Wine stores are a playground. Unlike restaurants, where it’s easy to feel restricted by the selections or intimidated by sommeliers, wine stores are the perfect place to take your time and learn new things.
But a good wine store is defined by its staff as much as the inventory, and bottle-shop employees are among the most enthusiastic, valuable and underappreciated resources in wine. Feel free to introduce yourself, and don’t be shy—they’ve been asked everything in the book.
We’ve reached out to employees and proprietors from a handful of shops across the country: Prashant Patel of Back Room Wines in Napa, California; Jeff Segal of Domestique Wine in Washington, D.C.; Henry Glucroft of Henry’s Wine and Spirit in Brooklyn, New York; Peter and Orenda Hale of Maine and Loire in Portland, Maine; and Sarah Covey of K&L Wine Merchants in Redwood City, California. These are their most commonly asked questions, and the answers.
What wines are you excited about right now?
“We love this question. This is when we get to introduce tourists to wines they are likely not going to encounter here in Napa while doing the “normal” tasting thing. This is typically where we’ll introduce the small producers we represent doing fun things like Dirty & Rowdy, Mountain Tides, Broc Cellars, Enfield, Ferdinand.” —Prashant Patel, Back Room Wines
Is this older wine drinking well?
“When people come to the counter with an older bottle of Silver Oak, or an older bottle of [Chateau] Montelena in their hands, nine times out of 10, the first question out of their mouth is, “Is this going to be good, or is it past its prime?”
Some of the older domestic wines we have purchased directly from the winery’s private stock, like with Heitz Cellars in Napa. The other places we get our wines from are our customers’ private cellars. We have an auction and library wine department able to purchase wines from different parts of [private] collections and put them back on sale for other customers. That said, there are always vintages that drink better than others.” —Sarah Covey, K&L Wine Merchants
What is natural wine?
“There’s no universal definition for natural wine. But here’s how we define it at Domestique: We only sell wines made from organic or biodynamic grapes, fermented with ambient yeasts and with very minimal use of sulfur, if any. [At] the end of the day, natural wine is essentially wine that hasn’t been made with pesticides and hasn’t been overly manipulated in the cellar.” —Jeff Segal, Domestique
What’s your favorite Cabernet Sauvignon?
“What we like, the general consumer won’t be interested in…old-school Napa. Revik makes a stunning Napa Cab with some whole-cluster action, it’s a treat. Or Corison. What’s not to love about Cathy [Corison]’s wines?” —Prashant Patel, Back Room Wines
Do you have wines without any sulfites?
“Wine actually has naturally occurring sulfites, but sadly, many winemakers add more—sometimes much, much more—during various stages of winemaking to act as a preservative and kill unwanted bacteria.
Sulfur is not something that distinguishes [harmful] bacteria perfectly and can kill off some of the wines’ natural liveliness. But a little sulfur can also help wines remain much more drinkable in the face of challenging vintages and traveling around the world before making it to consumers’ palates.” —Henry Glucroft, Henry’s Wine and Spirit
How does natural wine taste?
“Natural wine tastes like wine! There are a wide range of flavors and profiles, as with all wine. Many of them are classic wines from producers that have been making wine [the natural] way for a very long time. But natural wine is also more accepting, and at times, embracing of flavors that have become considered flaws as the wine world has become more industrialized and globalized. Some natural wines are cloudy, taste like cider or are texturally different. To us, natural wine just tastes more expressive.” —Jeff Segal, Domestique
What orange wine do you have that’s $19?
“There’s only one, and we’re out of it.
We charge the exact same amount, percentage-wise, on every bottle which [is directly tied to] what a winemaker might get paid per bottle. If you want [wines] under $20, it means that whoever made it is making around two euros a bottle in the best case scenario. That’s what they’re being paid for their work.
It’s a very sticky issue, but the flip side of that is that most of the most interesting stuff in the shop sits into the $19–29 price point.” —Peter and Orenda Hale, Maine and Loire
What is the provenance of this older wine?
“We try to foster relationships with direct import producers in France, Italy and Spain. Many of them have extensive back cellars of different product. A lot of older Bordeaux wines that we feature in the store come directly from négociants that we have worked with for 40 years, or [they come] direct from the property in Bordeaux.” —Sarah Covey, K&L Wine Merchants
Wow, you still have that bottle in stock?
“Large markets like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles are a feeding frenzy. Most of the importers we work with don’t want all their wines to just be consumed by any one market, so they’re happy to distribute [in Maine]. Wine just moves at a slower pace here because there are fewer people. It’s purely a numbers game, so you could show up here and find something that we’re still hanging on to, or maybe even just got, that’s totally [sold out] in other places.” —Peter and Orenda Hale, Maine and Loire