Remember when Mario Batali used to host his instructional cooking show? He always used to tell his viewers to inquire with their local fishmonger about whatever seafaring item he was cooking that day. Of course, in this country, fishmongers are not all that common - particularly in the heartland. Neither are Fromagiers (though there are several popping up these days in major metropolitan areas). Wine Merchants, however, continue to thrive among food & drink specialists. But, with so many places to buy wine, how do you know where it's best to shop?
It may sound obvious, but I truly believe that wine merchants (and I'm making a distinction here from "liquor store" owners) should love to drink wine. Even before knowledge about the product, a merchant's enjoyment and enthusiasm for wine tops my list. But, of course, many enthusiasts stick to just one area of interest - so, in my mind, a good wine merchant needs to also be curious, open-minded, and willing to explore. This, I believe, will ultimately help them help their customers.
Price, selection, customer service, and knowledge are all important as well, though I might rank them in the reverse order.
KNOWLEDGE - This is a big word, which I intend to encompass lots of ground. Knowledge of the products they carry is one thing (It's great when wine merchants have tasted the vast majority of what they sell), but product knowledge in the context of the larger wine world is important as well. Knowing the range of styles, flavors, food-friendliness, and how or when to best enjoy certain wines is a tremendous skill that not enough merchants fully invest in. They should. They should also use better judgement in how they present and store wines while in their care. Bright, hot lights, major temperature fluctuation, and bottles standing-up for months at a time are signs that some merchants simply don't care (or know) enough.
SELECTION - I've worked with several wine shop (and restaurant) owners who insist that offering a wide range of Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, and Cabernet (and now Pinot Noir) is all they need to focus on. The rest of the selection can be filled out with well know "other stuff" like Chianti, Australian Shiraz, and Sweet Riesling ('cuz Riesling is always sweet, right?). I was in one sorry shop a few years ago, where a big sign read "France," but a total of about a dozen bottles sat there - 6 different bottlings from a single BIG Burgundy negociant, several $7-12 Bordeaux, a bottle of Cotes du Rhone (produced by an American winery), and one lone bottle of white wine - a Sancerre. This approach is so unfortunate, but rather wide spread.
CUSTOMER SERVICE - Clearly this is a key to any successful business, yet I'm amazed at how few retailers actually care. After all, we've all been to those places where nobody is on the sales floor, and the one person who is around sits behind a counter reading a magazine - and is usually unable to answer any questions that you have anyway. But if simply being available and attentive to customers can improve their experience, imagine what things like accommodating special orders; providing wine education, tasting opportunities, and food-pairing suggestions; and offering local delivery can do.
PRICE - Offering a wide range of wines for a wide range of competitive prices is always a good idea... But even better is to offer value for price - after all, a $10 bottle of wine may be a low price, but a really delicious $10 wine is a great value.