How to talk to your wine retailer to get and pay what you want

It may be too early to start setting your holiday table or even cooking, but wine is one thing you can check off your to-do list early. You may have explored direct-to-consumer online options in past years, but there are benefits to shopping locally. Chicagoland's unique liquor laws allow for both multiunit chain stores and discounts on quantity purchases, which add up to the best prices and selection in the country. And, whether you are an entry-level wine drinker or certified cork, the best friend you can have is an enthusiastic wine merchant.

For convenience, low-low prices and familiar labels, head to a wine and spirits chain. Expertise will vary store-to-store, but you'll find major brands that sell standard, market-friendly flavors. If you're looking for distinct quality or exclusive producers, head for a boutique wine shop. Be prepared to explore unfamiliar wines and neighborhoods with higher prices to pay the salary of an informed sales representative. Once you generally decide what you want, help your retailer give it to you.

Walk in the door ready to describe wine flavors that you prefer and don't, along with your comfortable price range. A phrase like, "I like red wine but not too bitter. I'll drink it with meat or seafood. I'd like to stay in the $15 range," will get you a wine you'll enjoy and an appreciative merchant. Information on specific grapes, regions and producers, such as "I've liked Oregon Pinot Noir," is a plus. Phrases like "I had a great wine in Denver last month. It had a dog on the label, and I think it was white" get you nowhere fast. The best solution: When you taste a wine that you enjoy, snap a photo of the front label, and from the back, the information on the producer and importer is located near the bottom.

With these scant clues, the merchant becomes a Sherlock and "The game's afoot!" You can expect to be led to two to three suggestions (so you can see the bottle and label), with brief accounts of the wine's qualities, possible defects and - best of all - the salesperson's personal experience with the wine. This is a time for dialogue, so speak up. Voice concerns ("I haven't liked Chardonnay,"), questions ("Can I serve it chilled?"), and don't be shy about the price ("Do you have anything closer to $15?"). Most wine pros enjoy our product and want to share that pleasure with others, specifically you.

About price: The "best" wine isn't necessarily the priciest, and the least expensive isn't always bad. Wine is often priced-up to finance the finest grapes and oak barrels, designed for complexity after years of cellaring. Most palates (mine included) find little enjoyment in the tight flavors of wine drunk too young. Less expensive wines are crafted for early enjoyment, with sufficient time to mature in your car on the way home from the shop. Since wine pros love quality and value, your salesperson will be eager to show you their latest finds.

This is also an excellent time to ask about extra services, including: discounts on quantity purchases; glass rental; gift wrapping; tastings and special events, sometimes with wine industry VIPs. You can also inquire about a newsletter; return policy (these have become few and far between); delivery; holiday hours; release of extra-special bottles or help in locating them; a wine club; or a person on staff to conduct at-home tastings. Many of these are examples of Chicagoland's benefits from unique liquor laws not shared by other markets, so take advantage!

There are also red flags: If no one assists you within a few minutes. Dusty or sticky bottles, even those on the bottom shelf. If your preferred price category is ignored. If prices are not posted. In each case, take a last look, then, "I'll stop back!" never to return.

If you feel comfortable with the merchant, ask for their business card and hours. If you make a purchase, stop back to report. Your salesperson will create a mental database of your likes and dislikes to hone in on future selections and notify you about newly delivered bottles that you especially enjoy.

Now, with a qualified and enthusiastic merchant in place for wine, you can turn your attention to another crucial to-do for the holidays - your naughty-and-nice list.

• Mary Ross is an Advanced Sommelier (Court of Master Sommeliers), a Certified Wine Educator (Society of Wine Educators) and recipient of the Wine Spectator's "Grand Award of Excellence." Write to her at

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