7 Tips for Buying Wine

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Pretty much everyone will admit to discomfort, and perhaps even anxiety, when purchasing wine. And why not? There’s so much to know … so many varietals, so many wine regions, so many makers, and so many so-called experts. The important thing about wine is enjoying it! And there are many levels of enjoyment.

For most people, it’s about liking what you drink. Knowing more about the wine may enhance your pleasure, but it’s not necessary. My advice is to enjoy it first and learn more about it if you think it will add to your pleasure. Fortunately, you have a lot of resources for good and great wine here in New York State, and particularly in NYC. Whether it involves eating out at a restaurant or having wine delivered to your New York or NYC home or work, there is no shortage of opportunity to sample and enjoy wine.

1. In a Restaurant, Talk to the Sommelier
Talking about wine in a restaurant setting can be nerve wracking. In front of a date, family, friends, or colleagues it can be intimidating choosing a wine that will not only please everyone but will also be within your budget. The sommelier or server knows the wine list best and wants to please you. Remember, you pay the same for the wine whether you get a recommendation or not, so why not take full advantage of the in-house expertise?

One additional benefit to choosing wine in a restaurant with the help of a sommelier is that you can often sample a couple of bottle selections if they are also offered by the glass. Even if you taste only one or two wines, your feedback will really help the sommelier recommend something you’d like or even love.

Just so you know, even wine experts ask for wine recommendations when they go out to eat. The surest way to have a new and exciting wine experience is to ask the resident expert. For example, the owners of Manhattan Fruitier excitedly told me about a sommelier’s recommendation at NYC’s Boulud Sud of a bottle of 2015 Schäfer-Fröhlich Blanc de Noir Trocken, a lively, lightly fruited white wine made from Pinot Noir grapes. They were surprised and delighted by this unusual wine!

A final note about ordering a bottle of wine in a restaurant: there’s a bit of psychology at play when wine lists are constructed. Diners don’t like to order the least expensive bottle on a wine list, so we tend to order the bottles in the tier just above the least expensive wine. Restaurants know this and often slot higher margin, low surprise wines in this group. If you can increase your budget slightly to get above this tier of wines, and then ask for a recommendation, you’ll likely be in for a nice surprise.

2. In a Wine Shop, Don’t be Shy – Tell the Merchant About What You Like
Wine shops can also be intimating, and/or extremely hard to fathom. There are so many selections, even of the same varietal. How does one make sense of all the choices of unknown producers, unfamiliar grape varieties, and difficult to decipher labels? And the task is made no easier by the fact that Old World wines often have labels that do not indicate the grape variety.

Tips for Buying Wine
Don’t be drawn to fancy labels, alone

You’ll be missing out on some truly enjoyable wines if you choose only bottles that have eye catching labels. This is why you want to ask for a recommendation. There are incredibly knowledgeable people in wine shops across the country who love what they do and want to share bottles they think are delicious with you. And, they are just waiting for you to ask. It’s as easy as saying, “I’d really like to explore some new wines.” This will lead to a conversation about what you drink now and what you like and don’t like.

The experience for a wine expert shopping in a wine shop is admittedly a little different. I’m like a kid at a candy stand when browsing the wine store. Even so, I’ll narrow it down to a couple of things I find interesting and then ask for advice. I almost always refuse assistance from a sales person while shopping for anything else, but with wine I always accept!

Once you discover a few wines you like, it’s easy to stop in your wine store, in NYC or elsewhere, and order a case to be delivered to your home.

3. Share Your Price Point
I think the easiest way to start the conversation is to first set a price point and then talk about styles and characteristics that might interest you. The price point is important because it narrows the options the sommelier will consider, both on the high end and low end depending on your budget. Wine shops offer much gentler markups than restaurants, which is all the more reason to be more adventurous in your choices in a wine shop.

You shouldn’t be embarrassed to request less expensive wines. In a wine shop, bottles starting at $10 to $12 can show a wine’s typicity (the degree to which a wine reflects the signature characteristics of the grape from which it was produced, i.e., how much a wine made with Syrah grapes reflects signature Syrah characteristics). At this price point, you are also beginning to see wines made from grapes grown in a specific area (i.e. the wine is made from grapes that all come from Monterey County, not simply California), and it is labeled as such.

Red wines can be more expensive than white wines for the simple fact that red wines may spend a little more time in the cellar before bottling. Also, red wines may be aged in expensive oak barrels. For this reason, it’s more likely to find a white wine from a lesser known region that’s able to convey a sense of place than a red wine within the $10-$15 range.

The $15-$20 range opens up many more doors. Eric Asimov, Wine Critic for the New York Times, thinks that $15 to $20 a bottle is the sweet spot for great wine values. You’ll find more than a few options from almost any region you can think of. Also at this price point, you’ll find producers who are consciously farming or sourcing grapes and making their wines with very minimal interventions in the cellar, allowing the grapes to show some terroir (or “sense of place,” encompassing the unique geology, topography, climate, plant and animal life as well as history and culture of people in the region).

