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Navigating a Wine Wall

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winewall Picmonkeyphoto courtesy of Peachey Canyon Winery

By Robert Henson, winemaker at Peachey Canyon Winery

August 5, 2015 - If you’re not lucky enough to be a winemaker (ahem) you probably get most of your wine from the wine sections of grocery and specialty stores. Unlike winery tasting rooms, however, stores have giant walls of wine and no friendly tasting room associates to help you navigate their depths. Plus, you’re probably in a hurry. So with that in mind, here’s some insider information about how to get the most out of that wall of wine.

Don’t limit yourself to wines at eye level

You know how it’s well-known that grocery stores put all the sugary, “kid friendly” cereals at equally “kid friendly” heights on the shelf? It should not surprise you that they do the same with just about every other kind of merchandise. What the store is trying to move is what’s going on its eye-level shelves, and while there’s nothing wrong with those wines, it’s definitely worth your time to explore the many bottles on the top and bottom rows.

Take advantage of endcaps and sales

There’s nothing wrong with a wine on sale, especially in a retail environment. I’ve had people ask me if there’s “something wrong” with wine that’s on sale… and the answer, thankfully, is no! Unlike wineries, stores can sometimes use wine as what’s called a “loss leader,” meaning they can sell wine for a loss in order to entice customers to buy. If wineries did that we’d be out of business fast, but big companies like Costco, Beverages and More, and Trader Joe’s can make up their profits outside the wine aisle.

Don’t judge a wine (only) by its label

This goes both ways: wines with old school labels showing a chateau might be great, and so might be wines with a super modern label (what the wine industry keeps referring to as ‘millennial’). A winery that chooses to invest a lot in its label isn’t necessarily ignoring its wine, they’re just also focused on enticing their customers with some great art. And a winery that hasn’t changed their label since circa 1983 might just be too busy making wine to do so… it’s hard to tell until you try the juice.

Listen to what a wine label does tell you

While the styles of wine labels vary widely, the regulatory government bodies that oversee wine production in the U.S. require a lot of things to be included on the label, and many of them are useful to consumers. Many wineries also include descriptions on their bottles to help consumers choose wines that they like. Look for varietals and blends similar to what you know you like, and try exploring regions too. Wine labels often show the wine’s AVA — like ‘Paso Robles’ — take advantage of that to try more wine from a favored region.

Rely on scores that reflect your tastes, but don’t only rely on scores

Wine scores are popular with shoppers because they’re easy. What’s easier than choosing a 93 point wine next to a wine without a score listed? Of course as a winemaker, it’s always an honor to get a good score — it means someone likes the wine, never a bad thing! The thing is, however, scoring wine is actually a complicated subject, and scores are only worth something to you if you take the “scorer” into account. Let me put it this way: do your tastes align with Robert Parker’s, or do your tastebuds have more in common with Matt Kettmann (of Wine Enthusiast)? Because they don’t have the same preferences all the time, and you probably don’t either. If you’re going to use scores when finding wines, make sure you agree with the person assigning the scores. Not to mention that not all wines are sent out for scoring — plenty of great, small lot wines aren’t sent to very many publications, so of course they get less press. It doesn’t mean the wine’s not good.

Use technology

We live in an era connected by the internet and most wineries are now using websites and/or social media. Our [Peachy Canyon’s] wine labels include a link to our website, and I know that is not unique to us. Many wineries include links, QR codes, and social media indicators on their bottles now specifically to help connect to consumers. If you’re in a store and you have a question about a wine, often the winery’s website can help… and it’s conveniently right there on your phone. Some wineries, like mine, even try to answer questions on Twitter in real time. You won’t always get someone immediately, but it’s easy and worth a try.

One of your greatest resources as a wine drinker are the wineries. Most wineries — especially here in Paso Robles — want to connect with you and give you all the information you need to find what you like. Whether on Facebook or face-to-face, we want to interact with the people interested in our wines.

Editor’s note: We think Robert Henson’s article is full of good advice. If you’re thinking of visiting wineries in his part of the world (Paso Robles), we suggest you check the Central Coast listings in Taste California Travel’s Resource Directory. There you will find links to the websites of Wineries, Lodging and Dining options, and even Craft Beer purveyors.