A wine shop is like almost no other store, except maybe an antique shop. (Of course, it sometimes is an antique shop, too.) In each, what you're looking for is often something special: a rare boutique bottle, or perhaps an 18th-century Dresden figurine. The finest of either is not standardized.
In a wine shop, the customer is faced with several hundred choices in a dozen categories, in each of which there are many more variations. In a large shop, the number of chardonnays, for example, or blush zinfandels, is staggering.
Naturally, even the experienced wine customer, who typically knows enough about a number of specific wines and their makers to make satisfactory choices, will appreciate a retailer's guidance on new arrivals, new vintages, new sources. All the more should the novice be able to rely on the seller's advice.
The better the merchant knows the customer's taste and experience, the better he is able to share his professional judgment; being a regular customer is to one's advantage.
But there's a flip side to this rule of thumb. A healthy relationship supposes that the customer has some feel for the merchant's interests as well.
Two easily understood interests may unconsciously affect the merchant's recommendations.
First, over the years the merchant, like his customers, develops preferences: rhones more than bordeaux, alsatians to germans, cabernet francs to burgundies. However, even making allowance for a little bias that one comes to sense, the professional aims to understand the customer's interest, and to respond with objective recommendations.
Second, customers should understand that the successful merchant is compelled to take popular products into account, however their quality and his judgment. This is the point at which considerations of cost and profit touch on the business. Over the years, I have known only one retailer who refused to sell a popular but rather awful jug wine; the inventory on his shelves was an extended statement of his recommendations. Regrettably, his shop was an early failure.
ONE WINERY whose distinctive name, label, and outstanding wines deserve to be embedded in your personal wine list is ZD (the initials of the founding partners). The classic label says all that needs to be said, but succinctly, the wines are outstanding. You ought to be familiar with them, though the price, $30, puts them into the special-occasion-wines category for most of us. The 2002 pinot noir carneros, made of grapes from the 35th consecutive harvest, is a beautiful ruby color, and the aroma is redolent of fruit: strawberries, pears, bing cherries, promising a sheer delight for the palate.
And the distinctive label? What catches the eye is a red-gilt garland of vine and grapes.