Q: I really like to drink wine but I can never figure out which bottle to buy. Do you have any suggestions?
A: Good wine is one of the many commodities that’s gone from scarce to superabundant in just a decade or so. Remember when watching TV meant flipping through four or five channels?
Of course, more choices bring their own challenges. Feeling overwhelmed by the available selection is a valid complaint.
Fortunately, when it comes to quality wine in Charleston, drinkers can call on more decision-making schemes than just checking the label for a trusted importers’ name (although that trick still holds wherever you go. If you want to support a local outfit, look for Grassroots Wine, McCarus Beverage Company or Curated Selections on the back. One advantage of this method is if you find something you love, you stand a good chance of seeing it on local restaurant lists.)
If you want to improve your wine shopping experience a thousand-fold, the first step is to find a wine shop. There are a number of shops in Charleston where every bottle has been carefully vetted, so all you have to do to figure out which wine to buy is to reach out your hand.
I swear by Monarch Wine Merchants on upper King Street, but what’s most important is that the shop resonates with you. For example, when I reviewed Monarch, I likened it to a bookstore, which is about the highest compliment I can give.
But not everybody feels comfortable in a bookstore, so another shop might be more your speed. Graft Wine Shop occasionally hosts a keyboard player and pop-up pizza, for example. And Edmund’s Oast Exchange recently expanded its food menu, so you can test drive its wines in a setting more like you might encounter at home. In any case, you might need to visit a few places before you settle on a favorite.
And while you can have confidence in what’s on the shelves at any of the above-named stores, as well as others including The Wine Shop and goat.sheep.cow, you don’t have to pick a bottle blindly. Employees of a good shop are skilled at helping customers find wine they’ll like. But this is a classic case of the greatest beneficiaries being those who help themselves. You don’t need to know a thing about wine, but you need to be able to give the salesperson a general idea of your preferences.
This gets easier the more you patronize the same shop, since all you’ll have to say on your next visit is whether you liked what you last bought. But if you haven’t yet established that relationship, it’s your responsibility to describe what you’re seeking.
Again, that doesn’t mean name-checking grapes or soil types, or even being able to discern a French pinot noir from an Australian Shiraz. In fact, it’s OK if you can’t tell either of them from Champagne. Instead, start by establishing exactly how much you want to spend. Better shops can accommodate anything from $15 up.
Then, continuing to steer clear of geeky wine terms and tasting notes which mean nothing to you – I promise you won’t be happy if you insist on wines with notes of black olive and wet tobacco just because you once heard a sommelier cite them – sketch out a drinking scenario.
Do you want to uncork this bottle when your friends drop by for pizza? Do you need a wine to accompany short ribs and A Very Serious Conversation? Focus on food and mood, and finding the right bottle should be a cinch.