Lots of people, including my mother, ask me how to find that great bottle of wine they had at a restaurant. I generally tell them to start by turning the bottle around to find out who imported it.
Generally, great international wines are brought into the country by people with insightful palates. For the most part, if you like a handful of wines from one importer, you are likely to enjoy many from that same source. You almost can consider the stamp of the importer as a brand.
While you are at it, turn the bottle back around and write down the producer’s name, the main grape it contains and where (region. and perhaps vineyard) it was produced. You will be likely to enjoy other wines from the same area. There are many growing areas for pinot noir in California and Oregon — and Burgundy in France — but if you can narrow down the choices a bit, that will help you choose another great bottle.
PICK A GOOD WINE SHOP
We have a handful in the Bay Area, though fewer than in place where wine is not sold in supermarkets. Some of our best include K&L Wine Merchants (San Francisco, Redwood City), Wine Warehouse (Richmond) and the soon-to-arrive Total Wine (only in the Sacramento area for the moment). Bottle Barn in Santa Rosa is also a stellar destination.
If you learn a little “wine speak” and use it, the perspective will go miles in a wine shop. Find a salesperson to talk to about what you like in your favorite wines (tannins, fruit flavors or oak influence). If you adore wines from a certain region or country, call the store and ask to talk to the specific wine buyer for that region or country before you come in. They’ll be able to give you a broad perspective on the wine landscape that lies within their shelves.
SPEAK YOUR MIND
Don’t be afraid to say what you would like to spend on a bottle or a case of wine. A good retailer should be able to sell you a decent bottle for $15 or less a pop, particularly from a lesser-known region. Ask if there are case discounts; many stores offer approximately 10 percent off on a full-case purchase.
You can also ask a salesperson to put together a multi-regional or country case based on your taste preferences and favorite grape varietals. This way you can compare an Oregon pinot noir to ones from the Santa Ynez Valley in Santa Barbara County. Sometimes you even discover that a country, such as New Zealand, makes great pinot noir as well.
Mix, match and try the wines with food. Take notes; I generally write down comments about wines I like for future reference. Also, take pictures of the bottles you like and use apps such as Delectable to keep track of your preferences and where to find them.
If you don’t enjoy all the wines in the first mixed case you acquire, don’t be shy. Tell the sales staff what you liked or did not like. If you still have faith in them, ask them to try again. Feel free to play around and change your price point or grape blend, or explore a new region.
Liza B. Zimmerman is the principal of the Liza the Wine Chick, a writing and consulting business. She has been writing, educating and consulting about wine, cocktails and food for two decades. She has also worked almost every angle of the wine and food business: from server and consultant to positions in distribution, education and sales.
Zimmerman offers tips on what to do at the wine shop so you find the bottle you’re looking for: