If you’re staring down the long aisles of wine at your local Harris Teeter, scratching your head over which bottle to select, there’s a pretty simple first step, says Chris Walker, proprietor of Cork & Crate wine shop on Central Avenue in Plaza Midwood.
“Don’t buy any bottle that has an animal on it,” he said.
It’s just a standard rule of thumb that keeps any of the cheap brands from making it into your collection.
Beyond that though, there’s a lot that goes into selecting the right bottle of wine. Walker, and his wife and business partner Kendra, are out to simplify that process a bit.
“I’m not a sommelier,” Chris Walker said. “But I know what tastes good.”
After spending nearly every date night or family vacation at wine tastings, the Walkers decided they had a good enough grasp on the complexities of the business to open Cork & Crate last year.
While the shop caters to a clientele with sophisticated palates, Chris Walker said their goal is to take some of the pretentiousness out of wine shopping and make it easier for a novice to learn the ropes.
So if you’re looking for a great bottle, and you don’t know much about wine, what else do the Walkers recommend?
The first step is understanding the basics.
Like lighter or sweeter wines? You’ll want to start with a Pinot Noir or perhaps a Malbec, Chris said.
Into something a bit more dry or full bodied? Try a Zinfandel or a Cabernet Sauvignon.
“If you’re shopping at Harris Teeter or here in my shop, you at least have a basic idea of the color scheme, the grid, and you work from there,” Chris said.
Of course, there’s no substitute for a taste test, and that’s the real foundation for any novice wine drinker.
“You really only know what you do or don’t like when you go to tastings,” Kendra said.
Cork & Crate offers Friday wine tastings twice a month (follow their Facebook or newsletter for the dates), and they try to mix things up with food pairings and interesting selections of wine. The key is to try things and see what you like, Chris said. That offers some insight as to other potential bottles worth investigating.
“You’ll see labels and names you’ve never heard of,” Chris said, “but try to remember the region, or at least the country [of origin].”
Chris points out that Spanish wines are making a big splash in the U.S. now, and he and his wife have recently become enamored with South American wines. But as your palate grows more refined, the regions can get increasingly more specific.
“Everybody knows the Napa Valley,” Chris said, “but Napa wines actually are a little more acidic than Sonoma wines.”
Sophisticated wine drinkers can tell the difference, but Chris said many buyers come in simply looking for a nice bottle to bring to a dinner party, and an unknown audience can complicate matters. Dinner guests may have varying palates, and even the amount of salt used when cooking a dish can alter which wine pairs best with it.
In those cases, Chris said, stay somewhere in the middle with a nice, balanced wine — not too sweet, not too acidic.
“Unless everyone’s on the same level,” he said, “don’t walk in with a bottle that’s been aged in oak barrels for 12 months.”
Walker also recommends using one of the many wine apps for your phone that offer good insight as to the bottle’s origins. If you know the varietal you like, and you have an idea of what regions you’ve enjoyed in the past, it’s easy to start narrowing things down. Still, that might leave you with a hefty price tag, and even if you’re just popping open a bottle once a week, that adds up.
But for every $700 bottle of wine, there’s often a similar bottle that can be had for dramatically less. Vineyards often make bottles with different blends, some cheaper than others. And vineyards in similar regions may also have bottles priced at vastly different levels. A smart shopper can research production levels, Chris said, and find a bottle in a lower price range that still sources their grapes from a small area.
“When you have a wine that shows up everywhere, you’re looking at a mass produced wine, with thousands of cases,” he said. “They’ve sourced grapes that grew in different climates, but each bottle has to taste the same. They accomplish that by adding chemicals and sulfates.”
The Walkers recommend aiming for bottles in the $20 to $30 range, which offers a fairly robust array of quality wines without breaking the bank.
At Cork & Crate, they stock a good number of bottles that fit the bill. A few of their recommendations:
- On the sweet side: PJ Valckenberg Dornfelder (Germany)
- A step toward a more dry wine: Apaltagua Carmenere (Chile)
- Bold, but with a balanced finish: OZV Zinfandel (California)
- Dark, dry and bold: Cosentino Cigar (California)
But the point, Walker said, is to get out and try things. The Walkers said they’re particularly selective with what they purchase for the shop, but over they years, they’ve probably tasted several thousand wines. Many, Kendra said, weren’t great, but they’ve enjoyed the journey and they’re hoping others will follow that lead.