Consumer courtesy: Shops are taking the mystery out of buying wine

I get chills when I enter wine shops, and not just because the temperature is cooler in there. There’s something about being face to face with hundreds of potential best friends that renders me emotional. I can — and certainly have — spent hours in a wine store, wandering wide-eyed and drool-stained up and down the aisles.

In my eager eyes, each label and each vintage offer a fresh opportunity to experience something delicious and perhaps innovative — and to see into a passionate winemaker’s heart. Retailers often consider my not-so-bottled-up enthusiasm amusing, since I show fervor for the same glass landscape they numbly stare at every day.

But some retailers join in my enthusiasm. With the plethora of new wine shop concepts entering the mainstream these days, you should be able to find a retailer with the same eager sentiments. Ideally.

A huge retailing trend is making wine easier to navigate, providing charts, color-coded shelves and all sorts of DIY guidance. Take WineStyles, a growing national, 156-shop franchise catering to the value-driven, somewhat newbie consumer. I applaud the effort, since it makes wine more approachable through education and entry-level pricing. Virtually the store’s entire wine selection is under $25, all divided up into “styles” of wine like “mellow”, “crisp” or “nectar.” Each location is pretty much identical but individually owned and operated, which brings some personality and service to a potentially generic winescape. A good choice for those intimidated by the juice.

I begrudgingly admit that big shops have their place. Liquor and wine chains like ABC in Florida, Total Wine and More in Florida and the Carolinas, and Green’s in Atlanta (not to mention Sam’s and Costco) have prices many people seek. By squeezing the balls of the wholesalers, big box chains bring you juicy prices and offer free wine tastings. And their infinite shelves offer many unfamiliar brands to explore. Cheaply. But for a newbie, forget about it — there’s little education or service to be had at these places.

However, nothing beats independently owned retail shops. Perhaps because of their history, atmosphere, or maybe it’s just my locally-minded prejudice, the passionate people at indies seem friendlier, more knowledgeable and have remarkable memories. They empathize with your intimidation, your pained need to impress someone, your secret fascination for earthy, foot-smelly reds or your champagne-taste-beer-budget woes.

Then there’s the dinner wine dilemma: “My menu is orange-marmalade-and-garlic-stuffed pork tenderloin, roasted green beans and saffron-infused mashed potatoes … can you recommend a bottle or two?” The service-oriented, food-obsessed retailer can often provide an answer to this type of question. Yes, indie prices may be a buck or two higher, but where else can you get customized consultations on wine and food pairing?

Basically, it doesn’t really matter where you shop, as long as you taste … all the time. It’s the only way to learn about what you like — not from a book or a column. Many of the fresh, new 2005 and 2006 releases are hitting the stores right now, so pop some and seek out your passion.

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