Grape Destinations

Want to learn more about wine? These four tips can help you find the right source.

Americans’ love affair with wine is a relatively recent phenomenon. In the 1960s and ‘70s, many restaurants primarily sold sweet or semi-sweet wines such as Lancers and Blue Nun, Mateus. Young adults reached for Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill. No wonder that in 1970 Americans’ annual consumption was only 1.31 gallons per person.

Compare that to 2015, when wine consumption per U.S. resident averaged 2.83 gallons a year. Total consumption jumped 242 percent from 1970 to 2015, boosting the U.S. to the top of the worldwide list, in front of even France and Italy.

Sampling and exploring different wines is now as common as sipping regional microbrews or ordering a plate of exotic cheeses. There are wine tastings, wine festivals and wine dinners.

Still, the world of wine is overwhelming, and, for many, it remains intimidating. It helps to find a store that specializes in wine. But not all are created equal. You may need to look beyond the corner liquor store. Here are four tips to help you find the right fit.

1. Visit several stores

You can tell a lot simply by stepping inside a store. “We all have different personalities, without question,” says Linda Collier, who opened Collier’s in 1981 on Union Street. It’s now located in Centreville.

For some, the design matters. Collier’s of Centreville is in an old building next to Buckley’s Tavern, which gives it a village vibe. Veritas Wine & Craft Beer on the Wilmington Riverfront has a sleek bar in the shop.

David and Joanne Govatos, the owners of Swigg in Independence Mall, took their cue from hip retail stores. “We have always liked the aesthetic of Terrain [in Glen Mills] and sort of that Restoration Hardware look,” David Govatos says. “Many customers tell us they love the feel of the store.”

Feel a chill in the air? That’s a good thing. FranksWine in Wilmington, Swigg and Moore Brothers Wine Company in Trolley Square keep the thermostat at 60 degrees or lower, the recommended “cellar” temperature for wine. “Even a few weeks at more than 70 degrees degrades the condition of the wine and your enjoyment of it,” Govatos explains. Light also can damage wine, which shouldn’t sit in full sun.

If you visit on a hot day and the store is warm, the shop is not taking care of the wine, says Frank Pagliaro, the owner of FranksWine.

2. View the selection.

A store’s size is not as important as the selection and service. Boutique wine stores tend to have a niche. Swigg primarily focuses on family estate-grown wine, while Moore Brothers specializes in small artisan producers. Collier looks for wines you won’t find in big box liquor stores. Like many hands-on owners, she tastes every wine before it hits the shelf.

Emphasizing small vineyards or family estates doesn’t mean the wine is expensive. Swigg has a wall of wines that are all under $15. The secret is to know a good value, Collier says. If you spend $10 on a bottle of wine that’s undrinkable, it’s not a good value.

Not all stores arrange wine in the same fashion, and you might appreciate one system over another. At Collier’s, for instance, the wine is organized by varietal, because even a diehard Chardonnay drinker might not realize that it’s originally from France’s Burgundy region. As a result, white Burgundies are with the Chardonnays.

State Line Liquors in Elkton organizes wine by the region in the imported section. Domestic wine is arranged by varietal and then by area, such as Oregon or California. FranksWine in Wilmington sorts the wine by country and then by varietal.

Heading to the beach? Teller Wines in Lewes separates wine by flavor profiles, such as “Fresh and Clean” and then by price, moving from the least expensive, usually $7.99, to the highest priced.

Teller Wines’ owners write all the tasting notes, which appear on cards by the selections. Some stores use notes provided by the vineyard or distributor. Admittedly, creating tasting notes is challenging for larger stores. FranksWine does a mix of both and has a wall of wine that the staff selects.

3. Look for learning opportunities.

Exploring the world of wine should take you out of your comfort zone. “If you have a glass of Chardonnay every night, you’re not really a wine drinker,” Collier says. “You’re just using your Chardonnay as a cocktail for the evening. But if you start thinking, ‘Oh, it’s a beautiful night. I want to sit out on the back porch and have sushi with this particular wine’—then you become a wine drinker. You’re matching wine to your mood, your food, and your friends. It’s a different bottle, not the same old thing.”

