Walking into a wine shop for the first time can make for one nerve-wracking experience, especially for customers who don’t know exactly what they’re looking for or who aren’t familiar with wine. As if searching for the right style of wine wasn’t enough, there’s also the challenge of pronouncing it correctly.
However, landing on the right bottle of wine doesn’t have to be such a challenge. Some people are more than willing to help consumers navigate endless bottles of wines stockpiled on shelves, and they’re usually the folks working at the retail shops.
“Something I wanted to focus on was providing real service and making people feel comfortable and welcome no matter who they are or what they already know. No pretense. I just wanted to create a fun space for people to explore wine comfortably,” says Sarah Pierre, the owner of 3 Parks Wine Shop in Atlanta, Georgia. “We assist about 95% of the people that come in the store. We greet them with a smile, and we immediately ask them how we can help.”
Receiving a warm greeting from shopkeepers may be the introduction to a great wine shopping experience, but there are a few things customers should keep in mind to ensure they walk out with the bottle that’s best for them.
Talk to the pros
There will always be shoppers who know what they’re looking for and those who would prefer not to be bothered while picking out their bottles. Some people would rather use wine apps like Vivino to find the right bottle.
However, retail merchants are a great resource. In most cases, those offering their services at wine shops have years of experience in wine and hospitality. Some have educational training, with certifications to back up their knowledge. Some speak directly with distributors and importers at length about every bottle in stock. And at the very least, the people working at the wine shop have tried the wines. Relying on their insight can lead to more than just purchasing one delectable bottle for the night. Wine merchants can potentially help customers unlock their wine journey and discover new varietals that will essentially advance their palates.
“I think there’s a lot of anxiety and a lot of intimidation for folks if they walk into a wine store and don’t know exactly what they’re looking for. I know I’ve felt it. But someone who knows a lot about wine and works in a shop will be able to help you find something you might like based on the styles of other drinks you like,” says Aaron Cherny, a wine merchant at Back Room Wines in Napa, California, and proprietor behind Source & Sink Wines.
He adds, “If you can give merchants at the shop a little bit of help in guiding you, all the better, because there’s such diversity and such a breadth and depth of styles of wine grapes worth exploring.”
Is there a preference?
There are some things shoppers should have in mind that can assist retailers in helping them discover the best option, like what they’re willing to spend on a bottle and whether they’re in the mood for red or white wine.
“We always ask what price point would they like to stay in and what style a customer typically enjoys drinking. And some people have no idea. Some people say they just like red wine, and that’s great because it allows us to ask follow-up questions like if they like full-body, light-body, fruit-forward? Sometimes people automatically say they like dry or sweet,” Pierre says. “We take any descriptor they use and just guide them that way.”
Make new friends
Conversing with wine shop employees can also go a long way in developing a rapport with merchants. Before leaving the Midwest and a job in corporate finance, Cherny says he often relied on his local wine shop employees to help him with purchases. Now he’s doing the same with customers that pop into Back Room.
“One of my customers is a real estate agent, and he and his girlfriend recently started drinking wine, and we’ve developed a rapport over the last eight months or so. Now when we get new stuff in, I know if it’s going to be something they’d like, and sometimes I’ll set things aside to recommend to them,” Cherny says.
Getting to know customers who shop frequently also makes for a rewarding experience for staffers. It allows them to flex their skills and welcome drinkers into the wine community.
“I love talking about wine, and I love educating people. I love that one of my regular customers is drinking really cool wines now and asking questions about wines from all over the world,” Cherny says. “Eight months ago, he didn’t drink white wine at all. Now he’s really into white Burgundies. I think that’s super cool.”
“It’s unfortunate that there are wine shops out there that make people feel as if they don’t know enough or feel really ignorant because of their lack of knowledge. But wine is hard, and the reason that we all have jobs is because people don’t know the wines. That’s why we’re here. We get excited to talk about bottles of wine.”
Have an open mind
Another tip experts share for getting the most out of wine shopping: keep an open mind.
Everyone has their old faithful wine styles and dependable go-to bottles, but it never hurts to step outside of the box. Retailers can be a wealth of knowledge when it’s time to shake things up and step outside comfort zones.
“Come open and willing to try everything and be open-minded when it comes to wine because there are thousands and thousands of bottles to try. Sometimes people think they only like one style and then realize that they like an assortment of different wines,” says Pierre.
Ask lots of questions
Always ask questions. But try to avoid traps like asking what the merchant likes to drink, or what the most popular bottle is. What’s enjoyable to one person may not necessarily cater to another individual’s palate.
“People get very obsessed with asking questions like is the wine good or if I like a certain bottle. To some people, a bottle of The Prisoner Red Blend might be the best wine they’ve ever had. That might be something they really enjoy, and they love those big fruit flavors. They love all of that oak, all that residual sugar. I may not necessarily like it, but that doesn’t make it a bad wine,” Cherny says.
According to Pierre, it’s important to remember that there are no stupid questions. Can’t pronounce Pouilly-Fuissé? Wine merchants can teach you how to say it and point out the French wine appellation on a map. Don’t know the difference between estate wines and single vineyard? Shopkeepers would be happy to explain.
“I can sometimes see that people are a little bit nervous if it’s their first time they’ve come in the shop, but there’s no reason to be nervous at all. It’s unfortunate that there are wine shops out there that make people feel as if they don’t know enough or feel really ignorant because of their lack of knowledge,” Pierre says. “But wine is hard, and the reason that we all have jobs is because people don’t know the wines. That’s why we’re here. We get excited to talk about bottles of wine.”
Most importantly, though, customers should never forget to just go with the flow.
“So many consumers want that instant knowledge. There’s no way to get wine quickly. You just have to be down for the journey,” says Cherny. “When you go into the shop, ask some good questions, buy some bottles, and drink some wine.”
Buying wine shouldn’t be an overwhelming experience, and professionals working at wine stores want to ensure that it isn’t. So don’t be afraid to ask questions or rely on your local merchants for help. What have you got to lose? They might lead you to a bottle that will set your world on fire. And that will make it all worthwhile.