There is a trend in the world of wine retailers to simplify and make wine cute. Or easy. Or less intimidating. I'm not really sure, to be honest, but I don't like it. In my new neighborhood I've visited three wine shops (Best Cellars, Pour Wines, Bacchus) that all seem to be subscribing to this new way of marketing wine as a Cute! Not Scary! Not Snobby! entitity, and I'm sorry but NO, creating categories of JUICY! CRISP! LUCIOUS! FIZZY! etcetera does not help me shop for wine. Sleek merchandising with just a few carefully selected bottles (I'm talking like, 4-6 options per descriptor) does not help me shop for wine. I am old-fashioned: I like to shop by region and variety.
I realize that a lot of people are unfamilar with what varities are grown in what regions and what characteristics come with each region/variety. I realize as much because I am unfamiliar with a lot of varities and regions. But here's the thing: it's not that hard to learn. It's no harder than trying to shop for something VELVETY! or GRASSY! and maybe it's the food snob in me, but what's so wrong with learning about the product you are buying? Five minutes talking to a proprietor will steer you in whatever direction you need to be, and as a bonus, wine is demystified. I don't think merchandising by zippy names and backlighting really makes wine simple; it means you are at the mercy of your merchant and it fosters the notion that Wine Is Hard.
Cooking doesn't need to be complicated, or scary, or intimidating. A friend always says, "If you can read, you can cook," and I've certainly found that getting a grasp on the basic science behind any technique frees me from recipes and leaves me much more confident in the kitchen. A brief tutorial on the most popular grape varieties and regions can do the same. It's a lot easier for me to shop for a Cabernet if I know that I need something with backbone to stand up to a hearty meal than it is for me to look for OAKY! or RICH! or SEXY! wines.
I was lucky because years ago I stumbled into a fantastic series of wine classes at A Cook's Companion, hosted by Judy Rundel of Heights Chateau. I learned A LOT. I even helped lead a few classes, and while I still get overwhelmed with some wine lists (the one that come in hardback binders, usually), I know what I like and where to spot values and what varieties will bring which qualities. I am not a wine savant. I don't have a particularly sophisticated palate. I drink bottles that cost $12 and under. If I can learn about wine, anyone can. And I certainly appreciate the effors of Josh Wesson (of Best Cellars) to demystify wine and make it more approachable, I'm not a fan of the method. (Except: on JetBlue flights. That is a brilliant example of synergy and booze!)
I looooooove that Best Cellars has so many affordable bottles of wine. But the mass-marketing, cutesy style is not for me. There are just so many great bottles under $15, with their own interesting stories, and I am reminded all over again how much I miss Smith & Vine, which managed to curate a fantastic selection of wines, offer dozens of Under $10 Bottles, staff their shop with friendly, knowledgable people, host fun and informative tastings, remember my preferences, avoid talking down to customers (another pet peeve in wine shops; don't assume that just because I am female and under 40 I don't know about wine) and provide overall fantastic service. There is some good news, however: I visited Nancy's Wines for Food, on Columbus, last weekend, and I have high hopes that I may have found the next best thing. There were wines under $12. There was a casual but helpful staff that let me browse. There were useful descriptions of wines. Staff picks. Easy-to-shop shelves. A broad selection that didn't cross over to Overwhelming. New and Old World wines with a pretty even representation. I think I've found my neighborhood wine shop!