Shopping for Wine: Advice From the Central Market Gurus

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Shopping for wine can be an intimidating experience. Since wine is predominantly available in 750ml formats and can sometimes involve a large investment, the risk is higher than when purchasing other alcohol. The Observer talked to the experts at Central Market about shopping for wine, and they provided insight on how you can leave feeling confident and satisfied with your selection.

Meet the experts:

Darrell Gibson has been in the industry for 20 years. He is level III certified by the Wine and Spirit Education Trust, a certified specialist of wine by the Society of Wine Educators, a level 1 sommelier, a certified beer server and is working toward his level IV certification by WSET. He has a bachelor’s degree in business management and a culinary degree from the Culinary Institute of America. He loves working for Central Market because it allows him to combine his passions for food and wine. You can find him at the Lovers Lane location.

Chris Bostad is director of non-perishables and fresh merchandise for Central Market. He oversees assortment and programs for the stores. He works to find the amazing wines that end up in Central Market stores.

When we think of people who know a lot about wine, we think of sommeliers. You refer to your in-store wine managers as wine experts. What’s the difference?

Gibson: “Sommelier” is specific to the restaurant industry. It applies to a wine expert working in a restaurant, managing a wine list. Restaurants will usually have 80 to 100 wines on their list. Grocery stores are managing a “wine list” of 2,000 to 3,000 wines, so the breadth of knowledge is greater. Our wine experts are focused on customer service and wine knowledge for a range of occasions, while sommeliers are providing wine service so you can enjoy a great meal from a specific menu.

Bostad: In a restaurant, you pretty much know what you’re going to have to pair wine with. The menu is set. In retail, you never know what customers are going to pair wine with — what protein, what vegetable, what cheese — so you really have to know all about wine in a broad sense to work in our wine department.

When Central Market selects wine for their inventory, what are some of the things they look for?

Gibson: Any wine we choose delivers quality beyond its price point. There’s a lot of confusion when it comes to wine. Just because a wine is expensive doesn’t mean it’s a great wine. Just because it’s inexpensive doesn’t mean it’s a bad wine. But they’re different. Comparing a $20 cab to a $100 cab is comparing apples and oranges. In all situations, we want to deliver a superior wine for its price.

Bostad: We think of our wine assortment as curated. Other grocery store chains offer the same big-name brands. We try to find unique brands — small-batch, specialty items. We do the same thing with wine that we do with food, finding gems you won’t get other places.

Gibson: For the wine industry, we refer to these as hidden gems — small batch, handcrafted, quality for their price point. We want to bring things to our customers that they haven’t had the opportunity to try before ... Our wine experts literally travel the world looking for new, unique and delicious wines to offer our customers.

How is shopping in Central Market special compared with other grocery stores or liquor stores?

Bostad: You won’t find the number of qualified people in other grocery stores as you’ll find here. Our managers taste all our wine. We want them to be excited about what they carry. They can say no to certain wines and request certain wines, so there’s that tailoring at store level.

Gibson: The selection is unique. It’s a fine wine shop that happens to be located in a grocery store. It offers the ability for our customers to do a one-stop shop. They can get quality steak, fresh bread and wine from $3 a bottle to $300 plus. They can get hard-to-find wines they can’t even find in fine wine shops anymore.

A shopper comes in with that deer-in-the-headlights look. They need wine, but have no idea where to start. How do you help them find something they like?

Gibson: I’m a huge proponent of the customer’s relationship with their wine expert, someone they know they can trust. We’re here to help. The typical way one of our experts will help a customer select a wine is by asking a lot of questions. This may seem intimidating, but it is really just to decipher what style and type of wine the customer may be looking for. A typical question that a customer might ask is “What is a good cabernet for around $20?” My first response is “What does a good cabernet taste like to you? Are you looking for something more medium-bodied or heavy-bodied? Are you looking for something more fruit forward or elegant with oak aging?”

I think this approach can sometimes surprise people if they aren’t used to working with a wine professional, but rather a wine salesperson. Beware if you ask for a cab, and the salesperson responds with “This is one I like,” without learning your tastes. Instead of just handing the customer a bottle and sending the customer on their way, I’m really trying to engage the customer to make sure I really am picking the right wine for the right occasion.

All of our wine managers have solid qualifications. Don’t be afraid to stop one of them, ask for their opinion and trust their suggestions.

If the wine is going to be a present or taken to a party, do you have any safe bets?

Gibson: If you don’t know if someone likes red or white, dry or sweet, your safest bet is a sparkling wine, particularly during the holidays. There’s at least one time a year everyone will open a sparkling wine. Otherwise, go with the numbers and choose the biggest industry sellers — cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay. And if that’s still not the answer a customer wants to hear, I ask myself what I’d personally buy in the price point they’re looking for and recommend that.

Do you have a favorite wine?

Gibson: My favorite wine is like asking which of my two children is my favorite! That’s not a fair question.

Could you name a few wines that are good for holiday occasions?

Pianello Prosecco, Veneto, Italy, $12.95
Refreshing, pairs well with fatty fish like salmon and tuna

Jean Noel Haton Brut Rosé Champagne, Champagne, France, on sale, $34.95
A small-batch “grower Champagne” with strawberry flavors and a crisp mouthfeel

Lafond Chardonnay, Santa Rita Hills, California, $19.95
Oak and apple aromas, traditional oaky flavor and creamy feel

The Rule Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California, $19.95
Strawberry, vanilla and tobacco aromas, with lush red fruit flavors

Orin Swift Papillon, Napa Valley, California, $59.99
A rich red blend with cherry and dark chocolate notes, a real treat for any wine lover

Author's note: If you need more tips on choosing and serving wine, browse through Central Market's wine guide. There are even a few toasts if you need words for a special occasion.  

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