Tastings are a great way to discover the nuances. Most wine and liquor stores offer them on a regular basis. Indeed, FranksWine offers them every day, with more promoted tastings on weekends.

There might be a theme, such as “varietals you’ve never heard of,” says John Murray, owner of State Line. He’s also conducted tastings just on wines from Willamette Valley in Oregon or featured one vineyard. State Line has enough room in one area to seat up to 60, and restaurants have often provided food—including whole pigs and oysters—for special food pairing events.

FranksWine regularly pairs tastings with a selection of cheeses and charcuterie from Di Bruno Bros., which it sells on site. (Many boutique stores augment wine with complementary products, such as cheese and chocolates.) Premier Wine & Spirits on Limestone Road has held a series of tastings, prepared by local chefs, in the store.

Some stores go beyond tastings. Collier’s is famous for its wine classes, which started when Collier first opened her shop. On Jan. 19, for instance, the store will focus on Meritage wines.

4. Build a relationship.

Wine education isn’t limited to events in a fine wine shop. “There should be an employee who can answer your basic questions and your more technical questions,” Murray says. At Swigg, many employees have taken sommelier classes. “We keep a full library in the store, and we are constantly tasting and discussing wine,” Govatos says.

Customer service is a priority. “Frankly, it’s the difference-maker in retaining customers,” says Ryan Kennedy, director of marketing for Harvey, Hanna & Associates, which owns Premier Wine & Spirits. “Customers have dozens of options within a few miles of their home or office; we have to make sure we give them a great experience.”

Premier has two locations, but the 3,900-square-foot store in the Limestone Shopping Center caters more to the serious wine lover. Tell the sales associate what you like to drink and what you don’t like, says Tim Pettit, the general manager. “We’re really just trying to find out what they’re looking for and help them.”

Don’t let the employee lead you in a direction that you don’t want to go, Murray says. He notes that some stores put the staff on commission. State Line does not.

Says Collier: “It should be fun. It should be relaxing. No matter how little or how much you know, you should be able to come in and enjoy the experience.”

Area Wine Experts Pick Holiday Favorites

It’s the season to give and, yes, to celebrate. Whether it’s an office holiday party, Christmas dinner with the extended family, or New Year’s Eve with good friends, here are some wine suggestions from local people in the know.

Linda Collier at Collier’s of Centreville
Under $25:
Domaine de Paul Blanck Old Vine Auxerrois from Alsace
Lots of vanilla, caramel and spice that will wrap around all the flavors on the table at just $21.99.

Over $25:
Charles de Cazanove Vielle France Brut Rose’ from Reims
No holiday is complete without champagne. This one is 55 percent pinot noir, 30 percent chardonnay and 15 percent Coteaux Champagne rouge. Brioche, apple, red currant, creamy and oh, so elegant. Perfect to toast the day, it will carry through the entire meal beautifully. $41.99.

Jeff Kreston at Kreston Wine & Spirits
Under $25: 2015 Pessimist Red Blend from Daou Vineyards
Pessimist Red Blend from Paso Robles, Calif. ($19.83), is a blend of Syrah, Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Tannat and Grenache. It’s a very dark wine that offers gorgeous creme de cassis, black cherry, boysenberries, and toasted vanilla beans accompanied with sweet tannins and purity of fruit. Firm yet elegant tannins balance the powerhouse of fruit and lead to a strong, lasting finish of black pepper, pipe tobacco and spicy oak.

Over $25: Orin Swift Mercury Head 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon
An alluring hue of dark garnet sits in the glass, encircled by a glowing ruby rim. Immediate aromas of ripe black cherry, blueberry and classic cassis are supported by undertones of lavender, jasmine, sage, tobacco, cigar box and the slightest touch of anise. Rich and vibrant upon entry, flavors of dark plums, figs and black fruit transform into sweet vanilla and dark chocolate framed by velvety and plush tannins. The wine finishes with great length and a touch of acidity—an elegant Cabernet Sauvignon ($124.99) from select vineyards in the Napa Valley.

