Wine Buying Tips

By Sunny Brown on March 18, 2005

Category: Wine for Newbies

The wine shop. No place on earth offers more joy and heartache for a wine lover. The novice wine buyer is filled with both the promise of a new experience and the fear of the unknown. The more experienced buyer loves the selection, but hates to have to choose from so many wonderful wines. The optimistic yin of getting a great deal is tempered by the pessimistic yang of getting ripped off. What to get? Is this Burgundy from a good producer, or a good year, or both? I’ve never had an Argentinian Malbec before, is it the worth the $17 I was going to spend on my dependable Shiraz? They don’t like Merlot in that movie Sideways but I like Merlot. What do I do?

This may sound overly dramatic, but as anyone who loves wine knows it’s not easy choosing from wine shops where the selections often run into the thousands. Even serious collectors are confronted with tough choices or wines they have never tasted or heard of. So often buying from a shop requires a leap of faith. A measure of trust is required in either the store, the salesperson, the blurb about the wine pinned to the shelf, or the winery’s reputation. But there are ways to eliminate some of the guesswork and make your wine buying life easier. Follow these guidelines and watch your skills increase from the depths of shaky consumerism to the heights of confident wine buying. Top Ten Wine Buying Strategies:

1. Know your store

Every wine shop is different. Different focus, different selections, different pricing structures. Choose the one that works best for you. If you are new to the wine game and every bottle on the shelf is over $50 then you are probably in the wrong place. Look for stores that have either organized wine tastings or have wine available by the glass. What better way to know if you like a wine before buying than to taste it?

2. Have a plan

Have in mind what the wine is for before you are bogged down by numerous regions, prices, etc. Are you looking for a simple wine to serve with dinner or planning a party for twenty? Knowing what you are looking for before you are in the store will help you to make better selections than just walking in and browsing until something strikes your fancy.

3. Don’t be afraid to bring resources

There is a myriad of different sources of information on wine out there and bringing some with you to the store can only help in making an informed decision. Books, magazines, brochures and even, ahem, websites provide valuable information on producers and vintages that it is impossible to keep track of. The difference between a good vintage and a so-so vintage can be the difference in a wonderful wine and a so-so one. Resources such as The Wine Spectator and The Wine Advocate and even yours truly at offer ratings of individual wines that can be extremely useful when selecting a wine, but remember: just because a wine isn’t rated or has a mediocre score doesn’t mean it is a bad wine. These are guidelines and someone else’s opinion.

4. Survey the land

Don’t get caught in one section of the wine store. While some locales are very well organized, many are not, and the best bargain of the day may be just around the aisle. A quick trip around the shop to gain your bearings might be a good way to make sure that nothing is missed.

5. Develop a relationship with the owner/salesperson

Never be afraid to ask for help or a recommendation. Running into the pushy salesperson may be inevitable, but usually anyone working in the store will share your enthusiasm for the grape and asking what they like may get you a great bottle of wine. Also any salesperson worth their salt can get a feel for what you enjoy after a few trips to the store or even after answering just a few well-placed questions. Return trips and evaluations of what you tried last week can help the salesperson to judge your tastes.

6. Price does not equal quality

While a monstrous price tag may be well deserved for that bottle of 20-year-old Bordeaux, wines today are increasingly priced according to start-up costs for the winery or even the level of investment from outside sources instead of quality or reputation. In fact, wines from the traditional wine growing regions are sure to be higher in price than something from a less known vineyard area regardless of how good the wine is. Use your resources!

7. Look for value regions and 2nd labels

Many wine regions are known for their ability to produce very nice wines at still reasonable prices. Spain, Australia, Argentina and Chile are just a few countries to try. Another option is to try wine from areas just outside of more well known wine growing regions. Instead of the pricey Pomerol in Bordeaux, try Lalande-de-Pomerol. Same grape (Merlot) from just down the road at a much lower price. Also, look for the 2nd labels of more established wineries. These are wines sold under a different label from a quality winery sold at a lower price, a practice quite common in Bordeaux and gaining steam in California.

8. Be willing to experiment

Trying something new can be a great way to learn about new wines and new countries. Try a recommendation from someone at the shop, sample a new region, or even go with the advice of the shelf talking card pinned next to a wine. It may be the best wine that you have ever had!

9. Buy discounted wine

Most shops offer a 10% discount on wine sold by the case, mixed or not. Look for any close-out specials or wines on sale. Because it is half-off doesn’t mean it is terrible. Wines are often sold at what the state dictates, and it may be more than what the market will bear. These may be marked down significantly before the next vintage arrives, and can offer significant savings to the consumer.

10. Buy wine online

There are numerous sites that offer online sales of wine. Among the best are and These sites can offer wines at considerably less than your local store or have hard to find rarities. Be forewarned: Many states do not allow point-to-point sales of wine or alcohol. Most sites will list which states they can ship to. This is a contentious issue soon to be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court, but until then make sure you read the fine print.

Well, there you have it. This is by no means all you need to know when buying wine but it will certainly help you along your way. Use these ten points and the trepidation of wine buying should fade to the bottom of your stomach like the tannins of an old port. It should be loved and looked forward to like shopping for any thing of beauty, like going to the car parts store for your ‘67 Chevy or to the jewelry store on Valentine’s Day. The best part is how much do they have at the jewelry store for less than ten dollars?