Food, Wine and other Beverages

A Bottle for the Holidays: 4 Tips to Conquer the "Wall of Wine" At Home or Away

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Finally, everything you need to know about how to buy wine.

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Quick! Name one industry that has as many brands with similar looking packages and similar tasting items as the wine industry. I think it’s virtually impossible. I’m not sure how things worked out this way, but unlike shopping for hand soap or cookies, shopping for wine is a daunting, confusing, experience where sensory overload is guaranteed.

We’re Travel Belles (and Beaus) so the chances of us being away for the holidays are pretty good. And there are good odds that many of us are  going to want to pick up a bottle of something to share while we’re gallivanting to far-flung places. With travel regulations as they are, it’s not particularly convenient to bring wine in your luggage, so your best option is to confront the Wall of Wine once you’ve arrived at your destination.

But whether your in Florence, London, New York, or San Francisco I can tell you right now – you’re not going to see the exact same selection you see in your local shop. Buyers make decisions on what to carry in stores based on local preferences and availability (in the US, for instance, not all brands are distributed in all states so you likely will not be able to get certain wines when traveling to another state). That said, the world of wine isn’t so big that you can’t find something you like and will feel good about bringing to grandma’s or to a feast of your Urban Tribe (i.e., your adopted, non-blood relations who are like family).

To help you out, here are a few pointers on how to make wine holiday shopping in a new place less horrifying, and potentially even fun.

1. Plan Your Excursion
You’re not traveling to spend an hour in a wine shop. You’ve got to be all business about this. How? Have an idea of what you’d like to buy ahead of time. Even a vague clue of white versus red versus rosé or sparkling will help refine and confine your search for a good bottle. If you can narrow it further by price or grape, you’ll have cut down the store by 95 percent or more – much more manageable! So if you know that for Thanksgiving you want a Pinot Noir for $35 or less, don’t look for anything else.

Planning also prevents “drift,” as I like to call it – or the tendency to be attracted to sale tags of things you never intended to buy and to walk out of the store with something you neither wanted nor needed.

2. Use your Smartphone
Not sure about a particular brand or wine? I can almost guarantee you that someone’s written about it (and I’ll give a shameless plug for Wine for Normal People.) Hop on the Internet and spend a minute or two Googling your purchase, especially if it’s expensive for you. You can also use the phone to figure out what pairs well with the Thanksgiving turkey, Christmas ham, or Chanukah latkes. There’s huge value in using taxi-ing time in the plane after landing or transport time getting to the hotel to figure out what would be nice to procure.

3. Bone up on wine language
Try to identify the things you like when it comes to wine. You may know you want Merlot but there is huge variation in style. If you need to describe what you want to a salesperson in a new shop, will you be able to do it? Describing something as fruity or earthy, acidic or high in alcohol, for instance, can really help you get what you want when describing a wine to someone in a shop.

And on that note, save your faith for church, temple or other religious dwelling. Don’t trust the folks at the wine shop blindly.

Don’t let the Wall of Wine humble you! You can outsmart it by focusing on the grape or region where the wine is made. So if you’re set on Zinfandel, take a look at the label of your favorite one and copy down where it’s from into your Smartphone or write it on your hand as you jet out the door.

Believe it or not, most people who work in wine shops aren’t experts. Many of them are interested in wine and just trying to learn more about it. No knock on them, but if you trust their recommendations without figuring out if they know what they’re talking about, you’re going to find yourself walking out with wines they like and not what you want for your family/Urban Tribe gathering. If the person only leads you to their best sellers or tells you what they prefer without listening to what you want in a wine, trust your gut or use your phone. On the other hand, if they seem really knowledgeable and helpful go with their recommendations. If they are experienced and you followed #3 reasonably well, they will probably hit a bulls-eye right away.

4. Don’t get hung up on brand
To me, this is the most important key to wine shopping anywhere. I know, old standbys make us feel comfortable. But if you get set on a certain brand and it’s not available when you get to your destination, you may panic. Don’t let the Wall of Wine humble you! You can outsmart it by focusing on the grape or region where the wine is made. So if you’re set on Zinfandel, take a look at the label of your favorite one and copy down where it’s from into your Smartphone or write it on your hand as you jet out the door. For instance, many Zinfandels from the Dry Creek Valley of Sonoma Valley taste similar and white Burgundy (Chardonnay) from Montrachet will have a common thread too. If you take note of place and then briefly ask the folks at the store about the wine in question to ensure it’s not an anomaly for the place it’s from, you should be in great shape.

Now you’re ready for holiday shopping. Stop by any wine shop and buy with confidence. Have a great holiday and please drink well (and safely)!

Elizabeth drops in on us every month or so here on The Travel Belles to talk about wine and travel: Previous columns

About the author

Elizabeth Schneider is a Certified Sommelier, Certified Specialist of Wine, MBA, blogger, podcaster, wine educator, and normal wine person. For more visit her at

This article has 4 comments

  1. Abby

    I actually just the week learned the lesson of being stuck on a brand — I bought a bottle just because I like the brand, and the varietal sucked! You know, I never thought to do a quick search on my smartphone. Brilliant! Cheers!!!

  2. Elizabeth Schneider

    Abby —

    Glad the tip is useful. So important to step outside the comfort zone from time to time. Brand is our easiest method of picking stuff, but with wine producers can do some things well and other things REALLY poorly. It’s great to see what others have said (although I’d say the same thing about brand name reviewers too — not all are reliable either. I mean, on the 100 pt scale, have you ever seen a wine receive a 1? What’s the point?).

    Happy shopping and write me if you ever have questions!


  3. Kate Turner

    Thanks for this post Elizabeth! I feel much more informed now.

  4. Wine Hound

    Nice article! And when you're actually on holiday, does the wine taste better than it would at home? We suggest it does!

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