This is a post I should have done some time ago, especially with my silly “20 Buck Luck” experiment getting as many views as it does. I got a very thoughtful comment last night from an excellent local wine merchant, Paul Hayden, on the second installment of 20 Buck Luck. I am a regular customer of Paul’s store, and rely on him often for recommendations in wine areas that I don’t have enough experience in, or fall outside my normal taste preferences. Paul is an excellent wine merchant, his store stocks great stuff, and he’s single-handedly revitalized their beer selection from something that you glanced at if you were in the store for something else, to a beer destination.
We’re blessed in St. Louis to have other passionate, knowledgeable wine merchants too – Jake Hafner at 33, Andrew Traughber at Bon Vivant, John Nash and Simon Lehrer (who is THE cheese man too) at the Wine Merchant. I’ve stocked my cellar with their help, and the help of other great wine merchants like David Lillie and Jamie Wolff at Chambers St. Wine, Paul Wasserman when he was at Woodland Hills Wine Company, Bill Mayer at The Age of Riesling, and many more over the course of my fifteen years as a wine lover.
What does a good wine merchant do for you? First, they put together a nice selection in their store. They sift through the oceans of dull wines out there to find things that interest them. They find the quality. Now, not every merchant (nor should they be!) is into the same things, so you’re going to find variety as you go from store to store. Frankly, that’s enough of a relationship for some people right there – they trust that the wine on the shelf will be a good one and they explore on their own. For some, they’re loyal to one store, others need more to satisfy their vinious interests and desires.
For those willing to take a step further, from anonymous browser to interactive shopper, there are greater rewards to be had. A good wine merchant has the ability to learn your palate, and make thoughtful suggestions for wines that fit your tastes, and stretch your experience to encompass new tastes that you may also enjoy. In my early days of wine, this was critical. While I commend reading about wine, there is no substitute for drinking your way through various regions to bring the words to life. A good wine merchant can be your guide, and all the more so when you engage in an ongoing conversation about their recommendations with them.
My first experience with a good wine merchant was Brent at the Wine Merchant location in Clayton. I was in my first year of graduate school, and didn’t have a lot of spare cash, but the Wine Merchant had (and still has) a fine selection of quality, but less expensive, wines from the South of France. I struck up a conversation with Brent on my first visit, told him I was just beginning to really explore wine in earnest, and asked for recommendations within my budget. When I returned, Brent asked what I had liked and not about his previous recommendations, and he made more based on that information. From these conversations we worked out from the South of France, to explore every region well-represented in the store’s stock, with Brent guiding the selections based on my reports of what I had and had not liked about the earlier recommendations. Brent helped make my exploration much more fruitful and pleasant than it otherwise would have been had I simply been selecting wines at random, or from book and magazine recommendations.
Another favorite wine experience was with David Lillie of Chambers St. Wines. I had been a customer for several years, focusing largely on their outstanding selection of wines from the Loire, when I decided to make a special request of David. I gave him a budget and asked for him to put together two cases of wine (this was back in the pre-kid, free-spending days . . .) from his current stock that I had not previously had, but that he thought would be interesting to me. David more than ably jumped to the challenge, and I found several new producers, wines, even grapes that I had not previously sampled, but were very much in my palate’s wheelhouse.
Getting back to Paul’s comment on my 20 Buck Luck series. The reason I decided to limit myself to grocery store wines was because, even with the $20 limit, it would be too easy to get three really good wines at your shop, or any of the other fine merchants around town. I thought it would be a humorous experiment to unleash a wine geek (especially one with little to no tolerance for oak or high alcohol) into the grocery store wine aisle to see if he could find any inexpensive potable wines. The quality I encountered frankly shocked me, and that is why I thought about abandoning the grocery stores for the wine shops, or even Trader Joe’s, (though there is significant crap shoot element there too). In the end, my friends (apart from Carl, who has always thought this was just a waste of money and abuse of palate) convinced me to continue to tilt at the windmill of the grocery store wine aisle.
I’ll add a disclaimer to any future installments of 20 Buck Luck (I’ve still not recovered from the horror show that was the Pinot Evil) directing folks who truly want to learn about wine without wasting their cash to this post. Thanks to Paul for pointing out that some clarification was needed: 20 Buck Luck is intended for entertainment purposes only. It is not intended to represent a recommended method for actually exploring the world of wine.
For those of you really interested in exploring wine, find yourself a good wine merchant. There are several in the “Places to Shop and Drink” links, or in this post. The relationship will be a rewarding one, and you will be supporting people who are truly passionate about wine.