Retail detail

How to shop for wine
KAREN MACNEIL-FIFE

If you've ever felt overwhelmed in a wine shop, you're not alone. Buying wine can be a little unnerving for almost anyone. A medium-size store might stock 700 or so different wines, a large establishment, 4,000 or more. So how do you thwart intimidation and make shopping for wine a comfortable experience?

Choose the right store. Wine is sold everywhere from small, independent shops to larger discount beverage chains such as Beverages & More! to giant warehouses like Costco. Each has advantages and disadvantages. For example, small shops often ― but not always ― charge more for their wines, but in my experience, their sales staffs are more helpful and knowledgeable about wine.

For this story, I visited several big discount chains and asked a few general questions about wine. Not only did the clerks know next to nothing about wine, they also gave me blatantly wrong information. One, for instance, told me that no top California Chardonnays are fermented in oak (for the record, about 99 percent are).

If you know exactly what you want, however, discount chains may be a good option since their prices can be considerably lower, especially for wines that are expensive to begin with. But don't take this for granted! The current vintage (1997) of Joseph Phelps Insignia, one of California's most extraordinary Cabernet blends, costs $120 at the winery; I recently found it for $96 at a well-known discount chain ― and for $90 at a small wine shop in San Francisco.

Which brings us to Costco: Insignia costs $80 at the branch near me. The big warehouses often carry dozens of great wines at good prices ― but you're definitely on your own, with barely a clerk in sight. There's another concern too: temperature. In the summer, it hovers around 80° inside the Costco near me. And who knows what the temperature is in the storeroom? (By comparison, small wine shops are far more likely to have temperature-controlled back rooms.) A fine wine can be ruined by excessive heat; if I'm springing for Insignia, I want it to be in top condition.

In the end, you have to weigh price, knowledgeable help, and proper storage when deciding where to shop.

If you choose a wine shop with an expert staff, make a wine friend there. Savvy clerks usually can't wait to introduce you to new wines.

Don't give in to intimidation, either external (somebody else makes you feel inadequate) or internal (a little voice in your head says, "You'll never understand this"). They're both complete nonsense. Trying a new wine is really the same thing as tasting an unfamiliar food. (Remember when you didn't know what avocados, sushi, or peach ice cream tasted like?)

Think of wine as a way to travel. You may not be able to trek to Tuscany or the south of France this fall, but you can get a taste of the place through Tuscan or southern French wines. Fascinated by Australia? Ask the shop clerk (your new friend) to point out a couple of classic examples of Australian wines and tell you as much as possible about them.

Finally, be endlessly curious. Wine drinkers who have the courage to be inquisitive have the most fun. Remember, you're not the only one who doesn't know what's inside all those bottles. Most people don't. The best question you can ask in a wine shop is "What does this wine taste like?" Ask it a lot.

SUNSET'S STEAL OF THE MONTH: Rosemount Cabernet Sauvignon 1999 (South Eastern Australia), $11. Unlike many inexpensive Cabernet Sauvignons, this one tastes like a straightforward Cab. It's simple but has a lot of juicy cassis flavors.

START WITH ITALY

The Italian sections of wine shops can seem especially daunting with dozens, if not hundreds, of unfamiliar names. Great treasures lurk in these aisles, though, so why not begin exploring? Here are three delicious wines to get you started.

Allegrini Valpolicella Classico Superiore 1998 (Veneto), $10. While most Valpolicella is simple at best, this dramatic, exuberant wine, with complex flavors of licorice, spice, mocha, dried cherries, and vanilla, is in a class by itself.

Castello di Ama Chianti Classico 1997 (Tuscany), $35. The medieval castle of the village of Ama is surrounded by vineyards, the source of this soft, earthy wine with beautiful dried-leaf flavors.

Prunotto Barbera d'Asti "Fiulot" 1998 (Piedmont), $11. Piedmont is famous for expensive Barolo and Barbaresco, but most weeknights winemakers are drinking Barbera, a homey comfort wine. Prunotto's is soft but lively and flavorful.

Sunset's Wine Club