Grape Destinations

Pam George

Pam George

, Food & Drink

Want to learn more about wine? These four tips can help you find the right source.

Americans’ love affair with wine is a relatively recent phenomenon. In the 1960s and ‘70s, many restaurants primarily sold sweet or semi-sweet wines such as Lancers and Blue Nun, Mateus. Young adults reached for Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill. No wonder that in 1970 Americans’ annual consumption was only 1.31 gallons per person.

Compare that to 2015, when wine consumption per U.S. resident averaged 2.83 gallons a year. Total consumption jumped 242 percent from 1970 to 2015, boosting the U.S. to the top of the worldwide list, in front of even France and Italy.

Sampling and exploring different wines is now as common as sipping regional microbrews or ordering a plate of exotic cheeses. There are wine tastings, wine festivals and wine dinners.

Still, the world of wine is overwhelming, and, for many, it remains intimidating. It helps to find a store that specializes in wine. But not all are created equal. You may need to look beyond the corner liquor store. Here are four tips to help you find the right fit.

1. Visit several stores

You can tell a lot simply by stepping inside a store. “We all have different personalities, without question,” says Linda Collier, who opened Collier’s in 1981 on Union Street. It’s now located in Centreville.

For some, the design matters. Collier’s of Centreville is in an old building next to Buckley’s Tavern, which gives it a village vibe. Veritas Wine & Craft Beer on the Wilmington Riverfront has a sleek bar in the shop.

David and Joanne Govatos, the owners of Swigg in Independence Mall, took their cue from hip retail stores. “We have always liked the aesthetic of Terrain [in Glen Mills] and sort of that Restoration Hardware look,” David Govatos says. “Many customers tell us they love the feel of the store.”

Feel a chill in the air? That’s a good thing. FranksWine in Wilmington, Swigg and Moore Brothers Wine Company in Trolley Square keep the thermostat at 60 degrees or lower, the recommended “cellar” temperature for wine. “Even a few weeks at more than 70 degrees degrades the condition of the wine and your enjoyment of it,” Govatos explains. Light also can damage wine, which shouldn’t sit in full sun.

If you visit on a hot day and the store is warm, the shop is not taking care of the wine, says Frank Pagliaro, the owner of FranksWine.

2. View the selection.

A store’s size is not as important as the selection and service. Boutique wine stores tend to have a niche. Swigg primarily focuses on family estate-grown wine, while Moore Brothers specializes in small artisan producers. Collier looks for wines you won’t find in big box liquor stores. Like many hands-on owners, she tastes every wine before it hits the shelf.

Emphasizing small vineyards or family estates doesn’t mean the wine is expensive. Swigg has a wall of wines that are all under $15. The secret is to know a good value, Collier says. If you spend $10 on a bottle of wine that’s undrinkable, it’s not a good value.

Not all stores arrange wine in the same fashion, and you might appreciate one system over another. At Collier’s, for instance, the wine is organized by varietal, because even a diehard Chardonnay drinker might not realize that it’s originally from France’s Burgundy region. As a result, white Burgundies are with the Chardonnays.

State Line Liquors in Elkton organizes wine by the region in the imported section. Domestic wine is arranged by varietal and then by area, such as Oregon or California. FranksWine in Wilmington sorts the wine by country and then by varietal.

Heading to the beach? Teller Wines in Lewes separates wine by flavor profiles, such as “Fresh and Clean” and then by price, moving from the least expensive, usually $7.99, to the highest priced.

Teller Wines’ owners write all the tasting notes, which appear on cards by the selections. Some stores use notes provided by the vineyard or distributor. Admittedly, creating tasting notes is challenging for larger stores. FranksWine does a mix of both and has a wall of wine that the staff selects.

3. Look for learning opportunities.

Exploring the world of wine should take you out of your comfort zone. “If you have a glass of Chardonnay every night, you’re not really a wine drinker,” Collier says. “You’re just using your Chardonnay as a cocktail for the evening. But if you start thinking, ‘Oh, it’s a beautiful night. I want to sit out on the back porch and have sushi with this particular wine’—then you become a wine drinker. You’re matching wine to your mood, your food, and your friends. It’s a different bottle, not the same old thing.”

Tastings are a great way to discover the nuances. Most wine and liquor stores offer them on a regular basis. Indeed, FranksWine offers them every day, with more promoted tastings on weekends.

There might be a theme, such as “varietals you’ve never heard of,” says John Murray, owner of State Line. He’s also conducted tastings just on wines from Willamette Valley in Oregon or featured one vineyard. State Line has enough room in one area to seat up to 60, and restaurants have often provided food—including whole pigs and oysters—for special food pairing events.

FranksWine regularly pairs tastings with a selection of cheeses and charcuterie from Di Bruno Bros., which it sells on site. (Many boutique stores augment wine with complementary products, such as cheese and chocolates.) Premier Wine & Spirits on Limestone Road has held a series of tastings, prepared by local chefs, in the store.

Some stores go beyond tastings. Collier’s is famous for its wine classes, which started when Collier first opened her shop. On Jan. 19, for instance, the store will focus on Meritage wines.

4. Build a relationship.

Wine education isn’t limited to events in a fine wine shop. “There should be an employee who can answer your basic questions and your more technical questions,” Murray says. At Swigg, many employees have taken sommelier classes. “We keep a full library in the store, and we are constantly tasting and discussing wine,” Govatos says.

Customer service is a priority. “Frankly, it’s the difference-maker in retaining customers,” says Ryan Kennedy, director of marketing for Harvey, Hanna & Associates, which owns Premier Wine & Spirits. “Customers have dozens of options within a few miles of their home or office; we have to make sure we give them a great experience.”

Premier has two locations, but the 3,900-square-foot store in the Limestone Shopping Center caters more to the serious wine lover. Tell the sales associate what you like to drink and what you don’t like, says Tim Pettit, the general manager. “We’re really just trying to find out what they’re looking for and help them.”

Don’t let the employee lead you in a direction that you don’t want to go, Murray says. He notes that some stores put the staff on commission. State Line does not.

Says Collier: “It should be fun. It should be relaxing. No matter how little or how much you know, you should be able to come in and enjoy the experience.”

So, what do you think? Please comment below.