Good wine: How to shop where you shop for wine

Updated 12/13/2013 12:12 PM
  • Zinfandel "Mountain Selection," Scott Harvey Wines, Amador County, Calif., 2010

    Zinfandel "Mountain Selection," Scott Harvey Wines, Amador County, Calif., 2010

American wine lovers may be lifting glasses to more than the New Year come Dec. 31.

If statistics hold true, 2013 will mark the 20th consecutive growth year in America's per capita wine consumption.

Sure, at about seven bottles per person annually, we lag way behind leaders including France (about 34 bottles) and the Vatican City (about 46 bottles). Still, the sheer size of us has emblazoned the U.S. with the heady moniker, World's Most Important Wine Market.

With every wine region in the world fighting for a foothold here, wine shopping has become both more exciting and more challenging for established cork dorks and the newly wined as well.

To get the most of the region's unique range of retail wine experience, use these tips throughout the holidays and all of your new years.

Grocery stores

Appreciate your local grocery's wine department, however humble.

Many states don't allow the convenience of purchasing wine with groceries, requiring an extra stop to a designated wine shop.

What to expect: Convenience and the safety of big name brands at low price, allowing little to no labor budget, wine-savvy or otherwise.

Questions to ask: "Where's your wine department?"

Specialty grocers

Upscale grocers use wine -- which is generally nonperishable and high margin -- to offset costs of specialties such as organic apples and grass-fed beef. Standards vary widely in selection and staff, so expect a little more than at major groceries, a little less than from a wine and spirits chain.

Wine and spirits chains

The suburbs also are unique for aggressively lenient liquor regulations which allow discounting, multiple locations and spirited trade.

What to expect: Broad selection in producer, price and packaging, and in quality, ranging from barely drinkable to the world's finest. Inquire about services: delivery, glass rental, wine events and more. Price wars have reduced budget for expert assistance, but there's often a seasoned pro on-hand, especially during peak shopping hours.

Questions to ask:Any and all about stock, basic flavors and services.

Good: "I'm looking for wine. Can you help me?"

Better: "I enjoy red wine. I'd like to spend about $15.

Best: All of the above plus why you're shopping and food preferences, i.e. "It's for dinner tonight; we're braising short ribs."

Boutique shops

The fine wine shop is alive and well in suburbs and city neighborhoods. Generally higher shelf price pays for a finely tuned selection of well-made wines enhanced by expert assistance.

Questions to ask: All the above, price pays for a finely tuned well-made wines enhanced by expert assistance.

Questions to ask: All the above, plus simple- to Master Sommelier-level vinous queries.

Good: Come prepared to discuss your interest in specific regions, grapes and/or producers, such as "I enjoy Malbec. Does it come from anywhere besides Argentina?"

Better: Ditto above plus cite examples of specific wines you've tasted and enjoyed. Don't rely on memory; carry a tasting book or snap label photos with your cellphone. A phrase such as "I had a good wine in Seattle. The label had a horse on it and I think it was white," gets you nowhere fast.

Best: Most fine wine retailers put up with long hours, physical labor and relentless competition for love of the product. If your time and the store's traffic permit, ask your merchant's opinion on a range of wine issues and settle in for fun and informative wine chat.

Auction houses

For the finest and rarest producers and vintages, call for an appointment with a wine auction house, including Chicago Wine Company and Hart Davis Hart Wine Company. The world's most valuable flavors await for a special or collectible gift.

Questions to ask: To quote American financier J.P. Morgan, "If you have to ask the price, you can't afford it." Do your homework and check your credit limit.

• Write to Advanced Sommelier and Certified Wine Educator Mary Ross at food

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