As the owner of a wine shop in upstate New York, it often became my responsibility to welcome new residents to the neighborhood. They would say to me, as they walked into my store, “This is our first time in here… we just moved to the area.” Invariably, since it was a small store, I “fashioned” it to suit their needs. Each wine was somebody’s favorite wine. Each bottle size of vodka was on the shelf because that’s the size one customer likes to buy. I knew I couldn’t compete with the mega-size commercial liquor store, about ten miles away, in terms of variety or price. But I could have a convenience store that was each person’s special store. I let them know that it was their store, where they could find their regular item at all times.
You too should have a store that makes you feel comfortable and is convenient for you. Proximity to your home and low prices are often the main factors in considering which store should be “your store.” Once you have moved to your new home, you may want to consider the following points in making your decision:
- Who Cares about You? If the store doesn’t have an item you are used to getting, ask an associate if they can order it for you (or transfer from another store). If they say no or never call you back, obviously this is not the store for you. Normally, they should call you within two weeks. Most stores will be happy to have a regular customer who reliably buys the same product.
- Friendly and Courteous Service. Unhappy or rude customer service is a sign of an underpaid and overworked staff. Often, the problem is micromanagement, or just plain bad management. The lack of adequate service or bad attitude is never a personal statement about you, but a store that treats its employees poorly will not likely stay in business for very long. Move on and invest your time and money in another business.
Shelving. This is particularly important for wine buyers. Not all stores specialize in wines. (For liquor stores that carry a small selection of fine wines merely as a convenience, this may not be as important.) You want to make sure wines are stored horizontally — at least the wines with corks. The cork needs to be kept moist for it to have a good seal. Check for dust on the bottles. If there is heavy dust all around the bottle, it means the wine was stored standing up for an extensive period of time — usually in the warehouse. Bottles being warehoused, waiting for store display, should be stored upside down, or “lying down” in their boxes. If the wine was stored standing up for an extensive period of time, the cork will dry out and not seal the bottle adequately, exposing the wine to air.
The Chilling Facts. This has to do with storage and shelving as well. If the store offers pre-chilled wines, check to see how many of each wine is in the cooler. Unless it’s a wildly popular wine, the more bottles of the same wine are in the cooler, the longer it will take for them to sell. In general, you don’t want wines to remain in a cooler for a very long period, as very cold temperatures diminish the quality of the wine. Recently, I noticed one store with four bottles of a $200 wine in the cooler. Due to the cost of this wine, it did not sell for over a year, spending all that time in the cooler. By the time someone will purchase the last of these bottles, the wine itself will be worthless. But once you purchase a wine that has been chilled, take it home and keep it chilled until you open it (just don’t wait two years to do it). It will only hurt the wine if you let it warm up, then put it in the fridge again.
- The White Glove Test. Another topic related to storage. Check to see if the store is kept clean. A clean store means the management cares about how your product is handled. You should also know that a bottle of wine, whether corked or screw-capped, interacts with its environment. If left in a very dusty environment for an extensive period of time, it will affect the quality of the wine. The same is true for bad odors, chemicals, agitation, and even sound. It sounds crazy to say that really bad, loud music will diminish the quality of a wine. But if you are spending over $100 for a bottle, you are entitled to consider every little thing that could affect that wine.
- Stuck Up Staff. The staff may be knowledgeable, but they can’t possibly know your taste or reasons for buying something better than you do. I have worked in a store where a salesman regularly overruled the customer’s decision. “I’m gonna get you another tequila that’s a lot better than this for only a dollar more,” he would say to one customer, as he snatched the bottle from her hand. She said nothing, but turned to her friend with a “can you believe he just did that?” look. Most likely, she wouldn’t know the difference — the gesture only served to embarrass her. Another time, a woman came into the store and asked for a beer that her boyfriend had sent her to buy. The salesman insisted she buy another beer that he thought was better. Under pressure, she agreed, but then walked out of the store looking very unhappy. Of course — now she’s going to have to explain to her boyfriend why she bought the wrong beer. It’s great to have a sales staff that helps you to make a decision, but avoid any store where the staff imposes their personal taste on you.
Be especially aware that the staff of many chain stores gets a bonus or an “incentive” for certain products. And since they are invariably underpaid, they are motivated to talk you into buying something that is less than ideal.
- Location, Location, Location. In a well organized store, you should be able to find what you are looking for without help — if the store has that product. I am one who does not like to be helped when I’m making a purchase. Occasionally, I’ll have a question, usually regarding pricing. But I like to explore and find my final purchase on my own. So, a well organized store is extremely important to me. But even if you’re the type who needs a guiding hand, there is no excuse for the Campari to be at one end of the store and the vermouth to be at the other extreme. I once noticed a salesperson telling a customer that a certain Sauterne was a Kosher wine, when in fact it wasn’t. She had simply assumed that it was Kosher because the Sauterne had been placed on a shelf just beneath the Kosher section. Bad placement or lack of organization can lead to the staff being uninformed. And if they are uninformed, they will steer you wrong, a case of the blind leading the blind.