David Moore at Moore Brothers Wine Co.
Under $25: Lacrima di Morro d’Alba “Alborada” 2015
Here’s a very special and rare treat from the Adriatic coast of Italy and the tiny estate of Giorgio Brunori. This is a stunning, aromatic red made from a grape that grows only in this region. Few people outside this beautiful area have ever experienced it. Perfect for winter roasts, and only $17 (until it runs out).

Over $25: Château Haut Rocher 2014
From Grand Cru St. Emilion parcels, the beautiful, plush Château Haut Rocher 2014 ($36) is a rich, delicious Bordeaux, perfect for gift giving or your Christmas roast. A judicious mix of new and neutral barrels while aging leaves the wine with ripe, soft tannins and a silky texture on the palate.

Ed Mulvihill at Peco’s Liquors
Under $25: Hedges Family Estate C.M.S Red Blend
It’s always a joy to find a truly stellar wine for under $25. The C.M.S Red Blend does not disappoint. It has it all notes of cinnamon, sweet plum and earthy pomegranate with hints of dried tobacco leaf, vanilla and dark cocoa powder. It will pair well with most traditional holiday meals and will be sure to impress any of your guests this holiday season. It’s an absolute steal at only $12.99.

Over $25: Unconditional Pinot Noir
Some of the greatest Pinots can get really expensive. Unconditional from Oregon is a bargain at just $25.99. Bright and lively notes of cherry, cranberry, and Christmas spice. Medium light bodied with a fine finish. This wine is great on its own or paired with your holiday turkey or goose.

Tim Petit at Premier Wine & Spirits
Under $25: Conundrum Red
(Wagner Family of Caymus Fame)
The Premier Pick of the Fall ($19.99) and one of our best sellers right now. It’s rich, dark and offers aromas of ripe berries and plums, with a subtle hint of cocoa. Created from dark red varietals including Zinfandel and Petite Sirah, it also has the taste of chocolate-covered cherries with a light smokiness. Perfect for the holiday season.

Over $25: Russian River Valley Pinot Noir
Another one of our favorites (also by the Wagner Family of Caymus Fame), it’s packed with bold vanilla and fresh raspberry/strawberry aromas and taste. It’s dark and also brings in flavors of cherry, dark chocolate, coconut, barrel spice and smoked meat. Don’t believe us? Buy a bottle ($28.99) and try for yourself.

John Murray at State Line Liquors
Under $25: Iron Horse Brut 2009
An excellent example of sparkling wine made in Sonoma California, dry and delicate. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are the varietals found in this Estate Bottled wine ($19.99). Flavors of hazelnuts, apples and mandarin oranges are noticed in the flavor profile.

Over $25: Dashe Cellars Evangelho Vineyard Old Vine Carignane 2014
Bottled under Dashe Les Enfants Terribles label, this wine ($29.99) is from a vineyard planted in 1890, in Contra Costa County, Calif. Fruits of cassis, pomegranate and cherries dominate. Lush and velvety with hints of black pepper spice gives this a long finish.

David Gavatos of Swigg
Under $25: Chateau Massiac Minervois, France 2013
Chateau Massiac ($18) is a certified organic estate located in the heart of Minervois and owned and operated by the Boudouresques family. In the glass, the wine displays sumptuous dark crimson fruit, baker’s chocolate, garrigue and cracked pepper. It’s a fantastic pairing with lamb and autumn inspired stews.

Over $25: Obsidian Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon, Lake County, Calif., 2013
The Obsidian Ridge Vineyard is located at an elevation of 2,640 feet on the Northern end of Napa in the Red Hills of Lake County. The wine ($29) is finished off in Hungarian oak, and displays all the best qualities of cabernet sauvignon grown in a mountain setting. In the glass, the wine is literally obsidian black with a dense core of warm black fruit, blueberry compote and baking spices, framed with dusty tannin.