Having now worked for the top 4 wine stores in Connecticut over my 16 year career, I have a birds-eye view of what one can reasonably expect in the ways of service and selection for an A+ retail experience and relationship. "Relationship?", you ask, well yes- a relationship of a unique sort is EXACTLY what this is. Really give it some thought. Say you're a 5-night a week wine drinker, as most wine folks are. If you're like most folks, you're probably buying a bottle or bottles on your way home from work at your local store, or spend a leisurely Saturday morning perusing the shelves of your favorite wine hideout while hubby or wifie is at the soccer practice with the kids. Yup- that's you. Maybe you mix a case of wines with your favorites, or stick with a single wine that you know will give you a consistent flavor and style each and every time you open that bottle.
Here's where having that all-important relationship with a retailer really comes in handy. A good retailer will greet you upon your arrival, and if you're new to the store, explain the general layout so you can do a little window shopping on your own. The retailer should be warm, inviting, and knowledgable without snobbishness- somone extremely approachable and not intimidating. This person will give you adequate time to assess the selection without hovering, then circle back with you to see if you have any questions on a specific wine or region. If you're answer is no, this person will go one further, and ask you the most important question he or she should ask- "What do you like to drink? What have you had before that you've enjoyed?" Remember- this experience is not about what he or she wants to sell you- it's all about YOU, and YOUR palate.
A good relationship with this person will entail them recognizing you by name, and paying attention to your likes and dislikes. Many stores now have inventory systems that can track your purchases so you can fine-tune your buying preferences. The best retailers will know you so well, that they can anticipate new wines that will exactly fulfill your palate's deepest desires, and will acquire them for you at aggressive case pricing. This person will be able to find wines from regions and grapes that you may never have ventured to try before, but because they have earned your confidence through a trustworthy relationship, your horizons are forever broadened.
There are few relationships more intimate than the wine retailer and his customer. Huh? Yup- it's true. I've heard about more impending divorces, kids sports successes and losses, deaths in the family, what wild things happened in the hot tub after the Rose' Champagne I sold them was opened (not even slightly joking), and so many "TMI" moments. I, as your retailer know WHAT you eat for dinner most every night, who your friends are, what parties you attend with wine in hand, what day your kid's Bar Mitzvah is, what you drank at your engagement party, and what Champagne your husband bought for your anniversary surprise weekend in Vermont. I've been part of all your celebrations and your tragedies, and helped keep the in-laws happy while they over-stay their welcome. I've set up your dream experience in Napa and Tuscany, tasting wines with winemakers that only take special clients, and helped you choose that special Bordeaux from your daughter's birth year to open on her wedding day (hopefully when she's 30). I am more than your friend or family- I am your wine chick- here to stay.
You will be invited to both public and more private wine tastings, classes, and seminars hosted by the retailer as you develop this relationship with them, regardless of what price range you're in- as long as you're loyal to them. These tastings are great opportunities to try rare and more expensive wines that you may not otherwise get to come by due to your new "insider" status. Wine dinners are a fantastic way to get more intimately familiar with wine and meet some famous winemaking folks from all over the world. Wine is usually enjoyed with food, and in this context it is best judged for what it should be- part of a meal.
When choosing a store in general, sometimes it's not just the people that you're dealing with as it is the environment in which you're shopping. Is the store easily shoppable without help? Is there good signage indicating the wines' category? Is there a tasting area? Are the best wines stored in a temperature-controlled facility? Is the overall store too warm to confidently buy wine? Do they offer services like gift wrapping for that all-important client, or free local delivery if you're having a big party? Convenience is a major player these days. Do they have an easy-to-shop website that shows their latest finds, and is accurate regarding their inventory?
Does the store specialize in one particular area? This can be a huge factor in determining the wines they will recommend to you. If the largest section in the store is Spain, and you're a die-hard California fan, perhaps this is not the store for you.
Pay attention to large signs and displays of wines. This is usually a great indicator of a wine that a retailer is making a very sizable margin on, and therefore would rather sell you that over a comparable wine. Ask to taste it if it's something they're really hot on, as they'll gladly pop a bottle, or stand behind the purchase if you're not happy with it. If the wine turns out to be a home run for you, there's a good chance you can negotiate a deeper case discount if you're buying multiple cases- perfect for that spring time BBQ or summer wedding.
Also, be sure to check out their "end of bin" deals on many wines. What happens all too often for us retailers is that someone special orders a case, then decides that they only want to buy 4 bottles instead of the 12 they committed to. Because those are items not regularly sold by the store, or they are odd lots never to be seen again in the store, you can often get significant deals on them.
Last, but not least, your retailer should be able to assist you in setting up a wine cellar. If they don't deal with a cellar builder, they can make recommendations on how to get started or some local contacts who can assist you in layout and design. They should be able to advise you on long or short-term wine storage, and be able to appraise your collection if you ever need the help for insurance or auction purposes. Some charge for this service, depending upon the size of your collection.
Overall, your retail experience should be as follows- inviting, easy-to-shop, full of great recommendations custom for YOU, with lots of events to choose from to further your palate and education, with a great selection, price, and attention to detail, from the time the wine enters the shop, until it's safely at your dinner table. It's like the neighborhood pub-only better and easier on the wallet and the drive home!