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When to take a wine seller’s advice, and when to ignore it


You need a wine seller to help you sort through hundreds of bottles of wine sold in most wine shops, since they often hand-pick many of the bottles themselves.

In a recent post on the Wine Berserkers forum, one writer related the story of how he wanted to invest in some new rosé vintages for the summer, so he took a trip to his local shop. As he browsed through the aisles, one of the floor sales experts told him he should buy a particular Provence vintage. Even though the wine was pricier than most of the wines the writer usually picked, he decided to buy it anyway, trusting that the seller knew best. When the writer opened the bottle at home, he said it smelled like “cat pee, strawberry, and a hint of skunk.” Needless to say, the writer didn’t buy a second bottle from that seller.

Taking a wine seller’s advice is the ultimate test of trust. Many people, even experienced collectors and wine lovers, rely on sellers to recommend the best vintage to drink or lay down. Can collectors significantly affect the outcome of this process, or is it all trial by error? In my collecting career, I’ve found that consumers have more control over these interactions than you might think. Here’s a three-step process that can help.

Step One: Ask the Right Questions

It’s natural for a buyer to ask a seller, “What’s your favorite [insert wine varietal here]?” However, this question is not only vague, but it’s subjective. You have no idea what your wine seller’s tasting skills are, or how much experience they have with that particular varietal. Instead, I always ask questions like, “What is your best-selling wine in this style?” If you don’t know your seller personally, this question is a great way to quickly gauge which wines are worth your time. I use this method most often when I’m in a rush and need a crowd-pleasing wine for a party.

If you plan on becoming a regular customer at a wine shop, it’s a good idea to test your seller’s knowledge and get in deeper with your questions. Here are the two questions you should always ask:

How long have you worked here? This tells you how familiar the seller is with the merchandise.

What kind of wine do you usually buy? This tells you which wines your seller truly prefers to drink, not just which ones he’s pitching to customers that week.

In addition, pay close attention to what questions your seller does (or doesn’t) ask you. Wine expert Michael Austin said he once asked a wine seller what wine he would recommend to pair with pizza. The seller never asked him what kind of pizza Austin was serving, or what kinds of wines Austin usually drank. Instead, the seller replied, “An Italian red, of course.” This answer is woefully unspecific, not to mention a little unimaginative. Generally, avoid sellers who never ask you follow-up questions like which wines you already enjoy drinking. A seller you can trust will also give specific suggestions, all the way down to vintage.

Step Two: Find Common Ground

A few weeks ago, I went shopping for a bottle of rosé myself. One of the sales representatives asked if she could help me with anything, and I told her exactly what I had in mind: ultra-dry, slightly spicy, with meaty or savory components. You can imagine my confusion when she pointed me to a bottle of Moscato. I responded, “That’s probably too sweet. I was hoping for something more like Spanish Tempranillo.” She told me she’d never had Tempranillo, and admitted that the only rosé she’d tried herself was white Zinfandel from California. Next time I visit that store, I’ll probably choose a different sales representative, since the one I interacted with was a better fit for someone who loves sweet wines.

To avoid these scenarios, go to the store during its slow hours and strike up a conversation about wine with your seller. Start by talking about one of your favorite bottles, and ask your seller, “What do you think of [insert wine vintage here]?” Don’t say anything about whether you love the wine or not, but rather, give your seller the chance to voice his or her opinion. Repeat this for a wine that you dislike, and see what the seller says. This is the easiest way to quickly determine whether your seller has a similar palate to your own.

Step Three: Test the Waters

Now that you’ve found a seller you have some preferences in common with, it’s a good idea to try at least three individual bottle recommendations from the seller, on three separate shopping trips, to make sure your tastes match. If all three are duds, consider choosing a new seller. You’ll probably find one wine in the bunch you dislike, but when that happens, it doesn’t mean you’ve put your trust in the wrong person. Simply tell your seller why you didn’t like the wine, and give them the chance to refine their selection for you.

The important thing to remember is that it’s in your seller’s best interest to choose the perfect wine for you. They want you to come back to the store more than once, and if you hate the wines they recommend, they risk losing you as a customer. A great wine seller won’t pressure you to buy what they’ve chosen for you, but will spend time getting to know your collection and offering you hand-picked bottles catered to your taste.


By: Harley Hoffmann

Harley Hoffmann

Harley is an Executive Wine Specialist for Vinfolio, helping collectors find the best wines for their collection. He’s a lover of everything outdoors and the proper bottles to go along with it. You can find him at any of the newest cocktail bars and restaurants in SF or on an adventure somewhere in between Lake Tahoe and the California coastline.

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