This episode of Wine 101 is brought to you by Barefoot Wine – still America’s most loved wine brand. Barefoot believes exploring wine should be fun. They make over 40 award-winning sparkling and still wines, so it’s easy to find what you like. Rosé or Pink Moscato? Pinot Grigio or Pinot Noir? Bubbly or still? (You see where I’m going with this.) To check out Barefoot and other wines we talk about on Wine 101, follow the link in the episode description to TheBarrelRoom.com.
In this episode of the “Wine 101” podcast, VinePair’s tastings director Keith Beavers discusses how to shop for great wine at bottle shops and supermarkets. Whether it’s a community-based wine shop or grocery chain, there are bound to be varieties worth exploring. And Beavers would know, having run his own wine shop for over seven years.
When entering a wine store, how do you ask a merchant questions with confidence? What is the best way to navigate a store’s layout? Where can you find the best deals on bottles in the supermarket? Tune in to learn more.
OR CHECK OUT THE CONVERSATION HERE
Keith Beavers: My name is Keith Beavers. And being really bad at tongue twisters is just odd because when someone is good at it and they do it, I’m like, “Are they better than me?”
What’s going on, wine lovers? Welcome to Episode 4 of VinePair’s “Wine 101” podcast. Is it intimidating when you walk into a wine shop? Do you walk into the door like, “What’s next?” Let’s talk about some real-world applications here, people. This is the wine shop, navigated.
It’s time for some real-world application stuff here on “Wine 101,” wine lovers. Part of wine education, beyond the stuff that we’ve been talking about for the past two and a half seasons, is how do you actually access the thing we’re talking about? Do you guys do e-commerce, or do you do wine shops? What’s it like to be a wine lover and want to always know and learn more, and then walk into a wine shop with excitement? But then you walk into the wine shop and you’re like, “Oh my God, what do I do?” This is also a question I get a lot outside of the curriculum-style wine education. What do I do when I go to a wine shop? How do I even navigate this place? Well, let’s talk about it, guys. I had a wine shop for a while, for about seven years. I tried really, really hard to make it as easy as possible for people to get wine. I’m going to riff on the things that I learned, the things that I liked, the things that I like to see when I’m around. Because once you own a wine shop, you can’t unsee things when you go into wine shops. So let’s get down to it.
First thing’s first. If you feel like wine shops are intimidating, you don’t have to. It’s a wine shop. It’s a shop that sells a product. It’s somebody who wants to sell something to you, and they should be happy that you’re there. They should be happy to help you, and they should be willing to work with you until you’re ready to purchase, like you would in any other shop. Ideally, you’re a wine lover. You want to know more. You’re ready to explore. You’re on a journey. I’m not sure where you are on your journey, but you’re on a journey. Usually, the smaller, more focused wine shops will help you on that journey. They’ll help you explore more; go east, west, north, south, wherever you want to go. They’re there to help you. I know that’s not easy to do. I was reading an article from 2016 in The New York Times, where Eric Asimov stated that 30 percent of retail wine sold in the United States is in supermarkets across at least 35 states. And that’s fine. I’m going to talk about supermarket wine a little bit, but I want to talk about when you find that shop.
Let’s say you find a wine shop, and you want it to be your wine shop. When you walk in there, what are some things that are going to make your wine-buying experience awesome? The first thing you want to do when you walk into a wine shop, if you’re feeling intimidated, just take a deep breath. It’s totally cool. It’s just a wine shop. This is going to be fun. This is your place. This is the place where you’re going to learn more about wine, after you listen to “Wine 101,” obviously.
Before you even look at a bottle, you can get a sense of the vibe of a wine shop based on just the temperature of the place. Wine is sensitive to two things: temperature and sunlight. So if there are wine bottles sitting in a window with the glaring sun on it and they’re full and for sale, that’s not a good thing. If it’s too cold, that’s not a big deal. But if it’s too warm in there, those bottles are cooked for quite a long period of time. You’re not guaranteed a bad bottle, but there’s a good chance that a cooked wine will be experienced than if the temperature’s better. These are kind of nitpicky things, but it’s something to observe. The next thing you can do to get comfortable in the space is to get a sense of how the shop is organized, again, before even looking at a bottle. You can just figure this out yourself. Or if you’re a person that likes to ask questions, just ask, “Hey, how is this shop organized?” But if you don’t, there are endless ways people can organize wine shops. I say that because, as new wine shops open every year, someone’s trying to do something a little bit different. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. But that’s not really the point here. The point is to understand what is actually happening, whether it works or not.
In the traditional way of organizing wine shops would be by geography. That really helps people out, because even though wine can be confusing, at least you have a geographical area in which you can focus on. But not every wine shop is like that. Some wine shops are more about, “Here’s the Chardonnay section, here’s the Cabernet Sauvignon section.” You have to work with someone to see which one you want to bring home with you. Sometimes wine shops are based on sensations like aromas: berries, red berries, vanilla, and that kind of stuff. There are also wine shops that organize by full- to light-bodied. You’ll see a white wine section, it’ll say light to full Chardonnays. And again, that requires a different kind of conversation with the merchant than if you were to walk into a shop with geographical areas. Some wine shops will be geographical. But if they know that certain varieties are popular like Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Malbec, and stuff like that, they may actually have geographical organization with sections of Cabernet specifically just to beeline your eyes to where you want to go, because those varieties are so popular. Once you’re comfortable with the vibe and once you get a sense of how the wine shop is organized, you’re basically ready to go.