- Take the Temperature. I was working at a wine shop when the manager asked me to taste a red wine he was sampling to customers. He said the wine seemed “gone” to him. I tasted and quickly realized what the problem was — he had chilled the wine to death. There are some red wines that can be chilled. Lambrusco, Sangria (not really a wine, but I will leave it in this category), red viño verde, and Beaujolais — to some extent — come to mind. But, in general, you do not want to chill a red wine. If you see red wine being chilled at a store, it’s a sign they don’t know how to treat their wines in general. A red flag.
On the same note, the temperature of the store is a huge factor. Wines, especially, should be stored at “cellar temperature.” You can find various opinions on what this means, but to me, all wines should be stored at a temperature of 60ºF to 70ºF. Anything lower than 55ºF, or higher than 75ºF, will have a negative effect on the wine. You don’t have to bring a thermometer with you to the store — once you enter the store, you will feel whether it’s the right temperature. For most people, if you have to get a sweater, or if you feel uncomfortably warm, you can be sure the wine is also uncomfortable. Usually, it’s the back of the store that has the right temperature. In the summer, the sun heats the front of the store because of the windows and doors. In the winter, the front of the store tends to cool down with the door being constantly opened.
And that’s something else to watch out for: avoid any wines placed near the front door — they will be getting constant blasts of hot or cold air, and there is nothing worst for a wine than constant, abrupt changes in temperature.
- A Place not in the Sun. So many stores seem to face West, because I always notice that late in the afternoon, the sun hits the front of the store and it shines directly to the front row of wines. Unless those wines have a high turnover rate, you may want to avoid buying them. Repeated exposure to direct sunlight is a wine killer. And any bright lights in the store, natural or artificial, will have the same effect. Something else for you to note when choosing your store!
- Buyers’ Return. Check on what the store’s policy is regarding returns. If you take a wine home and open it, only to find out that it has gone bad, but you did nothing that would cause that to happen, can you get your money back or, at the very least, another bottle of wine? And if you made a mistake — let’s say you bought New Amsterdam vodka, but you meant to buy New Amsterdam gin. If you haven’t opened the bottle, will they take the vodka back?
- Frequent Buyers Club. Does the store have a discount or “loyalty” club of some kind? Most often, it works by giving you points for every dollar that you spend, then you can redeem those points towards another purchase. Usually, this is only worth it if you make a lot purchases, but it can save you a lot of money if you do.
- Turnover Rate. You may think that it’s the smaller, “Mom and Pop” stores that have old wines sitting on the shelves for way too long. But, in fact, many of the mega-stores have so much stock, it’s impossible for them to be selling all of their wines all the time. It’s very rare for spirits to go bad. But that’s not the case for wine, beer, or cider. If you are a wine or beer lover who likes to try something new now and then, make sure you check the vintage of the wine you are trying. In general, try to stay within three years for a white wine (five years at the extreme). There are exceptions to this. For red wines, the vintage should not be younger than three years, and not older than ten. But red wine vintages vary greatly, depending on many factors. If you are really interested in exploring red wines, there are several things you can do: 1- get a vintage chart from the internet, one that will tell you when to drink a wine according to its varietal, area of origin, etc., or 2- bring your cell phone with you (and that’s another thing — make sure the store has Wi-Fi for your phone), or 3- Subscribe to one of the online publications that reviews wines (Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast, and Decanter come to mind), and look up the review of the wine you are thinking of buying. Beers should have an expiration date somewhere — often hard to find, but it’s there.
- Double-Talk. Extra points go to the stores that have “Shelf-Talkers” — those printed pieces displayed in front of the bottle that tell you about the wine (or spirit), often taken from a professional review. If there is a review on the Shelf-Talker, make sure it’s talking about the same vintage as the wine on the shelf. Retailers will often display a rave review of a completely different vintage than the one they are actually selling.
- Tasting. Ask about samples or tastings. Most stores will have a day or days when they have free samples of wines, beers, or liquors. Sometimes, it’s an entire evening devoted to tasting various products. This is extremely helpful to find out about new products, or items you might be curious about but not willing to spend the money to buy, or just to expand your knowledge. Some stores may even have a separate tasting room.
- Varietal Variety. Last but not least, you may want to frequent a store that has a wide variety of products. If you’ve been drinking the same vodka (or whatever) for years, and you know that’s all you’ll ever buy, then variety may not be an asset for you. But if you like to have parties, or like your complex cocktails, or you like to try new wines, then you want all your options in the same store.
All this seems a bit overwhelming. After all, it’s all booze, not brain surgery. These are just points to keep in mind as you search for your favorite wine and spirits shop. As I stated before, convenience and comfort may be the determining factors. We’re not looking for perfection. But part of the fun is in discovering what works for you.
George Dauphin is a certified sommelier and wine sales and marketing consultant for Crown Wine & Spirits.