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How to buy wine at a specialist retailer

The best independent wine merchants offer a welcoming atmosphere, high-quality customer service and a large range of intriguing bottles.

Venturing into one of these stores is like entering Aladdin’s cave, as you will be met with an abundance of interesting and unusual wines from around the world. It may conjure up a sense of wonder and enchantment, but it can also be a little daunting if you have never visited the shop before.

This guide is designed to help you successfully navigate a specialist wine merchant and reduce your chances of leaving with a bad bottle. Read on for our top tips on how to buy wine at an independent specialist wine retailer in the UK.

Ask yourself three key questions before visiting

Charlie Brown, who spent eight years working as a sommelier before opening an award-winning wine store in Essex, would ask three key questions of any customer that asked for assistance:

  • What sort of style do you want?
  • How much do you want to pay?
  • What’s the wine for?

‘It helps to reduce the store down from the whole place to just a few shelves,’ says Brown, who recently sold her store to embark on a new career as a roving wine writer. ‘I define my parameters before visiting any wine store I visit.

‘For my part, you’ll normally find me in the Burgundy, Beaujolais, Piedmont, Loire Valley, dry Riesling sections, but that’s me. Know roughly what you want, eliminate the rest and you’re on your way to finding exactly what you want.’

Simon Taylor, owner of Stone, Vine & Sun near Winchester, has similar advice. ‘Know what you want the wine for,’ he says. ‘For example, is it to go with particular food or for drinking on its own? Have a clear budget or at least some idea of what you want to spend. Then leave it to one of the professionals to make suggestions.’

State your budget, and do not be afraid to stick to it

‘Never be afraid to state your budget – it was always a bugbear of mine when people never told me because they were embarrassed,’ says Brown. ‘We can work with anything.’

It is important to note that the duty applied to a bottle of 12.5% abv wine is now £2.67, according to the Wine & Spirit Trade Association. When you add VAT, packaging, logistics and so on, you get just 29p worth of wine when you spend £6.31 – the average price of a bottle of wine sold in the UK.

By contrast, if you spend £10 on a bottle, £2.10 will go on the wine itself, which is a sevenfold increase. Spending £20 on a bottle means that £6.33 will go on the wine, so spending a little bit more will dramatically increase the quality you receive. However, you do not need to go overboard to leave with a great bottle of wine at a high-quality independent merchant.

When you have decided how much you can afford to spend, stick to it. ‘Don’t feel intimidated to go beyond your budget,’ says Ruth Yates, founder of Corks Out, another award-winning wine retailer located in Cheshire.

‘If I was a customer, I’d be saying, “My budget is X, can you impress me with something for that price or even something cheaper?” Customers rarely return if they think you’ve pushed their budget too far.’

Ask for advice

‘The specialist wine shop has one killer advantage over all others: knowledgeable staff,’ says Richard Hemming MW, a wine writer who spent six years working at Majestic.

‘Ignoring that resource misses the whole point of visiting a specialist. Instead of deep discounts and big brands, you will actually learn something – so long as you ask. In the six years I spent behind the counter at Majestic Wine, I never tired of being asked what was new and interesting.’

Brown adds: ‘Ask for help, especially if you’re talking to the owner, buyer or well-trained staff. It’s their job to recommend, they’ll do it scores of times per day.’

While knowledgeable staff can help you uncover hidden gems, do not be afraid to browse the shelves alone for as long as you like.

‘I’ve found that our customers really enjoy the fact that they are free to browse for literally hours, then coming to use once they actually need advice,’ says Julien Le Doaré, general manager at Hedonism in London, which stocks more than 10,000 wines and spirits from across the globe.

Another top tip from retailers is to look out for the depleted shelf. ‘This shows a common purchase,’ says John Chapman, managing director at Oxford Wine Company.

He adds that if you speak with a member of staff, ‘conveying what you don’t like is very helpful too.’

Have an open mind, drop prejudice and root around in the bin-ends

‘The best advice is to approach purchasing wines with an open mind,’ says Phil Innes, owner of Loki Wines in Birmingham. ‘That can open you up to real surprises.

‘Try to be adventurous. You can get Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc and Malbec anywhere. Play to what makes an independent merchant different.’

Colin Thorne, a buyer for Vagabond Wines in London, adds: ‘My top advice would always be to drop any prejudice – saying I don’t like Chardonnay, for example, or Pinot Noir – because a good shop will always have a surprise.’

It is not an exact science, but as a rule of thumb, he suggests that it is difficult to end up with a bad wine if you visit a high-quality wine merchant and spend at least £15 on a bottle.

Hemming, who is now the head of wine for Asia at 67 Pall Mall Singapore, recommends venturing off the beaten track when you visit a specialist wine merchant.

‘While specialists are bound to have reliable choices from the classic regions, it is often the outliers that offer the most fertile hunting ground. Wine from the likes of Turkey, Moldova or China has to really earn its place on the shelf. Don’t be afraid to root around in the bin-ends either – this is the relegation zone for previous vintages and delisted bottles, all of which got into the shop by being good enough in the first place. In my experience, taking a gamble here usually pays off.’

Look for key details on the label

If you are browsing the shelves, you can look out for specific words on the labels, as that can steer you towards high-quality wines. Brown suggests searching for these four words:

  • Organic
  • Hand harvested
  • Low yield
  • Low intervention

‘This isn’t about being dogmatic over winemaking ethos, it’s about reducing your chances of buying a dud in the simplest way possible,’ she says. ‘Words like these generally mean the winemaker cares about their winemaking practices and that’s what it’s all about.’

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