wine/food shop that has a very small and focused selection of mostly small production wines. We’re in a touristy beach town and most of all our products are made in California. Yesterday I had a long conversation with a customer about new vs. old world wine style. While there are plenty of CA wines made in ‘old world’ style, he said he finds the overall impression among people to be that CA reds are all fruit bombs.

Reading your post about you’re Moore Bros. purchases I noticed that none of what you mentioned are American or even new world wines. So I’m curious. Is that a reflection of your personal taste only, or of Moore Bros. selection? Living here I have no real sense of the availability of small production California wines on the East coast.

Moore Bros. does sell some California and Oregon wines, also from small producers, but most of what they carry is from Italy, France, Germany and Argentina. I’d say my purchases are reflective of what they carry AND my personal taste. Looking through my wine stash, I found one selection from CA that came from Moore Bros. – Ojai Vineyard Syrah from Santa Barbara County. Some of the other small producers they carry are Talley Vineyards (just south of San Luis Obispo) and Three Wine Company in Contra Costa County and Stolpman Vineyards in Ballard Canyon. So there are New World wines available; I just tend to gravitate toward Italy and France.

I don’t know that my unsophisticated wine palate really knows the difference between “old world” and “new world.” Before I started shopping at Moore Bros. most of my wine purchases came from Total Wine. There, even with assistance from sales people, I often ended up with red wines that I’d describe as “funky,” “earthy,” or “barnyard.” Maybe what they were was “corked,” but when I raised the issue in subsequent conversations with those same sales people, I was told that what I described was indicative of “old world style wines.” From then on I tended to avoid red wines from France and Italy, choosing instead from California, Oregon, Chile, Australia, etc. When I discovered Moore Brothers, I also discovered that French and Italian reds do not have those funky overtones at all. So I’d say I really don’t understand the old world/new world implication.

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Mind if I play?

OK. Just in the “FWIW” mode, my uncle had a “wine shop” in Hermosa (and later, also in Manhattan) Beach in the 50s, 60s, and 70s – back in the days when everyone else had liquor stores (i.e.: his was one of the few stores that featured fine wines). That’s where I started working in the 1960s. Still, it’s quite different that being in a “touristy beach town.”

You weren’t expecting me to disagree with him, were you? :wink:

Let me toss in my 2¢, if you don’t mind . . . (worth far less, I’m sure; keep the change).

I used to be the "Director of Enlightenment"¹ for a small (approx. 10,000 cases annually) winery in the Santa Cruz Mountains. That is certainly not very big, especially when you consider how many different wines we made. This is a breakdown of wines produced each year while I was there²:

  • a multi-vineyard blend of Chardonnay fro the Santa Cruz Mtns. AVA
  • between 3-6 different single-vineyard Chardonnays, each from the Santa Cruz Mtns. AVA
  • either a single vineyard off-dry Riesling or dry Gewürztraminer (Monterey Co.)
  • two Zinfandels (Santa Clara Valley AVA and Ben Lomond Mtn. AVA)
  • two Merlots (one San Ysidro AVA and one single vineyard San Ysidro AVA)
  • a Santa Cruz Mtns. AVA Petite Sirah

The only place that every single wine we made was available was at the winery itself. Remember that we only made 10,000 cases – and 3,000 of that was the first wine on the list, the multi-vineyard Santa Cruz Mtns. Chardonnay (which we referred to as “the cuvée”). That was the only wine that was available in all markets, and yet we sold our wines in 15 states besides California, plus British Columbia.

Having between 300 and 450 cases (each) of between 3-6 single-vineyard designated Santa Cruz Mtns. Chardonnay meant that we could supply (e.g.) VA, MD, DE, and Washington DC with Vineyard A, New York and Texas with Vineyard B, etc., etc.

Our wines were well thought of that a) we had to allocate them, and b) with the exception of the cuvée, our wines were basically a “one shot” item. In other words, the various wholesalers would usually receive one delivery – maybe two – a year from us. Any stores that didn’t buy while the wines were in stock (or in some case, pre-order) were usually SOL. We could only “guarantee” re-orders on the Chardonnay cuvée – we would hold some back deliberately in order to help restaurants keep the wine on their wine lists. Other than that . . .

Most other small vintners that I’ve worked with have generally similar arrangements. Wineries are in a sometimes bizarre position: you want to be available across as broad a geographic area as possible, hopefully exposing more and more people to your wines; at the same time, you want to keep ALL your current customers (both wholesale and retail/restaurant, as well as consumer) happy and supplied with wine, but you don’t always make enough to fulfill the demand. The result is something of a “checker board,” with some wines available in Market X but not Y; other wines the reverse. PLUS, add to that the fact that it is easier (all things are relative; it’s easier than it used to be, but it’s not easy!) to ship Direct To Consumer (DTC) today than is was a decade ago (or two or three or four).

And there are two additional factors in today’s market to consider: a) some wineries may produce a wine that might not be available in California but only in (e.g.) Massachusetts – a retailer or a wholesaler may, for example, enter into an agreement for Winery X to produce n number of cases of Chardonnay specifically for him/her; and b) there are a multitude of labels/brands that aren’t “real” wineries, but labels of a particular winery – Chateau Cache Phloe decides to bottle a Cabernet under the label “Jean Deaux Vineyards” and only sell it on the East Coast, period (not even at the winery), so people would be hard-pressed to ever know that the wine actually came from Cache Phloe in the first place. Indeed, these two may even be combined: Wholesaler Q might contract for Winery X to produce a wine just for Q – they will sell the result as if it’s a California winery, but it’s really just a private label. Great for cash flow, it’s a guaranteed sale from the winery’s perspective, and they can usually gesture of the money upfront, making buying the grapes that much easier, etc., etc., etc.

¹ I’ve always thought that was a perfect “Santa Cruz” job title! In English, that would translate to a mix of National Sales Manager / PR Director / Tasting Room Manager / part-time Cellar Rat-Crush Crew-Bottling Line employee . . . and probably some more stuff I’m leaving out.
² The winery has since increased in both size and the number of different wines produced.

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So glad I posed the question. I am enjoying this thread. Thank you all for your answers!