Acme Fine Wines shop St. Helena CA

The tasting table at Acme Fine Wines in St. Helena, CA.

It's easy to shop for wine: enter store, grab bottle, pay for it (don't skip that part), exit store. But how can we be better at shopping for wine? If the goal is to get the best possible bottle for the money you spend—and the most delicious wine to enjoy—then here are some tips for improving your game.

Don't Be Bashful About Price

The folks at your local shop can't read your mind...or guess your budget. "We like to hear right off the bat what a new client's comfort price point is; it helps us guide them into the right wine for them," says Karen Williams of Acme Fine Wines in St. Helena, CA. "For example, if they say 'What are the best chardonnays in the $15-30 range?', we know exactly where to start."

Christy Frank of Frankly Wines in New York agrees: "Don't be afraid to tell us what you would like to spend! Yes, it's tricky to find a variety of really interesting wines in the $10 range, but once you get into the $15 to $20 range, the world opens up. Often we'll have people ask sheepishly 'can I get something good for $20?' Yes, you can! And we can help you," says Frank. Be realistic about your budget, and specific when you mention it—'affordable' means different things to different people, but a number or small range will help the shopkeeper narrow down the options fast.

Bring a Photo

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[Photo: Maggie Hoffman]

"A picture is really worth a thousand words," says Christy Frank. "One of the easiest customers to help is one that comes in with a picture on their phone of a wine they loved." Even if they don't stock that exact bottle, a photo helps the wine shop team find you something similar, whether it's the same winemaker, the same growing region, the same grape variety, or all three. "If you're really interested in learning about wine," continues Frank, "We recommend creating a folder for pictures of wines you love and one for wines you really dislike. Based on that, we can really help you guide you to great bottles that you'll really enjoy."

She offers one word of caution: "Never ever EVER assume you'll remember the wine from the label alone. You won't. Doesn't work with eye witness testimony and it certainly doesn't work with wine labels. Take a picture, write it down, email yourself... email us! But don't assume 'you'll know it when you see it.' There are just too many bottles of wine out there."

One cool iPhone app for keeping track of wine bottle photos is Delectable, which identifies the bottles you're drinking from the photo so you don't have to type in that six-syllable vineyard name. Delectable allows you to rate wines and add notes, and organizes the wines you've tried by region.

Talk About Food

Some wines are good, and others are great, but many are great for a certain occasion—some wines really are perfect for sipping by the pool, others are ideal for a romantic anniversary. One good way to get a recommendation is to focus in on the meal you plan on serving with the wine you buy. Do a little meal planning before you head to the wine shop, and then narrow down your conversation to wines that will work for each meal.

Making lamb chops? Your friendly wine shop staffer can tell you where to find a Cab Franc for that. Grilling local squid? They might encourage you to explore the Greek section of the store. Starting your conversation with specific foods will help a wine shop employee to guide you toward bottles that will make your home-cooked meals even better.

Find the Right Shop and Get to Know The People There

There's a chance you'll find good deals (especially on big brands) at Costco or some other big-box store, but you're more likely to get something fantastic if you seek out smaller producers at a well-curated local wine shop. Finding the best store in your area may take some trial and error, but it's worth the effort.

"I always look for wine shop that doesn't have points and scores plastered everywhere in their signage or displays," says Trac Le of BiRite Market in San Francisco. "It shows that they're too lazy to write something personal and maybe that translate to their selections also." Le also recommends looking for shops that stock wines from smaller importers. You can see who imported the wine on the back label of the bottle. "Are they letting big distributors dictate what they buy," asks Le, "so they can win a free trip to South America?"

Lots of shops will also offer tastings, which is not just a chance to drink wine for free (or cheap), but more importantly, a chance to start a conversation with a wine shop's staff. "If there's a bottle open and you're offered a taste, DO NOT SAY NO!," says Christy Frank. "Every sip that you take along with someone who knows their stuff is a chance to learn. Even if you don't like it, you've learned something." If you taste a wine and discuss what you thought, the ensuing conversation may lead the staffer to give more recommendations for bottles you might like. "It's learning that specific palate profile that enables us to accurately pinpoint each clients' needs," says Karen Williams.

A sense of what you don't enjoy is almost as useful as pointing out wines you do like. Ceri Smith, owner of Biondivino Wine Boutique in San Francisco, says that her favorite question to ask is "What don't you like in a wine?" She says that it seems that "people have an easier time with that question. If someone says: 'I don't like a wine that is sharp or biting,' it means they might prefer a wine with less acidity and probably want a rounder, more supple wine." A pro will be able to point you in the right place.

Consider Online

You can't replace a relationship with a great wine merchant, but sometimes it's also worth looking online. At some brick-and-mortar wine stores, what you see is what you get, but for others, such as K&L Wine Merchants in San Francisco, a lot of inventory isn't visible on the shop's shelves. I've had great luck combing K&L's website, which displays wines they have in their warehouse as well as their out-of-town stores. Because you can sort the list by grape, vintage, and price, you can keep an eye out, for, say, sub-$20 bottles of aged rieslings that they've acquired from private collections. (Though there's always a chance that the bottle wasn't stored properly, $18 is a risk I'm willing to take for a totally cool wine experience.) K&L ships (to states where that's allowed) but if you're local, the cheaper route is to pick up the wines at their SOMA shop upon arrival.

The iPhone app Delectable offers another way to buy wine online—if you try a wine you like at a restaurant and capture the image with your phone camera, or a friend has photographed a wine they liked, Delectable can help you buy it. The app has a pricing and purchase function. If possible, wines are sourced directly from the winery or importer, otherwise there are trusted retailers who ship the wines directly to you if your state allows it.

Got More Tips?

Are you a wine-buying pro? Share your tips in the comments section below.

About the Author: Maggie Hoffman is a Senior Editor at Serious Eats, based in San Francisco. She founded Serious Eats: Drinks in 2011. You can follow her on Twitter @maggiejane.

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