Ten ways of spotting the good from the bad and the ugly.
1) Does the range change regularly? Time was when merchants would change their range maybe once or twice a year. The best outfits often now buy in parcels that are so small that they’re in and out of stock within a month, sometimes a week. And if you ask them why they don’t produce a wine list they’ll say, what’s the point? It would be out of date as soon as it had been printed.
2) Do the wines come from lots of different producers? If the wines from, say, Burgundy, the Rhone and southern France all carry the name of the same producer, then someone is being lazy in their buying habits.
3) Are the wines the same ones you’ve seen in the supermarkets? Nothing wrong with supermarket wines, or indeed with the odd famous brand or two. But if the same old wines monopolise the shelves, then again someone isn’t being as thorough as they could be. However…
4) Do you get the feeling you’re being had? In other words, is that unfamiliar label just an excuse for the merchant to bump up the price of a so-so wine? Tasting is the only way to find out.
5) Are they afraid to specialise? Why should someone who has a passion for Greek wine feel compelled to stock Rioja? Would you rather buy from someone who was single-minded, or a jack-of-all-trades?
6) Does anything in the range look like it should be pensioned off? The better shops should have reasonably speedy turnover of stock. Anything not moving as quickly as it ought may very well end up in the January ‘bin-end’ sale.
7) When you ask the staff a question, does wine ooze out of their pores? Or is their definition of disseminating information simply picking up the bottle and reading out what it says on the back?
8) Do they always try and steer you towards more expensive wines? A decent merchant will be as proud of his selection at £5-10 wines as of anything at higher price. Of course they want you to spend as much money as possible, but the good guys will be much more interested in building a long-term relationship with you than in getting you to cough up in a big way just once.
9) If there’s a shop, does it feel like the sort of place where a bottle would be happy for several weeks? Or does the temperature in store yo-yo up and down while the wine slowly cooks under the harsh fluorescent lights?
10) Do they hold regular tastings for customers? Are they confident enough in their selections to be able to let you try before you buy? If not, why not?