As a writer and wine lover who has also worked at one of the largest alcohol retailers in New York City, Astor Wines & Spirits, I’ve done my fair share of helping buyers navigate busy aisles in search of the perfect bottle. And I’ve likely answered every question you can think of at one point or another, from the seemingly simple, “Where can I find a good Chardonnay” to the curiously complex, “I’m looking for a natural wine that’s ageable.”
Here are insider tips about how to get the most from your wallet, your experience and your bottle the next time you’re at the wine shop.
Make a friend.
This should go without saying, but start a conversation with an employee! Salespeople are there to help, and the longer you know them, the more they learn about your palate and the better they can point you in the right direction. Building a rapport with a favorite salesperson can also lead to better access to limited-edition bottles, special samples and advanced notice on new arrivals.
Embrace the satellite region.
Médoc, Barolo, Napa, Burgundy and other famous regions are coveted for their quality and historical significance. These wines will sell based on name alone and can command high prices, which can scare off some shoppers—myself included. Most of the wine I recommend and drink comes from satellite regions, the areas that surround the more prestigious vineyards.
If a wine or spirit is surrounded by a lot of buzz and billboards, it usually means that its marketing costs are baked into the price you’ll be paying at the register.
Producers in satellite regions usually work with the same grape varieties as their more celebrated neighbors, but lacking in name recognition, will often work twice as hard to be recognized for their quality. This is where you find hidden values.
Sancerre, for example, is surrounded by regions that also produce tart, dry Sauvignon Blanc like Quincy, Reuilly and Menetou-Salon. Increasingly, elegant Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are available from the once-overlooked Mâconnais region in Burgundy. And if you seek an elegant Nebbiolo, Gattinara and Ghemme are the Piedmont regions that will give you less sticker shock than Barolo and Barbaresco.
Is the wine dry? Look for alcohol by volume (abv) to find out.
Whether or not a bottle is dry is one of the most common questions customers have—and the answer usually is “most likely.”
Wine stores are pretty good about separating anything exceedingly sweet (with the glaring exception of some German whites). But when you’re shopping, consulting the abv listing on the bottle is a fairly reliable indicator.
When a customer grabs one bottle over another because it’s wrapped in a cardboard or wood box to look fancy, it’s almost always a mistake.
Since a grape’s natural sugar is what ferments into alcohol, a wine with more residual sweetness—sugar that hasn’t been converted into alcohol—will usually also have a lower abv as a result. Sweetness can also be subjective, however. There are many Mosel Kabinett Rieslings clocking in at 8–9% abv that show perceptible sweetness, but ideally will have enough acidity to keep everything balanced.
Alcohol levels of 11% and higher are a good guarantee the wine will be dry, though factors like its growing climate can come into play. Also, aromatic varieties like Gewürztraminer or Muscat have many wines that can technically be classified as dry, but will have a smell or flavor that seems sweet.
Don’t just shop by brand.
If a wine or spirit is surrounded by a lot of buzz and billboards, it usually means that its marketing costs are baked into the price you’ll be paying at the register. Unless you have a personal attachment to a certain brand, you’re better off taking a chance on a nice, lesser-known bottle you haven’t tried before, rather than the bottles with the loudest advertising.
Do use the shopping experience to experiment with pairings.
Part of the beauty of buying bottles at a shop rather than a restaurant is the opportunity to take a chance on ambitious pairings. Some of the best pairings are the ones you might not have thought of yet. Try offbeat options like warmed sweet potato shochu with grilled steak, or amarone with chocolate cake. Feel like you’ve exhausted wine and cheese pairings? A heavily-Sherried Scotch works surprisingly well with a wide range of cheese boards.
Looking for the next best deal in brown spirits? Try brandy.
For better or worse, many whiskey drinkers still scour shelves for bottles with the oldest age statements, causing Bourbon prices to skyrocket over recent years. While waiting for the whiskey-bubble to burst, savvy customers would do well to consider grape- or apple-based spirits that deliver comparable delights like Cognac, Armagnac, Calvados and the recent rise of impressive American brandies. Take a chance and you’ll soon discover the wealth of value still to be found in other barrel-aged brown spirits.
Compared to other amari, fernets are more bitter and end with a cool or minty finish. What many shoppers don’t yet know of are the plethora of options beyond stalwart Fernet-Branca.
Don’t buy anything just for the packaging.
With some products, a little embellishment can add to the appreciation—think of a beautifully wrapped sake or something in a hand-blown glass bottle—but for the most part, when a customer grabs one bottle over another because it’s wrapped in a cardboard or wood box to look fancy, it’s almost always a mistake. This extra packaging usually exists to create the illusion of quality, but it will just end up in the recycling bin and has nothing to do with the product inside.
Which amaro should you get? Answer: all of them.
When confronted by shelves of options in the liquor store, settling on a single bottle of amaro is hard, especially if you’re new to the category. To prepare, consider just how bitter you’d like your bitter to be. There’s a wide range of amari, from the mellow, orangey Ramazzotti to savory and piney Braulio. The best advice? Try a new bottle each time while you hone in on what you like.
Although it’s also dark, mysterious and Italian, fernet can be considered its own category. Compared to other amari, fernets are more bitter and end with a cool or minty finish. What many shoppers don’t yet know of are the plethora of options beyond stalwart Fernet-Branca.
Some of the most exciting options in fernet, in fact, are American made. Chicago’s Letherbee makes a concentrated and distinctively piney version, while fernet from Leopold Bros. in Colorado shows off a lighter and fruitier side. For something treacly and brooding, Fernet-Vallet, which comes from Mexico, is unique in its full bodied intensity and cardamom finish.
Shopping for ingredients to make cocktails? Don’t be too stingy.
I’ve noticed many customers feel they should stick to cheaper options when purchasing spirits destined for mixed drinks. The misconception is that fancy spirits should only be drunk neat, as adding other ingredients may damage what makes that spirit great. In fact, the increase in cocktail quality when using top-shelf spirits is vastly noticeable. Straightforward stirred drinks like Manhattans and classic martinis can enhance a high-end spirit in a number of ways, without losing character, so don’t be afraid to splurge. And since you’re buying your ingredients from the store and not paying $20 for a drink at a cocktail bar, you’re sure to make up the cost regardless.
When she’s not guiding customers through the wide world of alcohol at Astor Wine & Spirits, Tammie Teclemariam is a wine, food and spirits writer based in New York City.