If you're fortunate to have more than one specialty wine shop in your area, you should take advantage of this by visiting them all and comparing what they have to offer. Even if you don't know enough about wine to fairly compare their selections, you can still compare other qualities like whether they store their wine properly, whether they have a broad selection of prices and varieties, and the quality of their customer service. Do they, for example, keep trying to sell you more expensive wines or do they listen well enough to your needs and then offer you wines that fit?
The Price of Expertise
Speciality wine shops can be more expensive than other options, but you're paying a little extra for the expertise on top of the wine. Not only does a good wine merchant have a strong knowledge of wine basics, but they also need to keep up on the ever changing world of wine. Every vintage year, for example, can be different — an otherwise high-quality winery might produce a bad wine one year but a fantastic one the next. You can't be expected to know that, but your local wine merchant should. What's that knowledge worth?
At the same time, though, you shouldn't automatically assume that anyone who works at a wine store or even who owns a wine store necessarily knows a lot about wines generally or their own wines in particularly. Even experts can't know everything, especially given how many different wines are available on the market today. Hopefully they are knowledgeable, but you'll only learn that for sure after you start asking questions and see what their answers are like. Eventually, you'll learn how much they really know about their wines and how much their advice can really be trusted.
Stop and Look Around
You'll get the most out of your local wine store if you first familiarize yourself with how the store is laid out. Domestic wines and imported wines are probably separated, and within each section reds and whites should be separated. Among reds and whites, each varietal will be collected together. Once you know where the different wines can be found, it will be easier for you to get around the store and locate a particular wine. If the store isn't well organized, that could be a warning sign.
Pay attention to whether the shop has both breadth and depth of wine choices. Breadth means that there are many different white wines and red wines available, not just the most popular brands of Chardonnay, Zinfadel, and jug wines. Depth means that there are several brands and vintages available of all the different types of wine, giving you more options even after you've settled on a particular variety.
If the wine store lacks breadth, depth, or both, it may be that this particular merchant either doesn't care or doesn't know a great deal about wines. This is especially true if the store seems to "specialize" in well-advertised brands without stocking lesser-known wines. Worse still are stores that specialize in bargain-basement versions of popular wines without any better choices offered alongside.
You can ignore wines stored in commercial-display refrigeration units unless you're desperate for wine that's already chilled. Even then, ask if they have a chilling machine — many better wine stores use them to get wine cold in just a few minutes. Wines in commercial refrigerators are being stored in conditions that are far too cold for their own good, so if they have been in there very long at all you won't enjoy it nearly as much as the same brand purchased off the shelf and chilled at home.
Another place to be wary of is the clearance area. Someone is trying to unload these wines, either the store or the distributor, and this means that they have been sitting around too long and/or aren't good enough. Try one if it appeals, but don't buy very much without being sure first that you really like it.
Ask About Prices
If price is no object, you probably have someone buying your wine for you. For the rest of us, price does matter, even if we sometimes splurge on expensive wines. You don't need to splurge, though, to get good wines of all sorts. A good wine store will have wines at all price levels, even very inexpensive wines, and a good wine merchant will help you find the right wine for you at the price range you set.
If the merchant keeps trying to "up sell" you — get you to buy a wine at a higher price than you asked for — they may be more concerned with making bigger sales than serving your needs. On the other hand, they may be trying to tell you that the occasion you want the wine for calls for something better than what you had hoped to pay. So, ask why they are recommending this more expensive wine in particular — is there something important about it?
What you want is a wine merchant who focuses on providing you with reliable advice and wine that fits your needs. This is a store that's worth coming back to again and a place where you can buy wine confidently.
Ask About Food Pairing
The best wine merchants will be separated from the adequate and average (or worse) by whether they have personal knowledge of the wines in question: do they personally know what the wine tastes like and what to pair it with or do they rely entirely on critics' scores and what they read in last month's Wine Spectator magazine? If the wine merchant can tell you want works best with a particular wine, or point you to a wine that works well with the meal you are planning, then you know this is a good store to return to. If it turns out that the wine didn't fit your needs, you may not want to go back.
Ask About Storage Time & Conditions
Since storage conditions are critical to a wine's quality, you need to think about those conditions when you buy wine. Although most people don't seem to think of wine as a "perishable" food item, it is. Wine isn't as delicate or short-lived as milk or raw meat, but it does spoil. You should therefore take a careful look around to better evaluate whether this is a wine store you want to keep returning to.
The vast majority of wines may simply be displayed sitting upright on the shelves. These are probably just wines for causal drinking and it isn't a problem unless they are also exposed to direct sunlight or there are signs that turnover is slow (check for dust on the bottles in the back). If very expensive wines are displayed in this manner, that's a problem sign, but if there is a separate room — especially a cooled room — where better wines are displayed on their sides, that a very good sign.
Of course, this wine shop didn't purchase the wines directly from the vineyard; instead, they passed through the hands of several buyers and distributors before they landed in the store's shelves or racks. It's perfectly legitimate for you to wonder about the storage conditions throughout this journey, at least when it comes to buying more expensive wine.
Before you shell out $50, $100, or more for a nice vintage, ask someone about the standards of those who shipped and distributed this wine. You might also ask how long they've had the wine in their store. If the wine is being sold at a discount, ask why the price is so good — is the wine old, or are they simply trying to make room? Don't make the purchase if you aren't satisfied with the answers.