Getty Images/Lonely Planet Images

So there you are, with aisles and aisles of wines before you—you’ve got a dinner party planned and you started too late to order something online. You have to make it happen in real time.

Not every store is equipped to help as it should be. “Retail isn’t rocket science, but I find that often it’s done poorly,” says Scott Pactor, of the outstanding shop Appellation Wine & Spirits in New York’s Chelsea, which has a tight focus on organic and biodynamic wines. “A successful experience is typically a combination of good service, a varied and interesting selection, and an engaging display.”

How do you make the best of the experience? Below, 5 tips about shopping for wine at retail, whether it’s a great place or a mediocre one.

Talk it out

In a good shop, a staff member should approach you—and if they don’t, you need to reach out. Their first-hand knowledge of the stock is your biggest ally, and I generally don’t buy wine that the person I’m talking to hasn’t tried personally. At the excellent Los Angeles shop Wally’s, the wines flying off the shelves are discoveries from France’s unheralded Jura region like Domaine du Pelican Arbois Chardonnay 2013 ($50) and Japanese sakes, including Yuki No Bosha Daiginjo ($75).

Scores have limited utility

Seeing a rating from Robert Parker, Wine Spectator or Wine Enthusiast can be helpful, but I’d rather get an on-site opinion. “You don’t drink points,” says Christian Navarro, who runs Wally’s. At Appellation, Pactor says “we write our own shelf-talkers,” which is retail-ese for those little recommendation cards. But better to talk to Pactor himself—this month, he’s high on a Slovenian wine, Movia Brda Pinot Grigio 2010 ($29), which he calls “a go-to white when looking for something with a little weight, a little tannin, and a lot of personality.” I’m sold.

The more you know…

If you have a focus on a certain region or wine type, it’s smart to know the basics before you shop—in particular, how to read a label from a particular place, since they all have rules and regulations. I’m not saying you should do tons of homework here, but five minutes on the Internet can solve a lot of problems. Be an educated consumer. At Wally’s, they even offer classes on the ins and outs of reading a label.

Case discounts rock

Going into a wine shop for one bottle isn’t particularly efficient—unless you’re a serious teetotaler. If you find something you like in one visit, next time, get a case, since most places offer at least a 10 percent discount. (And why not ask for 15 percent?) Don’t forget the glories of the mixed case: It doesn’t have to be all one wine. Have staffers come up with an assortment of things to try, either various riffs on your interests, or a bunch of happy surprises.

You can return a wine if it’s corked

Yes, you read that right. A corked wine—spoiled in a way that generally stems from chemicals in the cork—smells like wet, musty cardboard. Once you get to know it, it’s unmistakeable. That’s not what you paid for, so you can return it. Many people don’t feel comfortable enough with their wine knowledge to do this, but if you sound confident enough, a good shop will give you a refund, or another bottle (one that is hopefully not also corked). And you can always bring that bottle in—but perhaps it’s best to return it mostly full, proving your point that it was undrinkable.

You May Like