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\u2019ve done my fair share of helping buyers navigate busy aisles in search of the perfect bottle. And I\u2019ve likely answered every question you can think of at one point or another, from the seemingly simple, \u201cWhere can I find a good Chardonnay\u201d to the curiously complex, \u201cI\u2019m looking for a natural wine that\u2019s ageable.\u201d\r\n\r\nHere are insider tips about how to get the most from your wallet, your experience and your bottle the next time you\u2019re at the wine shop.\r\nMake a friend.\r\nThis 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.\r\nEmbrace the satellite region.\r\nM\u00e9doc, 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\u2014myself included. Most of the wine I recommend and drink comes from satellite regions, the areas that surround the more prestigious vineyards.\r\n\r\nIf 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\u2019ll be paying at the register.\r\n\r\nProducers 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.\r\n\r\nSancerre, 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 M\u00e2connais 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.\r\n\r\n\r\nIs the wine dry? Look for alcohol by volume (abv) to find out.\r\nWhether or not a bottle is dry is one of the most common questions customers have\u2014and the answer usually is \u201cmost likely.\u201d\r\n\r\nWine stores are pretty good about separating anything exceedingly sweet (with the glaring exception of some German whites). But when you\u2019re shopping, consulting the abv listing on the bottle is a fairly reliable indicator.\r\n\r\nWhen a customer grabs one bottle over another because it\u2019s wrapped in a cardboard or wood box to look fancy, it\u2019s almost always a mistake.\r\n\r\nSince a grape\u2019s natural sugar is what ferments into alcohol, a wine with more residual sweetness\u2014sugar that hasn\u2019t been converted into alcohol\u2014will 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\u20139% abv that show perceptible sweetness, but ideally will have enough acidity to keep everything balanced.\r\n\r\nAlcohol 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 Gew\u00fcrztraminer or Muscat have many wines that can technically be classified as dry, but will have a smell or flavor that seems sweet.\r\nDon\u2019t just shop by brand.\r\nIf 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\u2019ll be paying at the register. Unless you have a personal attachment to a certain brand, you\u2019re better off taking a chance on a nice, lesser-known bottle you haven\u2019t tried before, rather than the bottles with the loudest advertising.\r\n\r\n\r\nDo use the shopping experience to experiment with pairings.\r\nPart 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\u2019ve exhausted wine and cheese pairings? A heavily-Sherried Scotch works surprisingly well with a wide range of cheese boards.\r\nLooking for the next best deal in brown spirits? Try brandy.\r\nFor 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\u2019ll soon discover the wealth of value still to be found in other barrel-aged brown spirits.\r\n\r\nCompared to other amari, fernets are more bitter and end with a cool or minty finish. What many shoppers don\u2019t yet know of are the plethora of options beyond stalwart Fernet-Branca.\r\n\r\n\r\nDon\u2019t buy anything just for the packaging.\r\nWith some products, a little embellishment can add to the appreciation\u2014think of a beautifully wrapped sake or something in a hand-blown glass bottle\u2014but for the most part, when a customer grabs one bottle over another because it\u2019s wrapped in a cardboard or wood box to look fancy, it\u2019s 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.\r\nWhich amaro should you get? Answer: all of them.\r\n\r\n\r\nWhen confronted by shelves of options in the liquor store, settling on a single bottle of amaro is hard, especially if you\u2019re new to the category. To prepare, consider just how bitter you\u2019d like your bitter to be. There\u2019s 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.\r\n\r\nAlthough it\u2019s 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\u2019t yet know of are the plethora of options beyond stalwart Fernet-Branca.\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\nSome of the most exciting options in fernet, in fact, are American made. Chicago\u2019s 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.\r\nShopping for ingredients to make cocktails? Don\u2019t be too stingy.\r\nI\u2019ve 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\u2019t be afraid to splurge. And since you\u2019re buying your ingredients from the store and not paying $20 for a drink at a cocktail bar, you\u2019re sure to make up the cost regardless.\r\n\r\nWhen she\u2019s 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.