You go to the wine shop knowing what you’re looking for, having an idea of what you’re looking for. You know how it’s organized. You go to the area of the shop that you’re interested in. You call somebody over to help you, you have a conversation with them. Hopefully, by the time you’re done with that conversation, you walk home with a bottle that you enjoy. Also, with wine, you are allowed to be up front with the amount of money you want to spend. It doesn’t really matter. There’s great wine at all different price points. Go in there, find your section, get some help, and be like, “Look, I want something under $40, let’s do this.” You might vibe with the wine merchant, and they may talk you into a little bit more. Or, this is your wine shop and they give you what you want, and then you can keep coming back to that wine shop and work your price points up, because you trust them. Once you trust them, it’s on. There are things you can do at wine shops that, once you find your shop, will help you further your experience in wine and your journey going forward. Because small wine shops are community-based, they’re never going to be big and expand and franchise. They’re for you, they are neighborhood wine shops. And they want to get to know you as well. There’s a lot of things that wine shops do to do that. They’re not only getting to know you and your palate, but you’re getting to know them and creating a safe space. This is why wine is so much fun.
One very easy thing you can do is start attending in-store wine tastings. In-store wine tastings are awesome. They’ll either have a wine rep, somebody who’s actually selling the wine, or if the merchant is versed in the wine, they’ll do it themselves. But this is a really, really good chance to try things you may not have tried before, or wines of the same variety that you can try that are different from the one you’ve been drinking. The cool thing about in-store tastings is they’re communal. There’s a bunch of people around you. You can bounce ideas off of people when you’re talking and sipping. Also, you don’t have to buy the wine that you’re tasting. It’s just there to taste and experience. If you don’t like the wine, you don’t have to buy it. But it’s a way for you to get your palate trained on what you like. Another good thing is, if the store has a weekly or monthly newsletter, definitely sign up for that. Wine merchants like to put sales, deals, promo codes, and all kinds of cool stuff into newsletters. If the wine shop is a real nerdy wine shop, which they often are, the newsletters will be rich in information about wine as well. If they’re trying to promote a wine, they’re gonna tell you all about it. You get a chance to go in there and grab it before it’s gone, and you can have even further conversations about the wine when you get there to buy the wine. Very cool. I know newsletters can be annoying, right? We all get newsletters. But a wine newsletter is kind of a fun newsletter. And, if you don’t want to do the newsletter, a lot of wine shops have an Instagram account. Almost every wine shop probably should have an Instagram account, and a lot of them use Instagram to feature wines that are just getting in. You can even have a wine merchant literally taking wine out of a box to put on a shelf, taking a photo of it so that you know it’s there, and you can go grab it right away.
The really great thing about small, community-based wine shops is they always like to track your purchases. Sometimes, wine shops will have a loyalty program. Let’s say you go in after you buy 10 bottles or 12 bottles, and you get a discount on your next bottle. Whatever the deal is, it’s pretty cool. In addition to that, they’ve tracked your purchases. So you can come in a month later and say, “Yo, I had this wine back in January, it was awesome. It was white. What was it? I want it again or something like it.” They can pull it up immediately, and there’s really no stress. You’re going right to the wine you want because of the idea you had when you came to the wine shop.
Another advantage to finding a wine shop that you trust is to take advantage of whatever bundles they put together. Sometimes during holidays, wine shops will say, “Hey, if you’re having a turkey dinner, here’s a package of five or six wines that will help pair with whatever you’re doing or whatever the occasion is.” If it’s something you trust, go for those things, they’re thinking about it. These are the four wines we think are best for a Thanksgiving dinner. If you’re not sure, you don’t want to know how to make a decision, it’s right there for you. That’s always awesome; take advantage of it.
If you’re lucky enough to live in a state that allows a wine shop to also be a wine bar, I mean, forget about it. Try all of it, everything, all the time. If they have wine flights, if they have cheese and wine pairings, whatever they’re doing, always try it because that’s great. You can even buy a bottle of wine, pay a corkage fee, and have immediate satisfaction by popping open the bottle, hanging out, and ordering a plate of cheese or something. Often, if they’re featuring a certain wine, they’re really wanting you to get into it. You go there, you try the wine, you buy it, and you drink it there. It’s fun, you can actually interact with the people that are buying the same bottle, it’s all symbiotic.
Wine shops are places you can ask any question you want to ask. No question is stupid. They’re there to help you out. They’re here to make you feel comfortable buying wine. They want you to come back. And the thing about wine shops like this is they’re not perfect. They’re not going to find the perfect pairing for you all the time. But if you trust them, you can always go back and have conversations with them and get to where you want to be. I had a customer once that would pick a section of the wine shop, a geographical section, and they would come back over and over just understanding that area. They wanted to understand Tuscany. So they just wanted to go through and try all the places from Tuscany that I had on my wine shelf. I remember when it all ended, they finished the Tuscan shelf and went to Sicily. It was very cool. Not every wine that they bought in the Tuscan section was their jam, but they appreciated them and were able to figure out what Tuscan wines they liked. They actually started to understand Tuscany just going through that section. But not all areas of the U.S. have small community wine shops.