Wines over $20 should display even more of what a vineyard and producer can do. These wines should come from producers who have proven they make good wines consistently vintage after vintage. Scarcity also affects price, and smaller productions and more hand crafted wines will always be slightly more expensive.

At Manhattan Fruitier, we offer wines ranging from the $20s on up. This is because we want to be sure that the wine a customer sends as a gift, either individually or as part of a wine gift basket in NYC, is exceptional.

A note about very inexpensive wines: the wine industry, like the food industry, is basically divided between producers who make vast quantities of drinkable wines for cheap prices and those who make smaller amounts of wine with the intention of delivering wines that reflect the grape and their craftsmanship. Predictability and homogeneity in the cheaper wines is often achieved by mixing grapes from different vineyards, industrial farming of grapes, and the use of additives to eliminate variation from year to year. While there are sound wines below $10 per bottle, by paying a few more dollars a bottle, you’ll likely be rescued from boring wines and instead experience wines that are surprising and delightful.

4. Color or Type of Wine
First, the good news: telling a wine expert the color or type of wine (red/white/rose/sparkling), price point and one or two characteristics that you like in a wine such as grape varietal (e.g. Chardonnay, Merlot or Pinot Noir) or taste descriptors (such as light or full-bodied, sweet or dry, oaky or no oak, or level of tannin) should be more than enough for her to give you something fun and delicious that she’s excited about. If not, you might be in the wrong store or restaurant.

Because taste is always subjective, it’s helpful to share a common language to communicate your preferences helps. Your wine vocabulary will only get better with the more wines you taste and the more you talk about them with experienced tasters. Just knowing a few distinguishing characteristics of the wines you really like can help tremendously with making a good recommendation.

5. Build on Your Preferences
The other easy way to ask for suggestions is to tell the wine steward about a specific wine you’ve enjoyed. If you tend to frequent the same wine shop or restaurant, feel free to share your impressions of wines they have previously recommended to you. For instance, “That Chardonnay you recommended last time was too fruity or too smoky.” Don’t write off Chardonnay just because you had a bottle you didn’t enjoy. There’s plenty of variation within wines made from the same grape varietals.

Take pictures of wines you like (or don’t like) with your cell phone. Then the next time you’re shopping for wine you can remember what you liked and even show the label to the expert. You can do the same for wines you don’t like since this is also a good guide for what not to recommend.

A quick note: You might be shocked by how much you paid for a wine in a restaurant, particularly more expensive NYC restaurants, compared to a retail wine store. Remember, there’s a lot that goes into serving a bottle of wine in a restaurant, and it’s no secret the wine and alcohol sales are critical to the financial success of many restaurants.

6. Keep an Open Mind
Keep an open mind and be willing to try wines from different varietals and from different areas of the world. For instance, many non-experts have the opinion that German Rieslings are sweet because that’s all they’ve tasted. Well, there are some amazing dry Rieslings that may have you opening this wine again and again. Also, great wines are being made in unexpected places around the world: Sicily, Sardinia, Jura (France), Moravia (Czech Republic), Burgenland (Austria), and Corsica, just to name a few.

7. Free Wine. Why Not?
Many wine shops have weekly wine tastings where you can discover something new. Free wine with the possibility of discovering a new favorite sounds like a good deal to me!

And then there’s Manhattan Fruitier
I’ve assembled a highly curated selection of natural wines at Manhattan Fruitier. With fewer than 100 wines, you can be assured that any wine you choose will be exemplary and reflect the varietal, wine region and unique skills of a particular small wine maker.

Tips for Buying Wine
Manhattan Fruitier Farmhouse Cheese Basket with biodynamic Chablis

In addition to individual bottles, I have also paired Manhattan Fruitier’s artisanal food gift baskets with complementary wines so that the experience of both the food and the wine are enhanced. For example, I’ve paired the Farmhouse Cheese Basket with Brocard Chablis Sainte Claire 2015, a fine biodynamic white wine from Northern France, because it is an intense, mineral driven wine built to cut through the creamy cheeses while also having enough ripe lemon and green apple to stand up to the sweeter cheeses.

Fortunately, our wines and wine gift baskets are available for delivery throughout New York State, including NYC.

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Ryan Burkett

In addition to curating Manhattan Fruitier’s wine collection, Ryan is the sommelier at Estela, a critically acclaimed NYC restaurant with a very deep wine list. Ryan's passion for wine, particularly natural or authentic wines, was sparked while living in California. Over the last decade, he honed his knowledge, taste and skills working in fine restaurants in Charleston, SC and NYC. Ryan has a passion for introducing people to delicious and surprising wines that convey the sense of place, or terroir, with organically or biodynamically grown grapes made into wine with minimal intervention.
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