What makes a good wine store?

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One of the most common pieces of advice for new wine drinkers is to make friends with a good local wine store. They can help you identify your preferences, introduce you to delicious wines you’ve never heard of, and help you get a bargain on that rare bottle. But how do you find a good store? I’ve been fortunate in that I used to live in the NYC area and now in the Bay Area, two areas with tons of fabulous wine stores. Here are what I look for in a good wine store.

Selection: it goes almost without saying that a good wine store will have a good selection of quality wines. Wines from the major regions at all levels—from entry level regional wines to Grand Cru—is a must. Wines from a wide variety of producers is also important because it helps in understanding the differences between the terroir, how the grape is influenced by the weather and soil, and the winemaker’s own style. In addition, the best wine stores branch out of the major regions and also source wines from new regions or areas off the beaten track—the Swartland in South Africa, for example, or the Jura in France.

Price: Most of us don’t have unlimited quantities of money and most wine lovers need to set budgets, lest we go broke. For someone who drinks a lot of wine, it’s essential to have access to good, decent quality wines at a reasonable price point; for my purposes, this means wines in the $10-$25 range. This also means when I find a bottle of wine that I really want to drink, I search for the cheapest place to find it (thank you wine-searcher.com!) Therefore, when looking at price in wine stores, I’m thinking about two things: 1) do you have many affordable options and 2) How do your prices compare to other wine stores in the same area and across the country in general?

Service: When searching for a wine, it can be a great disappointment if you know more about the wines on offer than the person working in the store! Knowing your wines inside and out and being able to direct customers, from wine novices to experts, towards wines they’ll enjoy is a necessity of good wine store service. Storage & Shipping policy is also incredibly important. Most wines are ruined if stored for too long at an improper temperature and glass bottles can break in transit. Good wine retailers will make sure that their wine is always stored at the proper temperature and only ship when temperatures at the origin and destination are within the proper range (usually 40-75 degrees Fahrenheit), and most will use Styrofoam containers or another form of packaging for bottle protection. Of course the usual standards of courtesy and helpfulness apply as well.

Extras: These things are (for me) what tips the scale and separates the good from the excellent.

  • Tastings– wine tastings are an excellent way to educate yourself about different wine regions producers, and styles. I feel that a great wine store should hold tastings at least once a week, if not more often. These tastings are even better when they’re free. Having the winemaker or another expert present to answer questions about the wine is a plus. One of my favorite tasting experiences was Rieslingfier NYC “Riesling Crawl” because the winemakers were the ones pouring the wine—and it was really good stuff!
  • Mailing List– Usually mailing lists fill your inbox with tons of crap that you have no interest in buying, or couldn’t afford even if you wanted to. However, whenever I buy a bottle from a wine store, I make sure to leave my email address for their online mailing list. Wine store mailing lists can be one of the best ways to find fantastic deals on wines and get your hands on hard to find bottles. Wine stores that focus on smaller production or rare wines will usually receive a limited number of bottles that are almost always offered first to mailing list subscribers and only later to general buyers—if there are any remaining!
  • Wine Clubs– I don’t sign up for wine clubs, one because I enjoy the process researching and choosing bottles myself and two because they’re a bit expensive. That said, monthly wine clubs at good wine stores can be a great way to expand your palate and drink more wine without going to the trouble of constantly choosing bottles yourself. Good wine club programs that I know of usually begin at around $20-30/month for two bottles.

When I was in school in New Jersey, I ended up buying most of my wine in New York City. Here are a few of my favorite NYC (well, actually Manhattan) wine stores:

  • PJ Wine– really, really far uptown (past the Cloisters), this store may not look like much from the outside, but inside it has one of the most fantastic selections and lowest prices on Rioja in the city.
  • Flatiron Wine & Spirits– a great boutique wine store with a fantastic selection and friendly, knowledgeable staff. Make sure to get on their mailing lists for access to a wide range of special deals on wines you would be hard pressed to find anywhere else. Reading their Wednesday special offers every week makes me wish I still lived in the area.
  • Astor Wine & Spirits– very large wine store with a great selection, competitive prices, and free tastings 4 nights of the week. They also run classes and tasting workshops on everything from Loire valley whites to Irish & Japanese whiskey (these cost money).
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