5 Questions to Ask When You're Buying Wine (And Know Nothing About Wine)
Buying wine isn’t as soul-crushing as buying new jeans, but it’s still pretty stressful. All those labels that say so much and mean nothing at all, with all those words you know you cannot pronounce. Is that a grape or a region? Who says “Haute” aside from Paris Hilton in the early aughts, and what the hell is a “Medoc”? The good news is you don’t need to know the answers when buying wine, you just need to know what questions to ask.
If the thought of having to talk to someone at a wine shop is already causing you to hyperventilate, fear not. Although buying wine can be super intimidating, most people selling wine just really love wine, are happy you love wine, and will never judge you for rolling in with your lips already stained purple. And this is why you need to buy wine from a wine shop—not a grocery store, not a liquor store, not a convenience store attached to a gas station. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but the likelihood of a stock boy at Stater Brothers’ market pointing you in the direction of a good Syrah is pretty slim. I know it’s an extra stop in an already busy day, but shopping for wine at a wine shop will increase your chances of enjoying what you drink. (And don’t fret—most shops have wines in all price points, even for struggling comedy writers who worked in ocarina factories to make ends meet. Ocarinas are clay flutes, perhaps most famously from The Legend of Zelda. I know this because I was that struggling comedy writer who worked in an ocarina factory, had zero dollars to my name and still managed to drink good wine.)
“What’s like [fill in a wine you know and like]?”
I’m assuming if you’re buying wine, you’ve had it before. I don’t encourage people to drink the same thing all the time, not only because that’s boring but because there are so many wonderful wines out there that you may love just as much if you give them a shot. This rule does not apply to Gamay, because once you love Gamay you’re going to be drinking it every day, and you and I probably should start a support group. But if you had a great Cabernet the other night, ask for Cabernet. Or pull out your phone and show them the label of a wine your friend pulled out the other night that you loved, but couldn’t decipher what the hell any of it said. Use as many descriptors as you can, but don’t worry about being technical. Perhaps it’s something as specific as Pinot Noir, or maybe as vague as white, dry, and reminds you of your favorite Paul Simon song.
There are no wrong ways to describe wine, it’s just important that you describe what you like to the best of your ability in order for someone to help pick out something you’re going to enjoy. Trust me. I walk into stores and ask for wine that “tastes like a pack of cigarettes rolled into James Dean’s freshly laundered t-shirt sleeve.” That doesn’t even make sense! But it does. It translates to someone giving me a wine with a clean and floral nose but with a smoky palate, like Agnanum Falanghina, an Italian wine with an name I never would have bought before, but now love.
“What goes well with…?”
Whether it’s dinner at home or at a birthday party, letting the person you’re buying wine from know what you’re buying wine for will be a huge help in pointing you in the right direction. What goes well with lasagna? What’s the best Champagne for people who are just going to chug it? What pairs well with Sex & The City and an entire box of Rice Krispy Treats stolen from your parents’ pantry? Couple this with the previous question, and you’re bound to get a great match.
“What are you drinking?”
The people who work in a wine shop taste wine like it’s their job. Because it is. Each week, wine reps come in with their wares for wine shops to try and potentially buy. The people who work in wine shops not only have tasted nearly every wine in the store, but they also probably shop there themselves. What I’ve found is that what the people in wine drink are not the stuffy, overzealous wines you may think they would go for. Rather, they like wines with delicious drinkability—and while I'm here, that's a good phrase to throw out when you're asking for help. So not only does trying a pro’s pick expand your palate, but you may find it’s a new favorite for you, too.
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