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Why local wine shops are better bang for your dollar

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It's not just the temperature that gives me chills when I enter a wine shop. I can -- and certainly have -- spent hours wandering wide-eyed and goose-bumped up and down the aisles of a wine shop, like an exuberant kid at Toys "R" Us. Each label and each vintage offers a bright opportunity to experience something delicious. Retailers find my enthusiasm humorous, since they spend the entire day staring at the same bottles. Except, of course, those who share my obsession -- we walk hand-in-hand, pondering our love for the vine.

Develop a relationship with a good wine retailer. The best of the lot are patient, knowledgeable persons who understand a novice's intimidation and the oenophile's pained need to impress someone; they won't scoff if you have a secret soft spot for freaky, foot-smelly reds or champagne-taste/beer-budget woes. Stick with them and they'll learn your taste. Keep your mind open and you'll reap the rewards.

Unfortunately, though, all retailers are not cast in my idyllic mold. However passionate they may be, some retailers lack the ability to cater to others' tastes. It's one thing to worship big, meaty cabernet sauvignons, and quite another to willingly recommend a softer, fruitier shiraz to customers not favoring the former. Be upfront and firm with the retailer about your needs; let him/her know your tastes and price level you're comfortable with.

But customers need to be responsible too. I've heard plenty of stories about people walking into stores asking, "I had this bottle of wine in southern France on vacation. It had a red and black label with some pink flowers on it. Chateau something or another. Do you carry that?" You're gonna have to give up more details than that -- like maybe a name. If you love something, jot down the winery name somewhere and keep it on hand. Chances are, if the retailer doesn't carry it, they can either order it -- if it's available in the States -- or offer something comparable. Then there's: "I'm having rosemary-encrusted roast pork stuffed with herbed goat cheese, garlic-oil-slathered steamed asparagus, and saffron-infused mashed potatoes for dinner. Can you recommend a wine?" Conscientious, food-obsessed retailers can normally provide an answer to this type of question, but others are uncomfortable. If you find a retailer that invents perfect food and wine pairings, bless them with your business.

As far as inventory, the best wine shops stock a never-ending flow of new and fascinating labels. I like the shops that keep a display bottle on the top shelf and stock the for-sale bottles underneath -- neat and orderly like a self-serve shoe store. But buy cautiously from the end-of-row monster stackers, normally reserved for special deals but also "close out" wines -- discontinued brands and sometimes too old vintages.

A cool new-to-us trend is the "wall of value" -- an entire section of the shop devoted to the best wines under $15. By providing a low-cost entry point, these sections can help break people away from the ordinary and into the extraordinary. If you have a retailer you trust, these sections can guide you to the value-priced wines.

Independently owned is always better, especially once you tire of looking at the ordinary labels at the grocery store. To guide you through the swill and swell, look to the small retailer to hold your hand.

Recommended Wines

Provenance 2000 Merlot Carneros. Elegant, soft and supple like a comfy leather couch. Brimming with ripe, dark fruit like black cherry and tinged with chocolate. $24. 3 1/2 stars.

Carmel 2002 Moscato di Carmel Semi-sweet, slightly fizzy crowd pleaser, gushing with peaches and a refreshing apple after bite. Kosher wine from Israel. $14. 3 stars.

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