How to Shop for Wine (Without Sounding Like a Dick)

For previous posts in our "how-to wine" series, please click here.

Like so many women and men across America, hundreds of Houstonians will head to their neighborhood wine shop today to pick up a special bottle of wine for a Valentine's Day dinner.

For some of them, it will be an extremely stressful experience. Sadly, most Americans shop for wine only a few times a year, and when they do, they usually invest their entire focus on a single bottle for a single occasion.

There is a lot riding on that bottle: What if it doesn't go with the food I'm preparing? What if it's spoiled? What if I paid too much? What if I spent too little? What if my lover doesn't love it?

Even sadder is the fact that the stress of buying wine for Valentine's Day (or any holiday, for that matter) often brings out the "not my best day" in a lot of folks.

The following rules of thumb are by no means the Ten Commandments of wine shopping. But they can serve as some general guidelines for how to shop for wine (without sounding like a dick).

Remember that the word salesperson contains the word person.

I highly recommend this post by one of my favorite West Coast wine bloggers, Samantha Sans Dosage, who runs one of the best wine retail programs in Southern California. Her blog is smart, sassy and sexy, and this rant -- posted during the run-up to Christmas 2013 -- offers some hilarious insights into what it feels like to be on the other side of the counter.

When told flatly that "friends don't let friends drink White Zinfandel," Samantha counters, "Friends don't judge; let them drink what they want. Dammit."

Do your homework.

Ten years ago, there were only a handful of wine guide publications, like the Wine Spectator and The Wine Advocate. You had to be a subscriber or pick one up at the newsstand if you wanted to take advantage of their editors' wine knowledge. Today, those pioneering mastheads have superb web portals that allow you to browse thousands of tasting notes at the tip of your fingers.

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There are also wonderful online guides, like Master of Wine Jancis Robinson's Purple Pages and Antonio Galloni's Vinous, my personal favorites.

In addition, myriad wine blogs offer all kinds of great recommendations. Is California wine your thing? Check out Alder Yarrow's Vinography. Do you dig Burgundy and Champagne? Brooklyn Guy's blog is a must-read. Into Italy? Read Alfonso Cevola's On the Wine Trail in Italy. Looking for some natural love? Tune into Alice Feiring's Feiring Line (and check out her newsletter).

Get real about pricing.

Another one of the Internet's great gifts to wine lovers is WineSearcher.com, an online search engine that allows you to compare pricing across the nation. You don't have to be a subscriber to use it (although a modest subscription fee gives you full access). It's a great way to check availability.

Unfortunately, Spec's no longer submits its info. But the Houston Wine Merchant does.

Keep in mind, however, that we always pay a little more for our retail wine here in Texas, where higher-than-average state tax and greater transportation and storage costs have to be figured in.

Be honest.

Don't try to show your salesperson that you know more than she or he does by feigning superior wine knowledge.

And don't be afraid to tell your salesperson how much you want to spend: $15, $25, $35 and $45 are good "price points" to use when describing your ideal wine.

"I'd like a bottle of red wine under $25" is a good way to start. By setting your price ceiling from the get-go, you don't have to worry about spending more than you intended.


No offense to people who sell cars, but the people who work in wine shops are not car salespersons. While there are plenty of exceptions to this generalization, in more cases than not, they're not there to upsell you or rip you off.

No one ever made a fortune by working in a wine shop. And people who work in wine shops generally work there because they love wine.

Have faith in your salesperson's wine knowledge.

People who work in wine shops tend to know a lot about wine. Yes, there are exceptions to this as well. But most retail folks spend the better part of their days tasting, talking and reading about wine. And they, more than anyone else, know their shops' inventories and best values. I may know a little bit about wine, but Gianola knows what he's got in stock and what's "drinking well" right now.

I don't tell my dentist how to perform a root canal, and I don't tell my dry cleaner how to fold my shirts. Similarly, I have faith that my salesperson will steer me in the right direction when it comes to finding the right bottle of wine.

Develop a relationship with your salesperson.

No, I'm not suggesting that you ask her or him out on a date. But the human element is very important when it comes to purchasing wine, especially when you're pressed for time.

In a good wine shop, the sales personnel should be able to look at your purchase history and have a sense of what kind of wine you like and what you like to spend.

If you really still believe that all wine salespersons are out to rip you off, shop anonymously online.

Tragically, online retail wine sales are illegal in Texas, where only winemakers can sell their wines on the internet.

But that doesn't stop out-of-state retailers from shipping their wines here (even though it's forbidden by law).

I'm not encouraging anyone to break the law. But there are some wonderful online retailers who make it easy for the antisocial among us to buy wine.

On deck in our "how-to wine" series: How to send a bottle of wine back without sounding like a dick when dining in a restaurant.

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