A lady walks into a liquor store and asks for a bottle of wine with a dog on the label. No, this isn’t the beginning of a “girl walks into a bar” joke. A customer asked us to find this bottle amidst the 1200 wines in the store. After a bit of sleuthing (white or red helped narrow the field) and realizing that the dog was actually a fox, we identified her Foxhorn Merlot.
The concept of wine recommendations brings to mind such terms as sommelier, connoisseur, or wine steward. Trained and knowledgeable wine professionals who have formal education, certification and years of experience in the industry. Wine authors and experts like Robert Parker and Jancis Robinson who will go to war over the critique of Chateau Pavie 2003. Master Sommeliers like Evan Goldstein giving advice on how to pair wine and food. Writers like Karen MacNeil whose Wine Bible covers just about everything there is to know about wine.
Since wines over $20 were a hard sell in our store, there was no need for a pretentious wine connoisseur to answer questions and make recommendations. Our diligence in taste testing wines in the $10 to $20 price range paid off in separating the tolerable from the undrinkable and even uncovering a few bargain gems. Close-outs from Spain and South America, lesser-known Italian appellations, and mass-produced blends that managed some level of complexity were among them.
Is the customer looking for a red or a white wine? Red and white wines taste different for the simple reason that they are made differently and from different grapes. Typically, darker grapes make red wine and lighter grapes make white. It’s also possible to make a white wine with a darker grape like Pinot Noir which is used in sparkling wine. White wine, made from only fermented juice, retains the light color that is natural to grape juice and has little to no tannins. Red wines are made by including grape skins, seeds, and sometimes stems to ferment in the grape juice. Tannins, along with color and texture are extracted from the skins and seeds. Because tannins are a major part of red wines, subtleties in the winemaking process that involve grape skin fermentation affect the wine’s mouth feel, astringency, bitterness, and complexity.
During our tenure as wine store owners, our wine IQ continued to grow along with our customers’ knowledge base. Beginning wine drinkers often asked for sweet whites like Moscato and berry-flavored sparkling wines. Low end versions of these wines tend to taste fruity or “grapey”. For the beginning red drinkers, the seasonally produced Beaujolais Nouveau is an easy-drinking recommendation.
The next step in wine tasting evolution, where many people land and remain, is Pinot Grigio. Our Cavit Pinot Grigio was by far the biggest selling wine in the store. Italian Pinot Grigio, like Cavit, is light and dry, pairing easily with seafood, chicken, vegetables, and pasta. It begins to introduce the wine drinker to layers of aromas and flavors other than grapes, such as peach, melon, and floral notes. For customers looking for a more prestigious (i.e. more expensive) Pinot Grigio, Santa Margherita fit the bill.
As the wine drinker’s world expands, popular varietals like Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon are added to the repertoire. Budget-friendly, mass-produced wines like Cupcake, Yellow Tail, and Woodbridge usually have at least one varietal or blend that stands out from the crowd. Bumping up the budget by a few dollars, but still in the under $20 range, winemakers like Kendall Jackson, Simi, Bogle, and Coppola will give you even better options.
As we explored the world of wine and shared our excitement with our customers, they began to branch out to new regions and more varietals. We introduced them to imports from South America and South Africa, great deals on French Cotes du Rhone, light-bodied Spanish Tempranillo, and rustic Italian Sangiovese. Along the way, we learned what we liked and what we didn’t, and most importantly to describe the character of a wine so that someone else can make an informed decision whether to buy it.