We talked about the Volstead Act in the last episode with Prohibition and all that. When the Volstead Act was repealed in 1933, one of the unfortunate things about that was that the government gave every state, every county, and every township its own ability to regulate their own liquor laws. That’s crazy, because now every state, township, and county in our country decides what they want to do individually with their laws, making it much harder for us to open wine shops and send wine to people because of different delivery laws. It’s insanity, and I don’t know if it’s ever going to be fixed. If you are in a place that doesn’t have a community wine shop and you have a supermarket, you’re going to be fine. It’s going to be great.
There are great wines in supermarkets as well. When you go to a supermarket, that’s brand-ville. There’s a lot of them being made, and they’re branding to you. They’re trying to be visually appealing, and that’s what they’re going for. The thing about a selection in a supermarket is it’s big and it’s overwhelming. But it’s very clearly marked: “This is Cabernet, this is a Chardonnay, etc.” You can walk your way through these sections and try this and try that for $5, $12, $30, and you’re actually going to recognize a lot of the brands just because you’ll see them advertising around. Here’s a little trick that I have, and it doesn’t always work, but it’s kind of a cool trick. If you’re in a supermarket and you want something that’s not a big brand, the cool thing to do is go to the European section.
Europe has these things called co-ops, and it’s a really great way for us to enjoy European wine at a lower price. A co-op basically — I’m going to totally generalize this — is a big building in a winemaking facility. There are vine growers around this big building, they all ship grapes into the big facility, and they all pay to make wine in this one big facility. What that does is it affords a winemaker or a vine grower a way to make wine without investing a bunch of money in winemaking equipment. They’re just paying a kind of rent or membership fee. Because of that, the amount of wine that’s being made in these things is a lot, and the price when it gets to the United States is less. So there’s a really good chance, if you’re in a supermarket and you’re looking for an Italian wine, Austrian wine, a French wine, you’re going to find affordable wines that are often made in co-ops.
Co-ops are great. Back in the day, after the Depression and in the wars, co-ops were a little bit rough. They weren’t funded by the EU or anything like that, and the equipment was bad. It was a rough time. The wine wasn’t the greatest. But now that the EU has taken over and they subsidize these co-ops. It’s awesome and the quality has improved and the attention to detail has improved. You’re also going to get a good, affordable Pinot Grigio or a Nero d’Avola from Sicily for 20, 30 bucks, or even $15. And it’s going to be good European wine. That’s a little trick that I have. Don’t get it twisted. Louis M. Martini is a great Cabernet Sauvignon. They’re a legacy winery from Napa, and they’re still making wine today, and you can find it pretty much anywhere. Stag’s Leap is a very famous California winemaker. They have an entry-level wine and they have the higher-end wine, but those are all sold in supermarkets.
America, here’s something very cool. In this country, we have one of the best sparkling wines on the domestic market that is affordable. It’s called Gruet. I mentioned them in the last episode. They’re just outside of Albuquerque, N.M., the family is from Champagne. They make quality, affordable, sparkling wine. Here I am, doing it again: American sparklers. I’m trying to get that trademarked. Does anyone want to help me out? I want to call sparkling wine from America, American Sparklers. You don’t have to call it Champagne. Just call them American Sparklers. I don’t know if anyone’s gonna be into that.
Anyway, there’s always something to be had in a supermarket. It’s not as easy to find because you don’t get a lot of help. “Clean up in aisle five” is all you’re going to hear. But in a pinch, there is something for you. I hope this helped you guys out. You probably knew some of this stuff. Maybe you didn’t. What I want to do is to give you guys confidence in wine.
You guys listen to “Wine 101” because you love wine. When you walk into a wine shop, I want you to feel like it’s any other shop. You’re there to do the thing that you love: buy wine and enjoy it when you get home. You can be like, I was listening to “Wine 101,” and Keith was talking about this place in southern France called Languedoc-Roussillon. He was really vibing on this stuff — there’s an episode coming out this season about this — and I’d like to try what he was talking about. They’ll be like, “Yo, man, we love ‘Wine 101.’ That’s a great idea. Let’s go to the Roussillon section and see what we can find for you.”
OK, maybe that won’t happen. But still, I hope I gave you guys some confidence. Let’s talk next week.
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And now, for some totally awesome credits. “Wine 101” was produced, recorded, and edited by yours truly, Keith Beavers, at the VinePair headquarters in New York City. I want to give a big ol’ shout-out to co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin for creating VinePair. Big shout-out to Danielle Grinberg, the art director of VinePair, for creating the most awesome logo for this podcast. Also, Darbi Cicci for the theme song. Listen to this. And I want to thank the entire VinePair staff for helping me learn something new every day. See you next week.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.